The History Of Kikkoman's Ingenious Soy Sauce Dispenser

by Rudy Sanchez on 05/10/2021 | 5 Minute Read

If you were to close your eyes and think of a curvaceous bottle holding a globally popular dark elixir, one you’ve seen sitting atop tables countless times, what product comes to mind? 

You thought of a bottle of Coca-Cola, didn’t you? 

Well, you could argue that Kikkoman’s soy sauce dispenser has reached the same level of consciousness around the world. Beautiful in form and function, it is difficult to imagine eating out at almost any Chinese restaurant or sushi joint without seeing that indispensable glass bottle at the table.

Despite its seemingly simple design, the path to reality began at a horrific and defining historical moment that would inspire a young survivor to design in response to destruction, ultimately boosting Japan’s cuisine worldwide. Though it would take many tries, the iconic bottle would come to define Kikkoman as a brand.

Editorial photograph

Kenji Ekuan was a teenager when he witnessed the mass destruction wrought by the atomic bomb dropped by the US on Hiroshima. Away at naval college, Ekuan would return home to find the city destroyed, his sister dead, and his father, a Buddhist priest who oversaw a local temple, with radiation illness that would take his life a year later. The loss and destruction lead Ekuan to design with a philosophy based on his Buddhist faith.

“Faced with that nothingness, I felt a great nostalgia for human culture,” Ekuan told the New York Times. “I needed something to touch, to look at,” he added. “Right then, I decided to be a maker of things.”

“The path of Buddha is the path to salvation for all living things, but I realized that, for me, the path to salvation lay in objects,” Ekuan wrote in a serialized memoir in 2002.

Editorial photograph
Editorial photograph

Ekuan did initially follow in his father’s footsteps, briefly training for the priesthood in Kyoto. But he chose to pursue design, intending to take part in shaping the post-war Japanese culture. Soon after graduating from the National University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo, Ekuan founded GK Industrial Design Associates in 1957. Soon after, his team was tasked with creating the new Kikkoman bottle.

Before the invention of the new bottle, Japanese consumers would fill small and teapot-like soy sauce dispensers from heavy 1.8L glass bottles, something Ekuan would witness his mother doing as a child. Unlike tea kettles, the Kikkoman bottles lacked the fine control to refill the small condiment dispensers. Additionally, most of these soy sauce holders were ceramic, with no way to know how full it is without opening the lid and peeking inside.

Editorial photograph

The new tabletop bottle would need to be easily refillable and effortless to lift and use. The high-waisted design allows for a natural flow of fluid and leads the ring and pinky fingers to rest in a natural position. The use of uncovered glass for the body was a simple design decision that quickly communicated the fill level. Plus, the mouth is wide enough to make refilling quick, easy, and spill-proof.

Ekuan’s new cap was his design’s most noticeable feature, as it solved a universal problem relatable to anyone that’s poured soy sauce from traditional table dispensers. Soy sauce has a high viscosity and tended to drip from conventional receptacles when set down, dripping onto the table. After three years and over one hundred tries, the solution was an inverted spout. Instead of a downward angle, like traditional soy dispensers or teapots, Kikkoman’s new bottle has an upward spout, causing the drop of soy sauce to flow back into the bottle.

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With its debut in 1961, the Kikkoman bottle came at a significant time for Japan. The nation, looking to rebuild and redefine itself, had an easily exportable symbol of a new Japan. Soy sauce has been a part of Japanese cuisine for centuries, and the new bottle satisfies those proud of the nation’s heritage and tradition while being a product of a new, contemporary Japan. Kikkoman soy sauce and its new tabletop bottle would be an early example of Japanese cultural exports that would prove successful, including other cuisine traditions like sushi, art and media including Godzilla, and technology such as Sony Walkman.

Remembered for having a monk-like presence, Ekuan would approach his craft with deeply philosophical considerations. He would design to solve problems for as many people as possible; his contributions aren’t luxury resorts that soar into the sky but commuter trains used by thousands every day, logos for municipalities and convenience stores, and, of course, the Kikkoman dispenser. If Oppenheimer’s dharma led to the destruction of Japan, Ekuan’s would lead to the rebirth of a new Japanese culture, economy, and society.

Editorial photograph
Editorial photograph

In the decades since introducing Kikkoman’s innovative bottle, Kenji Ekuan would also design the Yamaha VMAX motorcycle and several trains, including the 253 series Narita Express and the logo for Ministop, a chain of international convenience stores. Ekuan would also chair the Japan Institute of Design, serve as dean of Shizuoka University of Art and Culture, and as a trustee of Art Center College of Design.

Kikkoman would become the leader in Asian sauces in Japan, Australia, Europe, and the United States, with annual sales of $3.9 billion. Kikkoman applied for a 3D object trademark of the bottle, eventually granted one in 2018 by the Japanese Patent Office. Beyond a symbol for the soy sauce firm, the Ekuan-designed bottle would become a symbol of Japanese culture and contribution to world cuisine.

Editorial photograph

Kenji Ekuan would pass away in 2015, after decades of pursuing his life as a “creator” while making beautiful design accessible to everyone. Inspired by the void death and destruction leaves behind in its wake, Ekuan helped rebuild and redefine his nation, imbuing beauty in everyday objects such as trains and convenience store signs, both becoming significant fixtures of the new, post-war Japan. His humblest creation, the modern soy sauce dispenser, is also his greatest masterpiece. Graceful as it is useful, the Kikkoman bottle belongs both in MoMA and your beloved Chinese takeout spot.

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