Food Replicas in Japan

By Umami Recipe
Food Replicas in Japan

A broad commercial demand for Food Replicas may be a novel idea and a hard concept to understand, but walk in front of many Japanese restaurants and it all becomes clear. Carefully crafted replicas of the menu are displayed in glass cases, serving as a visual image of what exactly you can expect to eat. These food models, which look just like the real thing, are now highly regarded as works of art both in Japan and abroad.

Food Replicas?

The goal of food replicas are to imitate the color and shape of food to such a high degree, that they become a prelude to what the customer will soon be ordering and eating. Japanese food replicas look appetizing on their own, beautifully expressing the dynamism, textures and subtle colors of the dish. In general, these food models are displayed in glass showcases outside restaurants. Passersby look at these models and decide whether to enter the restaurant or not. In other words, the more delicious the replicas look, the more customers will be inclined to enter and take a table. In Japan during the period of economic growth in the 70s and 80s, special attention was placed on the advertising effects of these food samples.

In the early days, food replicas were made by hand with agar and wax which were poured into a mold. Yet, this method lacked strength and scalability of production. Today, the production methods have been improved for durability and ease of production. Food samples are increasingly popular not only as promotional items for restaurants, but also as souvenirs for overseas tourists and as works of art for collectors. At restaurants, the promotional strength of these replicas lies in their ability to convey foods without relying on the menu, making it easier for non-Japanese speaking visitors to order dishes that look appetizing without struggling through a Japanese menu.

History of Food Replicas

The beginning of food modeling started at the end of the Taisho era (1912~1926). Although there is no decisive documentation to prove this, the boom in department store cafeterias at this time led to the production of food samples all over Japan. The demand for food samples increased with the economic recovery after World War II, and from the 1970s, the use of synthetic resins as raw materials led to the production of more realistic food models. The reason why the raw material for food models changed from wax to synthetic resin was because of wax's vulnerability under sunlight, and when left over long periods under the sun, the wax would inevitably melt, deform and lose its color, meaning that frequent replacing was necessary. With the advent of synthetic resins, the durability of food replicas improved dramatically. With a proven durability, production expanded further, riding on the wave of economic growth. After the collapse of the bubble economy in the 1990s, the food modeling business went into recession. The reason for the decline was simple: models were being replaced by cheaper printed materials. As printing technology advanced, it became more economical still to simply rely on printed menus, further pushing the demand for food replicas down. Color copies and photographs emerged as alternatives to food models.

It was in the 2010s that food replicas began to attract attention again, not so much to accompany restaurant menus, but as souvenirs by overseas tourists. They also attracted attention as fashionable items for a younger Japanese demographic. This boom continues to this day, and the reputation of Japanese food replicas is growing along these new needs.

Food Modelling in Restaurants

The production of food replicas for restaurants continues to decline due to the changing sales strategy of color photos and color printing. The price decline of printed materials that occurred in the 1990s was a major blow to food replicas. In addition, more restaurants have switched to electronic menus, or tablet terminals to manage everything from ordering to checkout. For example, many Japanese conveyor-belt sushi chains no longer use revolving lanes. Instead, customers order their favorite sushi, miso soup and other items using tablet terminals installed at their seats. In addition to pictures of the menu, the tablet screen can display menu names in English, Chinese and Korean.

With this accelerating trend, it is expected that the number of food replicas for stores will continue to decrease. On the other hand, more people are buying souvenir key chains and food replicas as gifts. The role of food replicas as promotional tools, which was the original purpose, has faded. However, realistic food models are finding a firm foothold in Japanese popular culture as souvenirs. In particular, miniature food models of a few centimeters are very popular and are sold at high prices at auctions. Some homemakers are even making their own food replicas and selling them to earn extra income.

Recognition of Food Modelling Abroad

Kappabashi, near Asakusa in Tokyo, is a place many overseas tourists come to visit. For many, the main objective is not lacquerware or kitchen knives, which Asakusa is incidentally known for. It is the food replicas made by craftsmen. In particular, what surprises overseas visitors seems to be food models that capture a moment in time--spaghetti being lifted off a plate with a fork or milk being poured into a cup of coffee. For tourists interested in these models, the craftsmanship has reached the level of art. In fact, a company called Sample Village Iwasaki exported its food sample technology abroad after seeing the amazement of foreigners who visited its food model experience center. It is expected that Japanese food modelling will continue to gain recognition, especially in East Asian countries such as Singapore, Taiwan and China. Already in Korea, food modelling was introduced during the 1988 Seoul Olympics to help overseas tourists understand the menu visually. Korea is now known as a country where food modelling has taken root.

Food Replicas as Works of Art

Food replicas have become highly valued both in Japan and abroad, but what factors drove this to be the case?

Food modelling is a novel culture that was largely non-existent outside of Japan. In Korea and Shanghai, food modelling can be found to some extent, but this is only due to the influence of Japan. The reason why Japanese food models are gaining recognition as works of art by overseas collectors is because of the unparalleled skill of the craftsman in expressing the detail and realism of the food, and at times, the dynamism of capturing a moment of movement in time. In the days before replicas, Japanese people could accept a white, square object as representing tofu, and if they were presented with a red lump, they could understand that it was tuna. But before long, craftsmen took these symbolic representations to another level, endeavouring to make a model that would be so realistic, that at first glance, they would look like real food. This obsession with realism continues today, leading to each food model being handmade with several weeks of work needed to complete a piece.

Accordingly, the price that some of these food replicas command is comparable to more traditional works of art. For example, a single food model that resembles a crab can cost tens of thousands of yen. It's an instance where the craftsmanship of the replica justifies the fake to cost more than the real thing. Japanese food modelling is now considered a cultural symbol, comparable to anime and manga.

The Future of Food Modelling

As we have seen, food replicas are being appreciated not only as promotional tools, but also as souvenirs and works of art. So what will the future of food modelling look like? A start-up business, QRevo, allows customers to select desired foods on their website. The image of the dish is represented as a 3D image, and the technology behind the service can reproduce the fragrance of the food using sound waves. Once the dish is ordered, it is delivered to the customer's home by drone. This system is still in the testing phase and has not yet been launched commercially. However, it is a revolutionary idea to be able to experience foods remotely, both visually and through smell. The core of this system is a 3D image that relies on a food replica.

There is also a movement to create "offerings" using food model technology through crowdfunding. Food models do not get damaged, of course, so there is no need to replace the samples frequently. Another example, there is a burgeoning need for artistic works that call for a sense of dynamism and realism that only food modelling can provide. Finally, a few photos that combine everyday life with food replicas went viral recently, namely the work of Iwasaki Corporation, which is a food sample manufacturing company in Japan. The Twitter account of this company posted a photo of a realistic omelet on a keyboard. The photo has attracted many surprised comments such as, "I thought it was real!". In the future, this kind of photo combining the every day and food replicas may become more commonly integrated into works of art.

Food Replicas as a Souvenir

Japanese food modelling culture, with a history of about 100 years, is endearingly familiar and appreciated by all generations of Japanese. In today's age of the Internet, while online purchases have increased, opportunities to enjoy meals in an actual restaurant are still regarded as an important way to connect with friends and family. While food modelling may not be as prevalent as it once was in the dining scene, a second resurgence can be seen amongst art and souvenir collecting enthusiasts. A visitor to Japan will find key chains and erasers in the form of foods, demonstrating the small and cute sensibilities of the Japanese. Although food replicas have still yet to gain traction overseas, like with other popular Japanese culture trends, food modelling is easily exportable and may yet see its day on the international stage.


Umami Recipe Team

Bringing what's new on Japanese food and culture, from traditional to current trends to your home.