*First broadcast on January 12, 2023.
In centuries past, cooking in a Japanese kitchen involved moving between a dirt floor and a raised area with wooden floorboards. Modern kitchens, meanwhile, incorporate all sorts of convenient, space-saving measures. Our guest, associate professor Suzaki Fumiyo, tells the story of that evolution, and explains why some Japanese are choosing to go back to a traditional dirt-floor kitchen. And in Plus One, Matt Alt learns about some traditional kitchen utensils.
Hello, and welcome to Japanology Plus.
I'm Peter Barakan.
One of the results of the
COVID-19 pandemic has been that
a lot more people are eating at home,
and today we
turn our attention to the kitchen.
When I first came to Tokyo
in the mid-1970s,
it was quite unusual to see a man cooking.
Things have changed.
Recent official data suggests that one man
in three is cooking at least once a week.
Now that may not seem like very much,
but for Japan, it is progress.
I think the image of
the kitchen is as the friendliest,
warmest, most welcoming
place in the house.
In Japan's history that
was not necessarily the case,
and on today's program,
we'll take a look at the changes
that kitchens have been through,
through the centuries.
Here's a typical example of
a modern Japanese kitchen.
The standard counter
height is 85 centimeters.
And in this case, it's around
two meters from end to end.
Most Japanese homes are quite small,
and so is the kitchen.
It's made to match Japanese requirements,
with everything easy to reach and use.
A fish grill,
found underneath a gas range,
is a common piece of equipment.
Cooking takes around five minutes,
depending on the size and type of fish.
Some models have a timer
to turn off the heat automatically.
Grilled fish is popular in Japan,
so this feature is helpful.
We asked people how much time
they spend in the kitchen each day.
Altogether...quite a while.
Around three hours?
I'll fry a few things,
cook something in the oven,
use the grill...that kind of thing.
Around three hours.
On his days off, he cooks.
When I'm cooking Japanese food,
if I have spinach, for example,
I may add it to miso soup,
and also prepare it as a separate dish.
I'll usually make four
or five dishes in all.
According to a recent survey
by a gas appliance manufacturer,
80 percent of women cook each day,
compared to 22 percent of men.
In another survey,
by a maker of kitchen goods,
90 percent of respondents
said they want a regular meal to
include three or more different dishes.
One reason for this is the
standard composition of a meal in Japan.
It features rice—the staple food—and soup.
Plus three other dishes,
creating a full, balanced meal.
Many households cook multiple
dishes to create this style of menu.
Another reason behind the
preference for multiple dishes per meal
is a government slogan from 1985,
encouraging people to eat 30 different
foods a day for a balanced, healthy diet.
Japanese kitchens are used a lot each day,
and they are constantly evolving to offer
ever more comfort and convenience.
To see the latest Japanese innovations,
we've come to the Tokyo
showroom of a kitchen company.
New ideas and functions are
being introduced all the time.
This wall cabinet can be
pulled down from above.
Other versions come down
at the press of a button.
This one is actually a dish-dryer!
Here we have a contactless faucet.
It can be turned on
and off using a sensor.
Now, let's look at the
extractor fan above the cooker.
An extractor fan is notoriously
difficult to clean,
but this one's different.
This tray should be
filled with warm water.
Insert that here.
Then simply press the “Clean” button.
The fan and filter will be
The constant progress in functionality
and design of Japanese kitchens
reflects how central
they are to everyday life.
This time, our guest is Suzaki Fumiyo,
an associate professor in
Architecture and Building Engineering.
She's an expert on Japanese kitchens.
Suzaki is going to show us around
the Japan Open-air Folk House Museum.
It has a collection of around
20 traditional houses.
Let's see what a Japanese
kitchen used to look like.
I love these nice old houses.
This one dates from
the turn of the 18th century.
It belonged to the head of a village.
Let's go in.
This is what, in Japanese,
they call a “doma”—
room with a dirt floor—isn't it?
Produce grown on nearby farmland
would be washed and prepared here.
And what have we got here?
Ah this is the stove, as it were.
Where the cooking was done.
And then there's a little
shrine above the stove.
It's customary to enshrine the deity
of the stove close to the cooking flames.
That's what's happening here—
this shrine is for that deity.
