Monday, July 15, 2024

The Kikkoman Soy Sauce Bottle Is an American Icon of Design

It’s a shape so ubiquitous it’s become nearly invisible: an easy-to-grip, pear-shaped glass bodice planted on a sturdy base, a tapered neck swooping up to a red cap, and most important, a two-way spout that controls the flow of pours and prevents drips. The famous Kikkoman soy sauce dispenser litters tabletops in countless Japanese restaurants across the United States. According to Kikkoman, the company has sold over 400 million of these utilitarian bottles since their inception. You can undoubtedly find a bottle at your local grocery store for a few bucks — and yet some folks will pay hundreds of dollars for one.

While the unchanging core design of the bottle has made it an enduring tool, the “face” has been reimagined over the years, with one-off specialty releases and collabs with fellow Japanese icons like Hello Kitty. These vintage Kikkoman bottles are rare and coveted, quickly snatched up by collectors, oftentimes fetching upward of $300 and increasing in value as the years pass.

A warehouse worker, wearing a uniform sporting an American flag, stacks tubs of branded Kikkoman soy sauce.

A warehouse at the Kikkoman plant in Walworth, Wisconsin.
Kikkoman Foods

That price tag might seem extreme, but it’s perhaps justified given the amount of work that went into the bottle’s creation. It took industrial designer Kenji Ekuan three years of development and 100 prototypes before he unveiled the final version, which premiered in 1961 — though the roots of the Kikkoman brand stretch back several centuries. All those iterations yielded a total game changer, not only replacing the company’s unwieldy 1.8-liter jugs with a handheld design that would work for home consumers, but establishing the soy sauce bottle as a cultural touchstone. The company, well aware of the intense affection its specialty bottles have generated ever since, has fully cashed in on collectors’ enthusiasm. At Kikkoman’s biggest production facility, in the quaint village of Walworth, Wisconsin, production lines were in overdrive in 2023, making and filling limited-edition bottles celebrating the 50th anniversary of the company’s first U.S. production plant.

“If it is rare and an eyepopper, it is on everyone’s radar,” says Steve Ketcham, former president of the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors. The Kikkoman dispenser is undeniably a global art object: It earned a spot at The Museum of Modern Art for its iconic design in 2005. Specialty releases are also relatively rare, making them as valuable as any rare piece of artwork.

“Collectors also seek out beauty,” Ketcham continues. “Eye-pleasing pieces may have a great visual appeal from either color or form. A vibrant green cathedral pickle bottle or a bright blue fruit jar can often be favorite food bottles among collectors. In most bottle collecting categories, color is of great importance.” Though the standard Kikkoman bottle does have its shock-red top, it’s rather plain otherwise; the colorful designs of the specialty releases boost their aesthetic appeal.

But looks aren’t everything. To become truly valuable, a bottle has to tell a story too, especially one about a well-known brand. “Collectors seek pieces of historical interest [and] pieces associated with a significant company, from the very large and perhaps still in business — Heinz, for example — to the small producer who had a very short history, which makes their containers rare. This applies to both the maker of the bottle and the maker of the contents,” Ketcham explains.

The brand’s impact is unique to the U.S. Michael Booth, who chronicled a sojourn to Japan in Super Sushi Ramen Express, points out that Kikkoman is on the shelves of every supermarket, but it doesn’t achieve the level of fanfare there that it wields in the United States. Japanese customers prefer locally brewed soy sauce from independent makers who express regional styles.

“I think people who know about Kikkoman would say it is a very good industrial product, made to a price,” Booth says. “It’s perfectly fine for everyday use and relatively benign.”

But the bottle’s value among resellers and fans — specifically American superfans — speaks to the brand’s particular juggernaut cultural power in the U.S. Specialty bottles don’t just feature Japanese cultural signifiers, but American ones too, from Mickey and Minnie Mouse to the American bicentennial. Following the first waves of Japanese immigrants to Hawai‘i and the Pacific Coast in the 1860s, Kikkoman constructed this influence over the ensuing decades, fostering a rare unicorn of relationships: overseas expansion without friction, the stuff of Harvard Business School case studies.

A warehouse-like plant with a large sign out front reading Welcome to Kikkoman Foods, Inc. Home of Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce.

