Not many people know Kenji Ekuan’s name, but there are few who don’t know his work. The designer of the perennial red-topped Kikkoman bottle died on Sunday, says GK Design, the company he founded in 1957. He was 85 years old.
Ekuan also designed Yamaha motorcycles and Japanese bullet trains, but he’s best known for the iconic soy sauce dispenser to be found on restaurant tables and in kitchen cabinets the world over. As a child he recalled his mother handling unwieldy half-gallon bottles of soy sauce; one could say that creating a small, easy-to-pour bottle in 1961 was in part a labor of love.
Photos from the 2014 exhibit “The World of Kenji Ekuan: A great Master of Design, Hiroshima Produced” (courtesy GK Design Group)
Ekuan’s illustrious career was greatly impacted by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. When his father, a Buddhist monk, died of radiation, reports the Guardian, Ekuan became a monk at his father’s temple. But the devastation he witnessed after the bombing eventually led him towards his second career in industrial design.
A view of the sun setting over a burned-out field was the starting point for his career change, according to the Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum, which mounted an exhibit of his work last year. According to an exhibit pamphlet quoted in the Guardian, Ekuan said he heard the voices of abandoned bicycles and broken street cars lamenting that they had not been used more.
Next time you pick up that red-topped bottle, take a moment to think about its creator, a man who looked at destruction and responded with creativity.