Soy sauce bottle creator dies: 5 things about Japanese designer Kenji Ekuan

International award-winning Japanese designer Kenji Ekuan, 85, died on Feb 8 of a heart rhythm disorder, but his legacy lives on in many kitchens around the world.

Ekuan, who has been compared to famous American industrial designer Raymond Loewy in terms of the impact of his designs, is perhaps best known for creating the now-ubiquitous Kikkoman soy sauce bottle.

Here are five things to know about the lauded post-war visionary.

1. He started out as a monk

Born in 1929, Ekuan was initially ordained as a Buddhist monk at a Hiroshima temple to succeed his father, who died due to the radiation from the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

But a passion in design led him to study at the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, which he graduated from when he was 26.

He founded his own design firm, GK Industrial Design Associates, two years later.

2. Inspired by devastation

Ekuan, who also lost his younger sister in the Hiroshima bombing, was reportedly riding the train home one day when epiphany struck after witnessing the scenes of horror and desolation wrought by the bomb.

Having "heard the voices of mangled and abandoned street cars, bicycles and other objects saying they had wished to have been utilised more", Ekuan based his design principle on making goods and beauty accessible to everyone.

He told Japan Times in a 2001 interview: "Design to me has always meant making people happy. Happy in the sense of creating items that provide comfort, convenience, function, aesthetics and ethics."

3. Most famous creation

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As the story goes, Ekuan's impetus for designing the soy sauce bottle stemmed from his memories of watching his mother pour the condiment from a big half-gallon bottle when he was a child.

The rest, as you could say, is history. Three years and more than a hundred prototypes later, he conceived the teardrop-shaped bottle and iconic red dripless spout in 1961 - a staple design which has endured till today. Over 300 million bottles have been reportedly sold in 70 countries.

To mark its 50th year in the US, Kikkoman produced a gold-capped version and also a souvenir edition with the image of Mickey Mouse. On the design, Ekuan said: "For me, it represents not the new Japan, but the real Japan. The shape is so gentle".

The bottle was even added to the permanent collection at New York's Museum of Modern Art as part of its Humble Masterpieces exhibition, which recognises outstanding designs of everyday objects.

4. Other notable works

Over the course of his illustrious six-decade design career, Ekuan has been credited with numerous designs. These ranged from sewing machines and company logos to motorbikes and bullet trains.

He designed the high-speed Komachi bullet train, which runs between Tokyo and Akita and can reach speeds of up to 320kmh.

Other renowned works include the sleek-looking Yamaha VMAX motorcycle, indoor gardens and a book on how the Japanese bento box is key to understanding his country's civilisation.

5. His dream design project

Ekuan had previously revealed that he hoped to build a "temple-like facility that houses a symbol", in which he can meditate on the order between the human world and the Dougu world, a Japanese term which defines all kinds of man-made objects.

Over the years, his accolades have included England's Sir Misha Black Medal, his country's Order of the Rising Sun and Finland's Insignia of Commander in the Order of the Lion.

mklee@sph.com.sg

Sources: Quartz, Gizmodo, Red Dot, Huffington Post, New York Times