Many who have stepped foot in Japan will notice the array of displays of food with exceptional detail and texture in glass boxes. The first question that pops into mind is: is it real?

Known as the sanpuru (サンプル, sample) by the Japanese, these food replicas are a glance into what to expect at the restaurant — from the actual bowl to toppings and side dishes included. The details of the food replicas can even boil down to the bubbles of oil in a ramen bowl. If a picture says a thousand words, an actual 3D model of the meal will speak volumes. 

With exquisite detail and deceptively real appearance, the Japanese food replicas should be considered a high-level work of art. Let’s look at the rich history and cultural influence behind these magnificent, delicious samples.  

How did it begin?

Image Credit: Mia Bettolo

The original capital city of Japan, Kyoto, is the birthplace of the very first known plastic food replica. This art dates back to 1916 during the Taisho Period and the mastermind, Sojiro Nishio, who initially created wax sculptures of human body parts for doctors and medical students to use for study. Later on, he was approached by a restaurant to make wax models of their dishes.

Another iconic name linked to the origin of Japanese food replicas is Tsumoto Sudo, an anatomical model maker in Tokyo. Various eateries also approached to create wax models of food and that was when there’s a slight significant boom in the food sample business.

Yet the most famous story is not of the two but of Takizo Iwasaki who called the Gifu prefecture his home. The story is that he had made a wax model of the famous Japanese omelette rice — it was so realistic that his wife and other people who’d seen it couldn’t tell it wasn’t real. The original omuraisu (オムライス, omelette rice) is still on display at his company, Iwasaki-bei. 

The food replica industry only took off in the 1930s, two decades after the first known creator of the “sanpuru”. Some restaurants had the idea of displaying actual foods but then decided to opt for these fake food replicas to keep the pests away.

How is it made?

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Initially, these food replicas are made of wax. Unfortunately, the matter had its weaknesses — wax is not the best matter in heat, and there have been cases where the wax food replicas melted in the showcase when they were under direct sunlight. Later in the 1970s, these wax replicas are now made of resin — it’s durability has significantly improved and opens up more doors for the creative hands to add in miniature details that would’ve been impossible with wax.

The first replica workshop is by the famous creator Iwasaki himself and it is said to be the leading company in the industry, claiming more than half of the Japanese food replica market. Gujo Hachiman and Sample Kobo are close competitors. All three workshops specialise in different types of food replicas, though, but they’re more than capable at replicating anything.

The process of the food replica first requires a mould. As these replica workshops want their crafts to be as detailed as possible, they would request the restaurants to send them a sample — more commonly a real dish frozen and shipped to these workshops. The moulds are filled with PVC, baked at extremely high temperatures and then airbrushed and painted to match the original dishes.

Why does it exist?

The food replicas are without a doubt part of the Japanese’s culture now. Its existence has positively impacted the country in more ways than one — be it as a marketing strategy for the restaurants to draw customers’ attention or even just for its uniqueness alone.

Most diners appreciate the food replicas as it gives an accurate sense of what the meal will look like and the size of it. Most of us are pulled by the sight and smell senses, and having a blown-up menu of 3D food models is more likely for one to be drawn to that eatery.

Many foreigners who have seen it have the link of these food replicas and Japan engraved in their minds, and hence shining the country in a more intriguing light. There has been a continuous buzz on the food replica topic everywhere around the globe, and tourists who come to visit have been known to have “see the Japanese food replica for myself” on their bucket list — if it’s not already a priority, that is.

The wrap-up

At the end of the day, everyone can agree that this groundbreaking creation that began to exist more than a century ago is nothing short of a work of art. Everything from the workmanship and detailed craft to the popular usage and worldwide appreciation calls for endless praises. If this modern-day, food is being replicated in Japan, what other mind-blowing creations can we expect in the future from this innovative country?