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Street Life

Chinese Noodles for Japanese Workers

Was ramen first introduced to Japan in 1665, 1884, or 1910? Is its precursor a dish known as ūshin udon, Nankin soba, or Shina soba? Depending on the answer, one arrives at a different dish with its own origin story and a distinct historical trajectory producing a particular view of Japan. None of the dish's origin stories are mutually exclusive, but each is a different way of linking the past to the present. It is clear, then, that each story represents a contrast in emphasis rather than a set of fundamentally irreconcilable facts. This is worth noting because, like all questions about origins, the debate surrounding the roots of ramen reveals the difficulties arising from the open-ended search for the true beginning of any food practice.

The three distinct origin stories concerning the birth of ramen in Japan that have been established by various authors and institutions are as follows. The first and most imaginative originally appeared in food historian Kosuge Keiko's pioneering study of the history of ramen published in 1987. This version dates the introduction of the dish to the 1660s and designates Tokugawa Mitsukuni (a.k.a. Mito Kōmon, 1628-1701), a legendary feudal lord (daimyō) and second in line to the ruling shōgun, as the first person to eat ramen in Japan.

Tokugawa Mitsukuni is a popular historical figure in Japan due to a long-running period drama on television based on his exploits as a disguised defender of the weak who reveals his identity to wrongdoers near the end of each episode with a flash of his inrō (small decorative lacquer case) imprinted with his clan's crest, which serves to identify him as the daimyō of the province. The line "Do you not behold this clan crest?" (Kono mondokoro ga me ni hairanuka?) is repeated by Mitsukuni's guard, Kaku-san, at the culmination of each episode to restore order and hierarchy, leading to instant begging for forgiveness on the par