A vintage photographer of the Kikkoman plant in Walworth, Wisconsin.
Kikkoman Foods

“Soy sauce is such a pillar of Japanese cooking that those immigrants became a significant export market for Kikkoman. So, just a few years after the end of the Civil War, we began shipping kegs of Kikkoman soy sauce to Hawai‘i and California, becoming the first major soy sauce supplier in the Americas,” says Miwa Thompson, deputy chief marketing officer at Kikkoman Sales USA. By 1906, the brand was registered with every state in the union.

For decades, the brand had to thread the needle between appearing foreign and domestic. From the 1920s to the ’40s, Kikkoman was viewed as an “exotic” seasoning by non-East Asian shoppers, so the brand promoted that novelty value through print ads. Then, in the ’50s, it ran primetime TV commercials — first launched during President Dwight Eisenhower’s run for reelection against Adlai Stevenson — depicting how soy sauce could be used in meatloaf, hamburgers, and fish sticks.

But the brand really took off as GIs returned from tours of duty in Asia craving what many called “Oriental” cuisines. Kikkoman, which had established a marketing base camp in San Francisco, seized on the opportunity to supply a burgeoning wave of Chinese, Japanese, and Polynesian restaurants sprouting up across America.

“Those Asian restaurants were the door-opener that would help soy sauce gain a foothold in the West,” explains Thompson.

The modern Kikkoman bottle was itself a pivot to keep up with the times. In the 1960s, as a wave of anti-Asian racism brewed in the U.S. during the Korean and Vietnam wars, Ekuan’s design presented the face of a modern and progressive Japan. When the company built the production facility in Wisconsin not long after (reducing import costs and providing access to a steady supply of Midwestern soybeans and wheat), it asked Japanese employees to find homes within the local community to foster strong relationships with other residents. In the ’80s and ’90s, as conversations developed over artificial ingredients, Kikkoman could tout its real ingredients in competing with cheap imitators selling hydrolyzed vegetable protein-based sauce, a strategy that proved winning enough with consumers that the brand introduced low-sodium, gluten-free, and non-GMO products over the years as various health concerns rose.

All the time, the brand was working its way into the lives of real people.

“[Kikkoman] has literally surrounded me my entire life, from food, family, hobbies, chores, everything,” says Andrew Pei, who grew up with the brand at his family’s restaurant, SuYu Pei in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. For his grandparents and parents, who came from China, Japan, and Korea, Kikkoman was a foundational staple in their new life in the U.S., and Pei recently documented the affection he inherited for the brand to win the brand’s Love Unbottled contest. “During my grandmother’s time, there weren’t a lot of choices available, especially in the Midwest. For her, Kikkoman was a true Asian soy sauce,” Pei says.

As younger consumers encounter the brand, they also reinvent it for their own lives. Over the years, Kikkoman acolytes have created a litany of wearable and edible paraphernalia, art pieces, and souvenirs. To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the design, Kikkoman invited fans to design their own bottles. In 2022, designer Matthew Clark of Odachi Design shared a version of the iconic bottle upgraded with a 3D-printed gravity valve embedded in the dispenser’s cap to preserve the contents from oxidation. After he published his design online, Clark says, he was briefly in touch with Kikkoman corporate headquarters in Japan, who enthusiastically shared it with the in-house design team.

According to Alexander Manu, professor of design at the Ontario College of Art and Design University, the bottle’s appeal stems from its ability to transcend cultures and retain relevance with every passing generation.

Kikkoman soy sauce bottles trundle along a factory conveyor belt.

The bottling line at the Kikkoman plant in Walworth, Wisconsin.
Kikkoman Food

“The bottle’s design negates the need for language; its use and function are immediately apparent no matter where you are in the world, making it a powerful example of universal design,” Manu says. “In a world that continually gravitates toward complexity, there’s a profound lesson in the enduring appeal of the Kikkoman dispenser: Sometimes, simplicity isn’t just a design choice; it’s a form of everyday elegance that brings unexpected happiness.”

While affection for the brand may explain some of the bottle’s staying power, the design also sparks real happiness. That’s not an accident. As a native of Hiroshima, Ekuan survived the atomic bomb before designing his famous dispenser. He assumed the role of an industrial designer with tremendous responsibility and explained that his creations always had a profound intention. As he told the Japan Times in 2001, “Design to me has always meant making people happy.”

Since its debut, Kikkoman’s soy sauce dispenser has managed to capture that feeling with every generation. As long as restaurateurs and home cooks continue to use the little bottle, its legacy and value will increase exponentially. So save your bottles; they could be worth a pretty penny in the near future.

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