An unusual kitchen gadget has won hearts across thousands of Japanese homes: single-serving rice cookers.
The appliance, which is the size of a tissue box, is a proud product of a Japanese movement that lauds “quality me time,” targeting a growing number of people who live alone in the country.
“It’s the perfect product for me,” Yoshi Ikeda, an office worker, told VICE World News. “I live alone, so it’s a really useful tool.”
Demand for these kitchen utensils has surged during the coronavirus crisis as social distancing measures force many to stay home instead of dining out with friends. But the trend is also a reminder of how the pandemic could exacerbate a sense of isolation, especially in a country where more than one in three people live by themselves.
Almost 35 percent of the Japanese population lived in single households in 2015, according to the latest census. By comparison, in the U.S. and U.K., 28% and 30% of households were single-person in that same year, respectively.
The Japanese government has expressed worries that the pandemic would hit the 44 million people who live alone particularly hard, with some officials drawing a link between loneliness and suicide rates, which have increased for the fifth straight month.
The rising number of people who live by themselves is reflected in the growing selection of products catering to their needs—and palates.
Late last year, Japanese homeware maker Thanko released a two-tiered single-serving bento box-turned-rice cooker that has gripped the solo community. Designed to cook a single serving at a time, the rice cooker promises to make stale leftover rice a thing of the past.
Lisa Kobayashi, a businesswoman in her thirties, bought one for her uncle, who lives by himself. “I wanted him to eat freshly cooked rice for a change and now he can.”
Thanko’s two-tiered wonder launched on December 14. Since then, the company has made over 50,000 sales. A stack of these would be taller than Mount Fuji, the company said.
Other single-sized cookware includes meat grills, fondue pots, takoyaki (octopus-filled balls) makers and hotplates. The solo trend has even been spotted in furniture, as single-sized kotatsu (low-table covered by blanket) has become commonplace in tiny studio apartments.
Restaurants, too, have taken note of this movement, called ohitorisama (for one person).
On Tuesday last week, Pizza Hut launched a pizza set called “My Box,” which features a mini-pizza, french fries and chicken nuggets for the price of 700 yen ($6.7). The company said it wanted to “provide an affordable set that makes even eating alone enjoyable.”
During its test launch in November, the campaign was so popular that it recorded three times as many sales as any previous Pizza Hut promotions in Japan.
More people live alone in Japan than in any other Asian countries, a phenomenon social scientists attribute in part to increased lifespans and falling marriage rates. Researchers have also noted a link between a country’s wealth and the share of its population who lives alone.
In the U.S., for example, the proportion of adults who live by themselves almost doubled over the last five decades. In some Scandinavian cities, people who live alone are the majority.
As the coronavirus continues its relentless spread across Japan, the likelihood of sharing meals in the near future appears limited.
Last week, Japan banned all foreign visitors in response to record numbers of daily new COVID-19 cases. By Monday, it has reported more than 320,000 infections and 4,400 deaths. Authorities have declared a state of emergency in 11 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, including Tokyo.