M+, Hong Kong, © Toshiba Corporation. Photo: M+, Hong Kong
The familiar rice cooker —– humble in appearance, but hiding a fascinating story.
Ikko Yokoyama is lead curator for design and architecture. She told us how everyday objects like this can often reflect dramatic shifts in society. The invention of the first automatic rice cooker, for instance, had a now unimaginably positive impact on many women’s lives in 1950s Japan.
Traditionally, cooking rice was a labour intensive and time-consuming task for women at home. So, one of the heaviest tasks, they have to go up early in the morning to start cooking breakfast and also continuously have to monitor the woodstove. And also imagine they’ve been doing three times a day. That means, like, if you need two hours’ preparation, then it's six hours. The women’s life goes to just cooking rice.
In freeing up home cooks from this all-consuming labour, the rice cooker also played a key role in saving Japan’s war-torn economy.
Yeah, the product was really fitting; right timing for the societal change because it's the post-war reconstruction, everybody was really coming back from hell, it was devastated, the country has lost. So, they have to bring back the economy, health, joy, the meaning to life and everything.
So, what I mean is the rice cooker facilitated the change because of the economic boom. So, everybody started becoming more busy and efficient citizens and the people, they want to work, they want [to] earn money. They don't want to spend six hours just making fire, cooking rice. That's not very productive.
And then also women start to see the potential they want to go out and they want to have own profession. This was a female relief, but it's also matching product to the societal change.
What’s more, this portable little kitchen has stood the test of time, thanks to a design that’s as ingenious as it is simple.
This one was design-wise very, very sophisticated. The outside of the rice cooker is very clean white, mimicking almost the porcelain when you eat the rice, the porcelain ceramic. It's not like typical kitchen utility: you can bring it to the living room. If you've got guests coming, you can bring it out: there's a little handle to it. And also, there's this black little switch, it can operate by one finger, just sliding the switch down to start. Yeah, it's kind of very elegantly illustrated.
Toshiba automatic rice cooker, model RC–10K, designed by Iwata Yoshiharu, manufactured in 1955 by Tokyo Shibaura Electric Company, now Toshiba Corporation. This electric rice cooker is made of metal, plastic, and electronic parts, measuring 39.4 centimetres high, 44.5 centimetres wide, and 37 centimetres deep.
The cooker is a pot with a white round body. The body is widest at the top and tapers down slightly towards its bottom. On top of the cooker is a shiny metal lid that rises about six centimetres above the top rim of the cooker. Atop the lid, in its centre, is a black plastic knob: a handle for lifting the lid. On opposite sides of the cooker are two black plastic handles that stick out about two inches from the sides of the cooker.
The cooker stands on three short legs made of black plastic, each about one inch high.
On one side of the cooker’s body, at its middle, is printed the name Toshiba in small, black, slanted italicized Roman letters that lean to the right and spell T-O-S-H-I-B-A. The letter ‘T’ is capitalised and the horizontal top line of the ‘T’ flows to the right in a graceful arch over the other smaller letters. This was the Toshiba corporate logo from 1950 to 1969.
Below the word TOSHIBA, a black plastic trapezoid is built into the side of the cooker. This holds a short lever which is pushed down to turn on the cooker. Above and below the lever are the Japanese Kanji characters, which mean ‘on’ and ‘off’ respectively. Just above the ‘on’ character at the top is a small horizontal rectangle that lights up when the cooker is turned on.