It was a way of praying for
protection against house fires,
which could be deadly.
I think it also shows that people
viewed the flames as sacred.
Traditional kitchens would also
have an area with a wooden floor.
It would be raised up.
In addition to the dirt floor.
Each surface was used for
different tasks when preparing food.
Ah, I see.
So what would be done down here,
and what would be done up
on the wooden floor room?
The dirt floor area would be
used when dealing with muddy vegetables,
or anything unhygienic.
And there was a kamado
stove that could be used to
cook something that
would take a long time.
The area with a
wooden floor was kept clean.
There's a spacious living area here,
and its center is a sunken fireplace.
The family would all
sit around it together.
They'd grill fish, and keep warm,
or they'd hang a cooking pot
over the fire, and make simmered dishes.
They might boil water.
That's what a sunken fireplace was for.
And this over here is...what?
That's a sink.
That's a sink? Oh my god.
A sink, yes.
you'd use it while kneeling down.
Wow, that sounds really uncomfortable.
Shall we have a try?
So where does the water...
Is that where the water comes from?
Well, this is a large water container.
It would be filled with
water from a well or river.
And people used that water to wash things.
So you're kneeling down here and
washing vegetables or
cleaning plates, or whatever it is.
Then over here, you'd have a board.
You'd use it to cut up the ingredients.
Using a knife.
When that was done,
you'd take the food back over
to the dirt floor area, and cook it.
So you're getting up and
down and up and down,
and you're kneeling on
the floor to do all of this work.
It sounds like a real pain,
both literally and figuratively.
As times changed,
it came to be criticized as
a very inefficient way of working.
Doing everything while standing up
became the officially
recommended method of cooking.
And that ended up being
the style we still use today.
So why was everybody suddenly
told to stand up to do their cooking?
It was a question of hygiene.
Earlier, we spoke about
cutting ingredients on a board.
But that was on the floor,
where people walk.
That's extremely unhygienic,
and it was suggested that
standing up to cook might be better.
Another factor is that kneeling
down while doing tasks in the kitchen
came to be seen as old-fashioned.
That's part of it, I think.
From the second half of the
19th century, Japan began to westernize.
That was happening nationwide,
and it wasn't just
a superficial influence.
Things changed inside the home, too.
That helps to explain the
switch to a standing position.
One of the major problems Japan faced
during its recovery from the
devastation of the Second World War
was a housing shortfall
of 4.2 million homes.
Public housing complexes, with
apartments measuring 43 square meters,
were put forward as a solution.
A huge number needed to be built quickly.
The amount of space allotted for
the kitchen was just 3.3 square meters.
Fitting everything in
was a real challenge.
The eventual solution was to combine
the kitchen with the dining area,
forming what came to be
known as a “dining kitchen.”
But space was still an issue.
With a table and chairs, little room
was left for the person cooking.
Another concern was appearance.
This was a focal space,
and people wanted it to look good.
And so they began using stainless steel,
which finally arrived in Japan after
being developed in the West.
Stainless steel looked nice,
and it was perfectly
suited to mass production.
This was much more efficient
than previous methods,
which involved shaping by hand
materials like stone and corrugated iron.
Designers continued to search
for space-saving measures.
They turned their attention
to the layout of a kitchen.
Before the war, it was common for a sink,
counter and gas burners to
be lined up—in that order.
The new idea was to
put the sink in the middle,
with a counter on one side
and gas burners on the other.
It was a revolutionary concept.
This reduced the amount
of movement required in a kitchen.
Someone could cook while occupying
the same spot, in front of the sink.
They wouldn't bump into
anyone or anything.
The dining-kitchen concept
quickly caught on,
and was soon seen as the most appropriate
solution for the Japanese home.
Oh, I can remember
seeing these in the old days.
Makes me feel old now though.
So this is the famous “dining kitchen.”
I think the first time
I heard that expression was
when I was in Tokyo
and looking for a flat.
“K” stood for “kitchen”
and “D” stood for “dining.”
And “DK” referred to
one room that had both.
A “dining kitchen,” as you said,
is a combined dining and kitchen space.
You probably don't really
use that term in English.
Traditionally, the kitchen and dining area
were separate rooms in
a Japanese home, too.
We had a patriarchal system.
