What made the biggest impact of all was the school lunch program. The project, initiated by the U.S. government during the occupation, guaranteed that Japanese schoolchildren were provided a daily meal that included bread, powdered milk and a meat-based stew. The program molded the taste buds and dietary preferences of a whole generation of Japanese youth to accommodate American imports, particularly wheat. The lunch program was so successful that the United States continued to provide free wheat for the program even after the occupation ended in 1952.*
Once instant ramen entered the scene, there was no going back. Created in 1958 by Taiwanese-born businessman Momofuku Ando to absorb the influx of American wheat, instant ramen was at first much more expensive than a bowl of fresh noodles from a street stall. But it quickly evolved from a middle-class novelty to an economical and convenient staple for time-strapped workers. In 1961, Ando’s company Nissin sold 500 million packets; by 1966 that figure had eclipsed 2.5 billion. (Despite the shared staple, David Chang claims the name of his New York ramen eatery Momofuku is a combination of Japanese words meaning “lucky” and “peach,” rather than a tribute to the famous inventor.)
In 1956, Japan imported 1.28 million metric tons of wheat from the United States; in 1974, 3.24 million metric tons (a rate that’s remained fairly steady since then). The Westernization of the local diet has led to a plethora of problems that Japanese government didn’t have the luxury of deliberating over when it first accepted food aid to relieve its starving post-war population. First up, a dangerous reliance on foreign food imports: Over 90 percent of the wheat consumed in Japan is imported, mostly from the U.S., and Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate is the lowest among all the developed countries. As rice consumption has declined, low prices and huge surpluses have crippled domestic rice farmers. Then, of course, there are the burgeoning health problems that tend to come along with a diet heavy in Western-style wheaten fare and its fat-laden accompaniments (burger patties, cheesy pizza toppings, creamy pasta sauces).
Which is why the Japanese government and advocacy groups have reversed tack in recent decades by making several attempts to steer new generations back to rice. In 1976, the National Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (NOKYO) declared a $400-million war on bread, pushing quick-to-prepare “instant” and frozen rice and campaigning for schools to serve rice, not bread, as part of subsidized lunches. In 2008, the Japanese government took a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” tactic. Reconciled to the fact that the nation wasn’t going to relinquish its appetite for foreign fare, it launched a massive media drive with TV ads, cooking classes, and public demonstrations showing how conventional wheat foods like pasta, dumplings, and bread could be made from rice flour instead—hence the Gopan.
In conceiving of the idea for instant ramen in the late 1950s, Ando wanted to find a mass-produced wheaten food in line with traditional Japanese culinary culture—after all, udon and soba noodles had been consumed for centuries in Japan. It’s ironic, then, that just 50 years later, innovators of the Gopan are tempting Japanese consumers back to rice—the most traditional Japanese ingredient of all—by disguising it as the poster food of the Western diet.
So far, the tactic looks to be working. By September of last year—only 10 months after its initial release—the Gopan had sold over 160,000 units. The newfangled machine has even incited a craze for packaged rice-based noodles, cakes, pastries, and pasta. But the biggest indicator that rice is back on the menu? Since 2010, Japanese outlets of Pizza Hut have incorporated rice flour into their pizza dough.
*Correction, April 2, 2012: This article originally stated that the Gopan bread maker was made by Sanrio. In fact, it is manufactured by Sanyo, a subsidiary of Panasonic. This article also originally stated that the American occupation of Japan ended in 1953; it ended in 1952.