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Where There Are Asians, There Are Rice Cookers: How "National" Went Global via Hong Kong

When Yoshiko Nakano, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts, came to Hong Kong in 1997 having grown up in Japan and spent a decade in the US, she was struck by one thing: the proliferation of things Japanese and, especially, the deep affection people held here for their made-in-Japan rice cookers.

"I started asking people informally to tell me their memories of things Japanese and what they liked, and rice cookers kept coming up," she said.

"People who grew up in the 1960s said when they got their rice cooker, it was such a thrill. They saw the steam coming out of it and they felt they weren't poor any more. That came as a shock to me because at that time in Japan, if you had 'three treasures' you were part of the middle class - a black-and-white television, a washer and a refrigerator. You never heard people talk about owning a rice cooker as being part of that."

And so Dr Nakano began a deeper investigation. She conducted more than 40 interviews with users, distributors and makers of rice cookers in Hong Kong and Japan, uncovering a story of globalization and innovation in which Hong Kong played a major role. She published earlier results in Chinese and Japanese with Dr Dixon Wong, Head of School of Modern Languages and Cultures and Honorary Professor Kirsten Refsing, and has now released her findings in English in the book Where There Are Asians, There Are Rice Cookers: How "National" Went Global via Hong Kong.

Rice cookers were invented in Japan in 1955 and caught the eye of Hong Kong-based William Mong, CEO of Shun Hing. He liked the convenience of a plug-in pot and, as he soon discovered, it was well suited to local living conditions where many people lived in cramped spaces and had to share kitchens. Mong realized that people had to be convinced of the rice cooker's worth, though, especially since Japanese products at the time had a poor reputation and post-war anti-Japanese sentiment was still strong. So he persuaded one maker, National (now Panasonic), to add a window on the lid. People would be able to see the rice cooking and also know when to add Chinese sausage to the rice, which had to happen just before the rice was cooked.

"This was an alien concept for the Japanese engineers," Dr Nakano said. "In Japan they use an aluminium lid and never open it during the cooking process. But they thought, okay, if that's what Chinese people want, we will do it."

"It worked very well. People didn't know about rice cookers in those days, but by making the cooking process visible from the top, they felt assured. This was helpful in gaining acceptance for the rice cooker in other parts of the world."

"Most importantly, National/Panasonic learned how to localize their product working with William Mong. They learned that you have to listen to other people and not impose the Japanese idea of perfect rice."

The free port of Hong Kong helped to spread the rice cooker to the rest of Asia and to Asian communities around the world. Following success in Hong Kong, National/Panasonic introduced innovations to meet other markets' needs, such as producing crispy rice at the bottom of the pot as preferred in Iran and adding cake- and noodle-making functions for Thailand. Mong also later persuaded the company to make rice cookers that produce more steam, to replicate the old clay pots used for cooking rice.

"The way the Japanese often describe how made-in-Japan products got globalized is that the salarymen were dedicated, they worked hard, took the product overseas, ran up against all these competitors and finally were able to sell their product to the Americans and the Europeans. But this is one product that didn't follow the pattern of the typical Japanese product," Dr Nakano said.

"It was distributed through ethnic lines, it was sold in grocery stores not appliance shops in the West, and a lot of Asian people contributed to its localization. Where there are Asians, there are rice cookers. It's still pretty much happening along ethnic lines."

Where There Are Asians, There Are Rice Cookers: How "National" Went Global via Hong Kong is published by Hong Kong University Press.

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