Just as stoves are different in Japan, compared to those in America, so too are ovens. Many of the reasons are the same, but Japan’s history plays its role here too. Japanese ovens are usually small electric affairs rather than built-in behemoths. As with many Japanese appliances, ovens are packed with features. Mine steams, microwaves, grills, and has several oven settings all in one compact box. The size fits with the smaller kitchens and lack of space in some Japanese houses. Since space is at a premium, electronics companies have innovated to bring what would likely be several devices in an American kitchen into one device for Japan.
Aside from space requirements, why can most Japanese people get away with a smaller oven, if they even have one at all? It’s because Japanese cooking is so different from that of the west. Japanese food requires far less baking than we see in western cooking. As an island nation, Japan has always had limited space. Its mountainous terrain further limited areas suitable for agriculture. Conversely, much of Japan has ample rainfall making it easier to irrigate fields for water hungry plants. As it has done throughout history, Japan learned of rice cultivation from China, and then adopted it for itself. Rice cultivation turned the Japanese from nomads to village dwellers, and eventually into an Empire. Rice became such a stable of the Japanese diet that for much of the history of Japan it was currency, wages, and life.
Rice required no stone ovens, simply an open flame and a pot. Other grains were grown, but they were mostly for animals and the poor. When not eaten mixed with rice, they became noodles or at most were fried as tempura. Nearly all Japanese cooking could be made over the simple fires available. Though much has changed, Japanese food still retains its ancient characteristics, and its dependence on rice. While it is hard to define a cuisine, its hard to think of a proper Japanese meal without a bowl of rice, or at least noodle. So if the majority of food that is cooked in Japanese kitchens still does not require an oven, why would even the affluent give over such a large portion of their limited kitchen space and budget to a contraption they might only use occasionally? They wouldn’t, and they don’t.
Where Ovens are the center of an American kitchen, with ever newer features such as convection cooking and self-cleaning settings, Japanese companies are ever striving to differentiate their rice cookers with features and quality. If you go into a Japanese store, often one whole area will be devoted to just rice cookers. They range in size, price, and features but they all make great rice. They can even be used to bake cakes and other foods since they are essentially small pressurized ovens, with a single removable pan . In some ways they can even cook better than ovens since they are designed to heat evenly over the entire metal insert.
Portable, relatively automatic, and essential to cooking the main ingredient in many Japanese dishes, the Rice cooker is probably one of the top three most common Japanese appliances.
A Few More Things Japanese
Just because rice is so ‘Japanese’ doesn’t mean other western foods aren’t consumed in copious amounts in Japan. Instead of making bread or cookies at home, Japanese people are more likely to simply buy them, or find a more Japanese way of cooking them. Also, portions tend to be smaller, as do families, so smaller Japanese ovens still get the job done.
Another hold over from historic Japan still shows through to today. Without refrigerators, and with much of Japan being hot and humid, food would not last long. Shopping was done almost daily for the food that would be consumed that day (or it was taken from the garden) so less was cooked and there were fewer leftovers to be reheated. This tradition still carries on today, where Japanese shoppers are more likely to shop for less more often, have smaller refrigerators (again space is limited) and thus cook less than their American counterparts.
Japanese culture, and the way kitchens are used also have their roles to play in what and how food is made. The difference in cultures lead to unique requirements and features that reflect the way we live.