The vacuum flask, or "mahobin" (literally "magic jar") as it's called in Japan, is an indispensable piece of consumer homeware. In fact, more mahobin are made in Osaka than anywhere else in Japan. What's more, it's right here in Osaka that the first domestic mahobin were made. Long ago, Osaka was the center of Japan's glass industry, and it's that fact that ties to the city's present position as the capital of domestic mahobin production.
Osaka Before the Advent of Mahobin
The basic form of the vacuum flask was discovered by British scientist James Dewar, with the first successful domestic-use vacuum flask created by a German glassblower named Reinhold Burger. This form arrived to Japan in 1908 as an import from Germany, and the first domestically-produced mahobin vacuum flasks date to 1912. The lead region for Japan's glass industry at the time, Osaka's Tenma was home to countless skilled glass craftsmen, and many had also started getting involved with lightbulb production. As it happens, the vacuum technology needed for lightbulb production had much in common with the technology needed to produce the insulating vacuum space in mahobin. Given that, mahobin production soon took off in Osaka.
Dawn of Mahobin, the Japanese-made Thermos
It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that nowadays every household in Japan has a mahobin vacuum flask in it somewhere. However, around the time production started booming in Osaka, the Japanese hardly used them at all: Instead, during that era the majority were sent overseas as exports. Most of the vacuum flasks made in Japan at the time were for export, and in 1937 during peak production only 10% were for the domestic market. They were primarily sent to Southeast Asia, where the poor quality of local drinking water made these mahobin a necessity for the many Europeans who came to inhabit the Western colonies in the region. The European colonists weren't able to import vacuum flasks from Europe owing to war, so when Westerners heard that Japan had begun producing mahobin, they began importing them from there, instead.
First Glimmers of Brand Awareness
Japanese-made mahobin became treasured items in other nations, and export volumes increased. With that increase, a need arose among enterprises to make it easier for consumers to understand what sort of company you were and what kind of items you produced, allowing the sales process to go smoothly regardless of differences in language overseas. What came about from these deliberations was the "mark" ("maaku" in Japanese.) In a way, we can call this the progenitor for modern branding in Japan. It'd even be fair to say that if it weren't for the export of mahobin overseas, the elephant mascot of Zojirushi (whose name literally means "elephant-mark") would've never been created.
The Founding of Zojirushi Corporation
The Zojirushi Corporation first arose in 1918 as the Ishikawa Brothers Trading Company. As you'd expect from the name, it was founded by brothers Ginzaburo and Kinsaburo Ichikawa, who started their enterprise in Nishi-ku's Kujo. The younger brother Kinsaburo was a lightbulb craftsman who had also manufactured bottles with his fellow artisans; the older brother Ginzaburo knew his brother was passionate about vacuum flasks and decided they'd start producing mahobin. Ginzaburo took care of sales and Kinsaburo production: The little inner city workshop they started was the first incarnation of Zojirushi. At first, they only worked on making bottles, but later on they created an assembly plant and started in earnest toward becoming an export-oriented mahobin wholesaler. Unlike with the bottle production they'd been engaging in previously, as a mahobin wholesaler they were now faced with the need to create some sort of trademark, for reasons mentioned earlier. What they came up with was a crowned elephant, which would, in time, be used as the basis for the now-familiar elephant mark. This was registered as a trademark under the name "Elephant and Crown." The style and feel of the elephant has changed with the times, but the elephant itself has persisted for generations as a well-known symbol. In fact, as the company went through its various name changes, from Kyowa Manufacturing Co., Ltd. to Kyowa Mahobin Manufacturing, it finally settled on using its corporate mark as the basis for its name: Zojirushi Mahobin Kabushikigaisha (translated into English: "Elephant Mark Vacuum Flask Corporation.") This change happened in 1961.
Turning Points for Mahobin Production
Entering into the post-war boom, exports decreased even as sales domestically were on the rise. However, up until now the company had continued to use hand-blown bottles to create mahobin. In light of increasing demand, automated bottle production became a crucial issue, so the company independently developed its own automatic bottle facilities. Successes in development allowed the mass manufacturing of consistently-sized bottles, leading to decreased prices and increased popularity across the whole nation.