The male head of the household
would entertain visitors
in the warmest room in the house,
situated on its sunny southern side.
The kitchen, meanwhile,
would be on the northern side,
where it might be so cold and dark,
you had to keep your feet moving.
The cooking would be done
by a woman—perhaps a maid.
I mean, would the average
household have had maids?
Well, it wasn't only the upper-class,
wealthy households that had maids.
The custom was relatively widespread.
From the late 19th
to early 20th centuries,
Japan went through
a period of industrialization.
The government encouraged the development
of the textile industry in particular,
and the factories recruited
a lot of female workers.
That led to a shortage of
women working as maids,
across the whole country.
Housewives would increasingly
do the cooking themselves,
and so kitchens needed to adapt
to that new pattern of usage.
They needed to become more compact.
The emergence of the
small-scale dining kitchen
also allowed families to
spend more time together.
They could all be together
even when someone was cooking.
The dimensions of the kitchen facilities
had to be considered from
an ergonomic perspective.
That meant a renewed focus on
things like height, or width, or depth.
In early standing kitchens,
back in the late 19th century,
the counter would be
around 60 centimeters high.
The sink would be around the same.
So the person doing the cooking
had to bend over to work.
Right. And you'd get
a bad back from doing that.
Physically, it's very difficult.
That's when research into
the ergonomics of a kitchen began.
The average waist height of a kitchen user
was taken into account, and
the height of a counter was standardized
at around 70 to 75 centimeters.
Nowadays, 85 centimeters is the norm.
Let's have another look at
the kitchen showroom.
Well, this is quite a change, isn't it?
This is called a “system kitchen.”
It includes a sink,
a counter, a stove, storage,
and perhaps a dishwasher and fridge.
They come as a set.
Compared with those old
apartments from the 1950s,
what would you say
are the biggest changes?
One of the biggest changes is size.
The dining kitchens of
the 1950s were very small.
Modern ones are bigger;
they're a dining and living space.
They have become the center of the home.
You might cook together with your family.
You might keep an eye on
your kids while you prepare food.
Or you might chat to your guests.
The role and size of kitchens has changed.
New innovations are making them
more comfortable and convenient.
Some modern sinks and surfaces
are designed to be quieter.
Extractor fans deal more
effectively with smoke.
And some sinks have a drainage
function that minimizes bad smells.
These developments aren't flashy,
but they're really helpful.
And they're being incorporated
into modern kitchens.
Hi, I'm Matt Alt, and this is Plus One.
Today I've come to Kappabashi,
Tokyo's fabled kitchenware district.
Along this road behind me,
which stretches some 800 meters,
are clustered over one hundred shops,
catering to chefs
amateur and professional.
What kind of wares are on display?
Follow me, and let's find out.
There are so many different
types of knives here in Japan.
I've seen them before,
but I have no idea what
most of these are used for.
Maybe we can find an
expert to show us how it goes.
I was hoping you could help me here.
Happy to help.
I hear there are so many different types
of knives used in Japanese cooking,
can you tell me about some of them?
Oh wow. Look at all of the stock.
First, here is a knife that
we use to prepare fish.
What are the
characteristics of this knife?
It's thick and heavy.
Without too much effort,
it can cut through any
part of a fish, even the bones.
Looks very sharp.
This is for sashimi.
It's almost like a sword.
So can you tell me why this
sashimi knife needs to be this long?
With sashimi, you don't push
the knife in, you cut with a single pull.
Now that you mention it,
I think Japanese saws cut on the pull too.
There are also rectangular
knives for cutting vegetables...
and special knives for
cutting soba noodles.
Each one is designed for
a different type of ingredient.
In all, there are around 15
types of Japanese cooking knife.
Next, let's look at an
unusually shaped frying pan.
What are these used for?
Tamagoyaki is rolled omelet.
It's a classic component
of a bento lunchbox,
and it's made in a rectangular pan.
The special design makes it
easy to roll the egg as it cooks.
Now another interesting tool.
Oh, these are...this is really big!
Is this a mortar and pestle?
Yes, that's a mortar. A big one!
The inside of the mortar
is covered in ridges.
They help to break down
and grind up ingredients.
The mortar comes with a matching pestle.
