Ramen is such a delicious, wholesome, and popular dish, it’s hard to believe that at one point, it was more or less illegal. Okay, not the dish itself, but the restaurants that sold it. Since this was long before the invention of instant noodles and easy home preparation, that meant that to eat a steaming bowl of ramen, you had to go to the black market.
Life was very hard in post-war, American Occupied Japan. The country was devastated by the conflict. Every city was in a state of semi-chaos, countless buildings reduced to rubble, thousands of citizens displaced, and the government in disarray. Over five million Japanese, who had been living and fighting overseas returned home, placing a more significant strain on already limited recourses. In 1945, farmers brought in the worst harvest in forty-five years. On top of that, the extra resources that had been coming in from China, Korea, and other occupied territories were no longer available.
The American authorities in charge of the occupation had to do something to keep the country from starving. As a solution to the rice famine, massive amounts of American wheat were imported. But rationing was still in effect and generally ran about twenty days behind. All this was, of course, the perfect recipe for a thriving black market.
Only four days after the surrender of Japan, an ad appeared in the newspapers asking factory owners to come to a meeting at a specified location. It was the headquarters of the Ozu gang. Their mission was to get the factories, which were only supposed to sell to the military, to sell to them. The factories had been turning out weapons and other wartime goods for years. The armistices threatened to shut them down. Kinosuke Ozu, the head of the Ozu gang told them to melt down their swords for kitchen knives and make pots and pans out of their helmets. In other words, get creative. With this supply, the first post-war black market appeared near the train station in Shinjuku.
If you’re picturing a basement behind a heavy metal door, with a bouncer who opens a shutter, glares down at the newcomer and asks for a password, think again. This was a vast market headed by a large sign with one hundred and seventeen hundred-watt light bulbs. It was so flashy you could see it from several miles away. What did this sign say? “Brightness from Shinjuku.” It must have hit people like a pop in the eye against the backdrop of their devastated city.
It didn’t take long for gangs in other neighborhoods and cities to set up their own markets. In just two months there were seventeen thousand black markets across the country. Everyone shopped there if they didn’t want to starve. The vendors, or “peanuts” as they were inexplicably called, could make as much as 50 yen a day. That was a small fortune at the time, when a teacher might expect to take home 300 yen a month (not that teachers are ever paid fairly). Many of those vendors were daisan-kokujin (“third-country people”), immigrants from former Japanese colonies who couldn’t have found work anywhere else. There was a lot of tension between the daisan-kokujin gangs and the Yakuza (Japanese mafia).
By October of 1945, there were an estimated forty-five thousand black market stalls in Tokyo. One of the largest markets was Ameyokocho, a long street that ran under the train tracks in Ueno. Today, the street, commonly referred to as Ameyoko, is an open-air market with around a hundred and eighty shops. In fact, it was right across the street from my hotel when I was staying in Ueno. I probably walked up and down Ameyoko a half a dozen times in the three days I was there. It’s still a fantastic place to people watch and take in the buzz of Tokyo.
During its life as a black market, Ameyoko was home to vendors selling everything from clothing to candy. It must have been like an oasis in the city of scarcity and sorrow (you know, apart from the gang violence). The street’s name might come from ameya (candy shop), referring to the presence of many such establishments in its early days. Another theory is that it came from “American,” as the street was where you went to buy American goods, like wheat.
And speaking of wheat, that’s what ramen noodles are made of. I bet you were wondering when I was going to cycle back around to ramen. Because of the strict rationing laws and the ban on outdoor food vending, the black markets were the only place people could get their hands on ramen. This new dish had come over with Chinese immigrants and had been pretty obscure, but in the black markets, it thrived. Thousands of ramen sellers were arrested during the occupation, but this doesn’t seem to have deterred anyone.
For one thing, ramen was inexpensive to make and eat, thanks to the the abundance of American wheat. For another, the sellers were able to move pretty quickly, owing to their reliance on yatai. These wheeled carts could hold noodles, pork, toppings, boiling pots of broth, bowls, and chopsticks. Ramen shops lured hungry customers to their yatai with the sweet sound of charumera flutes. About ninety percent of these ramen stalls were under the control of the Yakuza.
As for the ramen itself, it was a slightly more simple version than today. While there are currently fourteen formally recognized categories of ramen, during the early days there was only one. Soy sauce flavored broth made with chicken, pork, and dried sardines. Actually, that does sound delicious. It was also thought of as a food that gave a person energy and stamina, both needed it those hard times. The Americans were pushing wheat and animal protein hard, calling it “superior” and “nutritious.”
By the early fifties, the rationing laws became a little softer. Some corporations even began to rent out fully equipped yatai carts, complete with bowls and chopsticks. Becoming a ramen seller was a profitable venture and one of the easiest ways someone could start their own business. Ramen became associated with urban life and the working class. By the time the ban on street food vendors was lifted, ramen was well on its way to becoming the phenomenon it is today. It makes one ponder whether this would have been possible without the black markets.
Until next time, remember that even out of horrible times, something delicious can be found. Or something. I don’t know. That one kind of got away from me.
P.S. While researching this article, I found out a lot of fascinating stuff about post-war black markets and gangs. So much that I couldn’t fit everything in. For instance, Osaka estimated that 100,000 people were making their livings in the black markets in the late 1940s. Also, American GIs were huge suppliers of the markets, working with the gangs to pass rations and other American goods to the black markets. In the process, many of them made a lot of money. And, of course, there was a lot of exploitation, drugs, violence, and abuse of women. If you’re interested in learning more, here are the links to the sources I used. Here, here, and here.