A Variety of Massively Popular Mahobin Products
Mahobin production was halted during WW II, and until the post-war restructuring of business and industry the popular items were portable and handheld vacuum flasks; the switchover to tabletop models called "pots" (like pot of tea, not pot of soup) didn't come until afterwards. It was around then that Zojirushi came out with the Pelican Pot. The name came from the resemblance the top of the flask had to a pelican's beak. Sales were excellent, and the product was popular enough to stay on the market from 1948 to 1956. The Pelican Pot's design imitated European-style carafes and water pitchers, but management at the time wasn't even remotely satisfied with simply selling an imitation, regardless of how successful it might've been as a product.
Now is the era of design, even for mahobin!"—under this banner, the company held a design contest (a rare move at the time), and in 1956 the Super Pot was born. Unusual for the era, the flask's body was entirely plastic; however, the novelty of the design and the high production costs presented various problems, preventing it from being a true hit product. However, the company would not veer from a mindset of creating products with a keen eye to innovative design, and in 1963 Zojirushi released the Hi-Pot Z, a massively popular item with an automatic valve that let users simply tilt the flask to pour out hot water. This is the product that helped catapult the company to the top of the industry.
The next big hit came in 1967 with their floral print flask. It made a big splash with housewives, who were delighted to add a little festiveness to their drab kitchen tables. It was around this time that Zojirushi took its place at number one for mahobin production in Japan. On a note, did you know that floral print sells well during times of economic stagnation but falls off during bubble boom economies? When the world starts to feel like a dark and dreary place, people want to bring in a little light, but what's really fascinating is that this psychology is reflected in something as minor as floral print patterns on flasks.
In 1973, the company began selling the AirPot Osu Dake ("osu dake" means "push-only"), which as the name suggests allows users to simply push to get hot water: no lifting, no tilting.
Later in 1983, sales began on the Osu Dake Pot Mieru, where the water level was visible at a glance ("mieru" means "to be visible.") This was also quite a popular offering. Though we take it for granted nowadays that we can check how much is left in a water boiler or coffee dispenser with just a glance, small steps like this one that a company takes to make life easier for customers are what create the convenience we enjoy every day. Really, you can't help but be impressed.
Following on the incredible popularity of the 1963 Hi-Pot Z models, Zojirushi continued to release hit products into the market, securing their position at the very apex of the industry. To think, this all started with that first tabletop mahobin flask. However, it's precisely this kind of corporate spirit, one that doesn't rest on its (high-selling) laurels but rises to the challenge of developing original design, that allowed Zojirushi Corporation to push to the peak of its industry. That business philosophy has been passed down the generations and is continued to this very day.
From Mahobin Maker to Comprehensive Manufacturer of Everyday Goods
If vacuum technology was Zojirushi's flagship product, then it must be said that developing a cook-and-keep-warm rice cooker was a major game changer for the company. The glass mahobin used until then to keep rice warm had a number of fatal flaws: They didn't do a great job retaining heat, often smelled unpleasantly of old rice the next day, and, worst of all, were very fragile. With a foundation set on the novel idea of "use what's good," the company introduced their electric-assisted heat retention method into this context. The development of this new product was a provocation issued to the gargantuan appliance manufacturing industry and its powerful, well-established sales channels: For Zojirushi, it was the decision of a lifetime and a massive gamble. This boldness paid off and became the impetus for the company to transition to a comprehensive daily goods manufacturer involved in vacuum heat retention and other new enterprises.
The Era of Lightweight Mahobin
The classic vacuum flask had a central bottle made of glass—it was both traditional and plain common sense. The reason is, at the time it was difficult to find another material that could match glass's performance as the central bottle in a mahobin. However, as mahobin technology matured, there was a growing need to make new developments and go beyond using glass as a material. Though the company tried to make a stainless steel vacuum flask, prices were astronomical in comparison with glass, and at the time it didn't spread. Also, there were fears that introducing a mahobin made of stainless steel into the market would disrupt sales of the company's own glass mahobin, so for the time being the idea was shelved. However, other companies were quick to switch over to stainless steel, which acted as Zojirushi's impetus to once again apply itself to the development of a high quality product. In 1981, the Stainless Thermos Toughboy was completed. The company expanded the product line, and though the vacuum chamber thickness was 3.5 mm at first, the introduction of a slit design shaved that down to 1.1 mm. With that, a more compact and lightweight item was achieved.
Carrying around a mahobin allows for the reduction of plastic bottle/paper cup waste and eliminates the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from disposal of that waste. Providing to the new, more ecology-oriented times in a world that's reconsidered the practicality of having your own beverage container, Zojirushi has been bolstered by the need for stainless steel mahobin and now counts that product series as cornerstone items.
