A bit of history
Kenju Ekuan was a teenager when he witnessed the mass destruction caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the US. Kenju was at the naval academy at the time and on returning home he found a devastated city. His sister and father had died in the attack. The loss and destruction led Kenju to design a philosophy based on his Buddhist faith.
“Faced with that nothingness, I felt a great nostalgia for human culture”, Kenju later told the New York Times. “I needed something to touch. To look at. It was then that I decided to become a maker of things. Buddha’s path is the path of salvation for all living beings, but I realised that for me the path to salvation was in objects”, Kenju wrote.
Initially following in his father’s footsteps, he undertook a brief priestly education in Kyoto, but then chose design with the aim of helping to shape post-war Japanese culture. Shortly after graduating from the National University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo, Kenju founds GK Industrial Design Associations in 1957. Shortly afterwards, his team was commissioned to design the new Kikkoman bottle.
Before the Ekuan team was commissioned, Japanese consumers filled small teapot-like soy sauce dispensers from heavy 1.8 litre glass bottles. Something Kenju saw his mother doing as a child. These teapots did not have the fine control to dispense small amounts. In addition, they were made of ceramic and therefore you could not know how full they were without opening the lid.
So the new bottle had to be easy to refill and effortless to lift and use. The design, with a high waist, allows for a natural flow of the liquid and allows the user’s fingers to rest in a natural position. The use of glass for the body of the bottle was a simple design decision that quickly communicates how much soy sauce is left in the bottle. In addition, the mouth of the bottle is wide enough to refill soy sauce quickly, easily and without spillage.
The new cap was the most striking feature of its design, as it solves a universal problem that anyone who has ever poured soy sauce from a traditional teapot knows. Namely, the dripping on the table. After three years and more than a hundred attempts, the solution was found in an inverted spout. Instead of a single downward sloping spout as in traditional soy dispensers or teapots, the Kikkoman bottle has two upward sloping spouts, allowing the soy sauce to flow back into the bottle.
The debut of the new bottle in 1961 came at an important time for Japan. The nation seeking to build and define itself was given an easily exportable symbol of a new Japan. Soy sauce has been part of Japanese cuisine for centuries and the new bottle met the expectations of those proud of heritage and tradition, but it was also a product for a new and modern Japan.
Through Kenju’s clever design choices, Kikkoman became the market leader in Asian sauces in Japan, Australia, Europe and the United States. As well as being a symbol for the soy sauce company, the bottle designed by Ekuan would become a symbol of Japanese culture and contribution to world cuisine.
About Kenju Ekuan
Ekuan, who is known for his monk-like presence approached his craft with deeply philosophical considerations. He would design to solve problems for as many people as possible. He didn’t do luxury holiday resorts, but he did design trains used by thousands of people every day, logos for municipals and convenience stores and, of course, the Kikkoman pouring bottle.
Kenji Ekuan passed away in 2015. Inspired by the void left by death and destruction, Ekuan helped rebuild and redefine his nation by adding beauty to everyday objects.