So now Matt's all set to
grind up some sesame seeds.
First, crush the seeds slightly.
What's the reason for this?
If you don't, they might fly
out of the bowl.
Secure it with your right hand,
then rotate it with your left hand.
I see. I see.
So right hand up top.
First, crush a little bit.
So I guess I don't want
to move this top hand here.
Oh man, that aroma.
So I guess these little ridges
are what make it grind well.
Yeah, that definitely
ground it a lot more finely.
So what do we use this ground sesame for?
Well, you can use it with spinach,
Here we have a
purpose-built wasabi grater.
On the surface is sharkskin,
which is said to produce a creamier
texture than a metal grater can.
—Oh yeah, look at that.
—There it is.
Oh, look at that.
Come on, you know you want to go
out and eat some sushi after seeing this.
Let's give it a try.
I love this shop.
But I have to ask,
is all of this variation really
necessary to cook Japanese food?
In addition to Japanese food,
people cook Western food,
Chinese food, and so on.
And each type of food has a range
of kitchen products associated with it.
One of the things I love about Tokyo is
it's full of specialty shops of all kinds.
But the kitchenware stores of Kappabashi
are on another level altogether.
Next time you come to Tokyo,
I highly recommend you come to
Kappabashi and check it out for yourself.
Until then, I'll be doing some
shopping of my own.
See you next time.
The kitchen is at the heart
of many modern homes.
But some people are deciding
to go back to using a dirt floor.
We're going to visit a house built
three years ago, in Chiba Prefecture.
It features earthen walls,
and was made using recycled wood.
Just inside the
entrance is a large dirt floor.
Beyond it is a raised wooden floor,
and a sunken fireplace.
At one side of the dirt
floor area is a kitchen.
The cooking is done using
a kamado, fueled with firewood.
It's as if we've gone back in time.
Why did the owner, Yamaguchi Yoshiko,
decide on this type of home?
Stainless steel is convenient.
It's easy to clean, and light.
But food made in a kitchen like
this tastes completely different.
I worried about the inconvenience,
but I thought hard about what was
most important for our way of life.
That was the key factor
when I made up my mind.
represents a lifestyle choice;
one that puts personal fulfillment
ahead of modern convenience.
As it happens,
and this is purely by chance,
I've actually been to that house.
There's nothing around it,
and it's like being totally
in the countryside.
So I...I didn't actually
go into the kitchen,
but I can kind of understand
wanting to live that lifestyle,
considering the place where it is.
But that's really going back
quite a long way in history
to have a kitchen like that.
What do you think about that?
Personally, I'm a big fan.
COVID-19 has played a role in this,
but for example,
people are rethinking life at home.
A growing number of people,
when they build a new home,
have been choosing to
have a dirt-floor kitchen.
We're also seeing people
spending more time camping,
or growing their own crops.
Rather than focusing on work,
they're thinking about quality of life.
More and more people are reconsidering
what it is they actually want.
Many seek a connection between
their home and the natural world.
And I think a dirt floor kitchen
is one way of achieving that.
So do you think we're heading
into a period where you have,
on the one hand, these real
state-of-the-art kitchens with absolutely
everything you can possibly imagine,
and on the other hand,
almost like historical looking kitchens,
which work in their own way as well?
Kitchens are really diversifying.
People are thinking hard
about the lifestyle they want,
and they're choosing a kitchen
that matches their ideal.
When it comes to functionality,
or the relationship between
the home and the natural world,
I think we'll see people make
a much wider range of choices.
do you spend much time in your kitchen?
I'm in the kitchen but I'm not cooking.
I'm a little bit ashamed
to say I've never cooked.
Except for...I mean,
I can do scrambled eggs.
My wife cooks.
And I do feel it's unfair
that she should do everything,
so I...I'm the dishwasher.
That's how our house works.
Thank you for asking.
And thank you for being on the show.
Thank you very much.
25 years ago, we built our own house.
And we had a built-in kitchen which was
pretty much state-of-the-art for the time.
In those 25 years,
I mean, we went to the
showroom earlier on today,
and the newest things in
there were absolutely astounding.
I don't think I've ever seen
anything quite like that,
and I'm sure in another 10 years,
it'll be even more astounding.
So there you go;
it's been an interesting day.