Zojirushi Products Overseas
Even among the Japanese products exported overseas (which are known globally for their exceptionally high quality), one that has a particularly high rate of export is mahobin. Though the era when most mahobin were produced for overseas export is long past, the need for vacuum flasks is still quite high in countries like Thailand and the nations of the Middle East. Rice cookers exported from Japan are also quite popular in China. Over in the States, Zojirushi's Thermal Gravity Beverage Dispenser (AY-AE and SY-AA models) was an update on the Mieru Pot Ichioshi (VYA model), an inverted mahobin characterized by its single-push coffee pour. This American model boasts brisk sales and is a common sight at self-serve coffee stands and coffee service setups in offices. For Japanese technology to make the leap over the ocean and be treasured by people across the world is a point of pride for the nation.
The Future of the Zojirushi Corporation
Zojirushi has developed from a maker of mahobin to one of appliances for everyday life and beyond: In fact, it now uses its vacuum technology in collaboration with other spheres. This technology goes beyond home appliances and can be leveraged in many different industrial domains. One of these is space exploration. The leap from the home to outer space may seem a bit drastic, but the connection lies with the development of a mahobin that can withstand the demands of outer space. You might ask yourself, "Is a vacuum bottle for space exploration really that special?" It really is. If you want to know how special, think of what a mahobin that can withstand 40 g of acceleration would be like. But 40 g (40 times Earth's gravity) isn't that much... is it? To give you an idea, when a jet fighter alights on a standard aircraft carrier, around 7 g of force is generated. Now imagine almost six times that force, and you'll understand exactly how harsh the environment is for which Zojirushi is producing mahobin.
Another field the company is working with for product development is sports. It made the stainless-steel bottle used by the long-distance runner Mizuki Noguchi when she took home gold during the 2004 Olympics in Athens not so very long ago. Carrying the drinking water that hydrated her during her run, this bottle was a work of craft that kept the liquid temperature at 10° C (50° F). It did its job perfectly, enough for Noguchi herself to say, "This bottle saved me."
Let's turn our attention to Hokkaido, Japan's most northerly prefecture. In the winters there, it gets cold enough to freeze water pipes. Vacuum technology is also sold to play a role here: Integrated into the water valves, it insulates plumbing from the cold air outside and prevents pipes from freezing in mid-winter.
Having Fun After Touring the Mahobin Museum
Once you've had a look around the Mahobin Museum, make sure to head over to Osaka Tenman-gu Shrine and check out the memorial stone carved with the words, "The Birthplace of Glass."
When all is said and done, this really was where the mahobin got its start. Of course, once you've seen the memorial stone, stop in at the shrine and give your respects. Osaka Tenman-gu Shrine houses the spirit of the Heian noble Sugawara no Michizane (845 – 903), who was deified as the Japanese god of learning, Tenman. Beautiful, fragrant plum blossoms (a favorite of Michizane's) flower here in February, and the shrine is a popular place for students preparing for exams or company employees taking qualification tests to come and offer their prayers for success.
After visiting the shrine, make a stop at the nearby Tenman Tenjin Hanjotei, a variety theater dedicated to the Kamigata-style rakugo comedy of Osaka and Kyoto. Osaka is the home of comedy in Japan, so what could be better to do while in the city than go get caught up in some quality comedy?
If you want to do some shopping and grab some souvenirs, stop by Wadaman, the sesame seed company famous for their kingoma golden sesame. Their cozy little shop packs its shelves with all sorts of great finds, including oil made from precious Japanese-grown sesame and delicious sesame-based sweets and snacks. It's definitely a top recommendation!
Also, since you've made the trip out to the area, you'll definitely have to stop at Tenjimbashi-suji Shotengai, a covered shopping arcade filled with unique personality. As you'd expect for a shopping district that can boast the greatest straight-line length in Japan, there's an incredible number of shops here with great deals on both food and goods.
You'll find Japan's popular "one-coin" (that is, one ¥500 coin) deals here as well as boutiques that offer ¥100 limited-time sales.
One food item that's undergone a boom in Tenjimbashi-suji Shotengai lately is taiyaki, a classic Japanese treat where pancake-like batter is filled with red bean paste (or other fillings) and grilled to perfection in a fish-shaped mold.
While you're out shopping, be sure to stop at one of the taiyaki shops dotting the arcade and grab yourself a sweet, crispy, thin-skinned taiyaki pastry.
Study hard, play hard"—with those wise words in mind, after you've learned all about mahobin make sure to head out and have some fun in the Tenma neighborhood, where there's no lack of things to try!