The Illicit Postwar Ramen Trade

Ramen is popularly known around the globe as a Japanese noodle soup made with wheat noodles, a tasty broth, and toppings.

Ramen noodles.| Young Sok Yun 윤영석

Depending on the type of ramen, it is topped with sliced pork (チャーシュー chāshū), green onions, or dried seaweed. Ramen (ラーメン) is synonymous with Japan and has caught the world by storm. Its delicious broth takes hours to make, along with all the other ingredients when put together, makes one hearty and mouthwatering dish. Ramen was originally from China and was brought to Japan by Chinese immigrants during the Meiji Period. It was initially made with Chinese noodles in broth, topped with Chinese-style pork. Over the years, traditional aspects of Japanese cooking and taste have made their ramen unique.

Japan recorded its worst rice harvest in December of 1945. Japan’s wartime colonies China and Taiwan also suffered from agricultural losses which drastically reduced the production of rice.

Ramen.| Alper Çuğun

This led to the popularity of wheat noodles amongst the Japanese. Post World War II, with the American military occupying the country, the food shortage was addressed by heavy importation of wheat into Japan. Bread consumption between 1948 to 1951 increased from 262,121 tons to 611,784 tons. Wheat was not only used for bread, but also found its way in ramen noodles which most Japanese ate at illegal market food stall. The black market already existed during the war but it became even more essential after it, and the years of American occupation. The government food distribution system usually ran behind schedule by 20 days, many people lived off the black market to survive.

It was unlawful to buy or sell restaurant food during the period of occupation in Japan. The Japanese government during wartime had placed a ban on outdoor vending to control rationing.

Ramen stall.| David Pursehouse

The Americans merely maintained this policy. Flour for ramen was then secretly diverted from flour milling companies to the black markets, where most stalls were controlled by the yakuza (Japanese mafia). By October of 1945, Tokyo was the home of the most popular black market in Japan, Ameyokocho. It had thousands of black market stalls underneath a train line right at the center of the city. Ramen was one of the most coveted black market item. Who ever knew that it would be illegal to enjoy a steaming and scrumptious bowl of ramen.