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Design Legend Behind the Soy Sauce Bottle and Bullet Train


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Odds are good that you’re familiar with the work of Kenji Ekuan, even if you don’t know his name. Ekuan, who died in Japan yesterday at the age of 85, was the force behind some of the most iconic industrial design of the 20th century—and he said he was inspired to do it after the atomic bomb annihilated his home in Hiroshima.

If you’ve ever poured soy sauce from the tear drop Kikkoman bottle or pined over a 1960s Yamaha motorcycle, you know Ekuan’s designs. The red-capped bottle, which Ekuan designed in 1961, was the epitome of sleek, futuristic world of 1960s Japan—a country that was just beginning to emerge out of the brutal post-War era and into an economic and cultural boom time. Ekuan also designed the Komachi bullet train, which hit the rails as one of the first high-speed bullet train in the world.

He was the voice behind some of the most compelling technologies of the 20th century—Japan’s answer to Raymond Loewy—whose work articulated the speed and futurism of the modern age but never ignored the humans using it.

bullet train yamaha ya-1

Images: The Yamaha YA-1, via Yamaha Community.fr; Komachi bullet train by ykanazawa1999/CC.

Ekuan said that the human-centered aspect of his work had its roots in the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. He was just a teenager when the bomb hit the city, killing his sister and father. In an interview from 2010, he describes how the horror and desolation of that time inspired him to become a designer:

When I decided to be a designer, I was in Hiroshima. The time was right after the war. After the atomic bomb everything became nothing. So there I am standing in the burned city, looking down at my house, but nothing. I was so shaken. And I decided to connect the material things, because for a long time, human beings have connected with material things. I thought to myself, we need something to bring back the material things to human life. To do something good for people, and good for myself. So I decided to be a designer.

So he studied to become an industrial designer, linking up with a group of like-minded fellow students and forming a company through which he would work for decades. That line of reasoning—that objects should be sources of comfort, of pleasure and joy—ran through his entire career, which ranged from motorcycles to sewing machines to trains to, yes, soy sauce bottles.

soy sauce bottle on table

It was in that same 2010 interview that Ekuan described the perfect epitaph, as Quartz pointed out this morning, speaking about the life of objects and the lives of humans: “Just like a man is born, and becomes old, ill and dies,” he said. “Even in a factory things are born, and they have very useful years, and then finally, die. It’s all the same.”


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