Soy sauce is one of most well known condiments in Japan. Although it is often seen being paired with sushi, it is also used as a seasoning in Sukiyaki and many other Japanese dishes. While soy sauce can be found in nearly every household all over Japan, it is mainly produced in the Chiba, Hyogo, and Kagawa prefectures. Find out what makes the soy sauce from each area different as we look into the history of this savory condiment.
The History of Soy Sauce
Soy sauce with sushi/Soy sauce with sushi
The prototype of soy sauce is said to be the “hishio/jiang” soy paste that is recorded in the ancient Chinese book, Rites of Zhou.
Hishio was the generic name given to preserved foods at the time. There were three types: vegetable “kusabishio,” meat “shishibishio,” and grain “kokubishio.” The vegetable type became “tsukemono,” the meat type is related to “shiokara,” and the grain type led to what we know today as soy sauce.
The Nara Period (AD 710 - 794)
Soybeans and Miso / Soybeans and Miso
During the Nara period, fermented food began being produced the production of fermented foods began in Japan as Chinese culture was introduced.
When it came to Japan, hishio developed rapidly and grew in variety. Raw ingredients now included soybeans, rice, and barley. However, during the Nara period, the common people’s main condiment was salt, and hishio was a luxury item used by the upper class
The Heian Period (794 - 1185)
Six condiments / Condiments
As techniques were finessed in the Heian period, hishio transformed from a paste to a liquid.
At meal times, four condiments were presented and diners could choose whichever they liked to flavor their food. The four were: salt, sake, vinegar, and hishio. They were considered very precious, especially sake and hishio.
The Kamakura Period (1185 - 1333)
Until the Kamakura period, soybeans were mainly produced in western Japan. With the development of agriculture, soybeans began to be cultivated started to cultivate all over Japan.
This is also the period when people start using “tamari,” a new condiment. In the process of making miso, one of the varieties kinds of hishio, a liquid is pooled at the bottom of the pail. This liquid, Tamari, is where Japanese soy sauce comes from.
The Muromachi Period (1336 - 1573)
By the middle of the Muromachi period, the type of soy sauce being made was became very similar to what we know today. This is also when the Japanese word for soy sauce “shoyu” was born. It was first documented in 1597 in “Ekirinbon Setsuyōshū,” a collection of words for everyday use.
Towards the end of the Muromachi period, soy sauce production was thriving and industrialization began in the Kansai region(the cultural center at the the time).
The Edo Period (1603 - 1868)
Zaru soba (cold soba noodles) / Zaru soba (cold soba noodles)
As industrial production began in the Edo Period, the ingredient barley was replaced by wheat. This how the “koikuchi” or the regular, dark soy sauce was mass produced and spread.
The food industry also thrived as foods using soy sauce like tempura, soba, kabayaki(an eel dish) grew popular. The koikuchi soy sauce was made to suit the palates of the Edo people, and used throughout the Kanto region.
The Meiji Era (1868 - 1912)
During the Meiji era, sauces and ketchup, which were used as relations with Western cultures, increased in Japan along with the domestic production of these new condiments.
However, soy sauce was already establishing itself as a household item, and in the booming economy after the First World War, production numbers soared. The people needed soy sauce, and mass production of it grew similar to recent times.
The Showa Era (1926 - 1989)
After the Second World War, soy sauce became a rationed item because of a lack of resource.
However, soy sauce production was renewed with considerable technological innovation with man power being replaced by machines.
Soy Sauce Today
Today, soy sauce of consistent, high quality is mass produced and distributed not only all over in Japan, but all over the world, including the United States, China, Australia and others. The condiment is now enjoyed globally after being perfected for over many years.
The Three Major Soy Sauce Regions
Soy sauce is made all over Japan, but Chiba prefecture, Hyogo prefecture, and Shōdo Island of Kagawa prefecture are the most well known for it.
Here are some of the characteristics of the soy sauce from these areas.
Soy sauce vats/ Soy sauce vats
About one third of Japan’s soy sauce is made in Chiba prefecture, home to well-known brands, Kikkoman and Yamasa.
Soy sauce production in Chiba traces back to the Edo period. Two towns that have since become famous for soy sauce are Choshi and Noda. One thing the two towns have in common is their proximity to a large river, the Edogawa and the Rinegawa. Using the river channels, they were able to easily get the raw ingredients and also transport the finished soy sauce to Edo city leading to their growth.
Most of the soy sauce made in Chiba is the koikuchi type that makes up 80% of Japan’s soy sauce consumption.
Soy sauces of various concentrations / Soy sauces of various concentrations
Hyogo prefecture is known for its Usukuchi (light colored) soy sauce. In particular, Tatsuno city, located to the west of the Harima Plain in Western Hyogo, is a major producer.
Half of all the soy sauce in Japan are made in Hyogo and Chiba with Hyogo producing roughly 15%.
The usukuchi soy sauce made in Hyogo is used in cooking because of its light color which allows the colors of the food ingredients to look and taste great. At first, the regular koikuchi soy sauce was made, but they switched to usukuchi during the Edo period.
The plentiful wheat of the Harima Plain, the quality soybeans from the mountain region, salt from Akō, and pure water with little iron all were best suited for making usukuchi soy sauce.
Today, Higashimaru, one of the five major soy sauce companies, is located in Tatsuno city.
Shōdo Island, Kagawa
Wooden soy sauce vats/ Wooden soy sauce vats
Kagawa prefecture’s Shōdo Island has the most wooden soy sauce vats. Today, the traditional process makes up less than 1% of the total soy sauce production, but until the Edo period all the ingredients were fermented in wooden vats.
Surrounded by ocean, Shōdo Island’s salt production had always been flourishing, but as too much was made all over the Seto sea area, soy sauce production began to make use of the salt soy sauce.
The temperate climate here is well suited to for fermenting the essential malt-like ingredient kōji. then across the sea is Osaka, where food from all over Japan is gathered, and soybeans and wheat were easily available from North Kyūshū. The combination of these conditions combined led to the growth of soy sauce production on Shōdo Island.
Today, one of the five major soy sauce brands, Marukin, is based here.
Visit a Soy Sauce Factory
Now that you know the history behind soy sauce, why not see for yourself how it’s made? There are factory tours in each of the above areas above, where you can see the process behind this popular condiment. Next time you have some soy sauce, you can check to see where it’s from and remember the history behind it’s great taste!