How hyper-realistic plastic food became a $90 million industry in Japan
- Plastic food makes Japan a lot of money - the country's fake food industry is worth approximately $90 million.
- Hyper-realistic food samples, or "sampuru," are handcrafted by skilled artisans and displayed in restaurant windows, movies, souvenir shops, and even classrooms.
- A full sampuru entree can take up to a week to craft and small items can take an entire day.
- Watch the video above to learn how artisans make each dish by hand.
Narrator: Walking the streets of Japan, you'll notice that almost every restaurant has glistening, perfectly plated food tempting you from their window. It looks mouthwatering, but you can't actually eat it. It's all fake. These deceptive dishes are called sampuru, from the word "sample." The fake foods are made of plastic, and to this day each one is crafted by hand.
Fumio Morino: Food samples give a 3D picture of what the foods look like. This, along with the historical background of artificial food samples, has allowed them to become widespread.
Narrator: Sampuru is so lucrative, the industry is estimated to be worth $90 million in Japan alone. But let's take a step back and see how they make plastic look good enough to eat. At the Morino Sample Workshop in Osaka, artisans have been making sampuru for 45 years. Fourteen artisans make all of the food samples shipped worldwide for the company Fake Food Japan. They specialize in sushi, tempura, and ramen, but they can custom-make just about anything you can dream up. Beer, ice cream, pizza, burgers. To craft sample food, first the artisans have to get a mold of the real thing. Usually, that means a restaurant will have to freeze the real food and ship it to the workshop.Morino: Casting molds from real foods allows us to copy the fine bumps and depressions along the food's surface. We then color the molds in order to bring out realistic food textures.
Narrator: Once they've got a mold, it's filled with liquid PVC plastic and baked up to 338 degrees. The sample is brought to life with airbrushing and paint, and finally it's plated. Some smaller models can take a day to make, while entire entrees can take up to a week.
Narrator: Because of the detail in each food sample, artisans say it takes up to 10 years to perfect the craft. But don't be fooled, while they might look like affordable eats, sampuru will set you back a pretty penny. These imitations can cost up to 10 times the real food they represent. This mug of beer costs $74, a bowl of ramen costs 109, and an intricate tray of sushi will set you back a whopping $511.
Justin Hanus: The level of difficulty in reproducing it, that is solely the cost. Just based on the fact that the ingredients and the way it's presented just creates so much more and a level of difficulty for the artist to reproduce it.
Narrator: It's said that fake food production began in the 1930s with Takizo Iwasaki, an artisan from Gujo Hachiman. Story goes, he made an omelet out of wax that was so realistic his wife couldn't tell it apart from the real thing. He would go on to start one of the biggest plastic food manufacturers in Japan that now controls an estimated 60% of the fake food market. By the 1950s, fake food had caught a wave of popularity.
Hanus: However, what really boosted the business was during World War II, from what I've been told, when a lot of the American servicemen were stationed here and they couldn't obviously read the Japanese menus and there weren't any photos on the menus, so then let's have a visual representation to show people what we actually have on our menu.Narrator: Today, even in an era of online menus, food blogs, and Yelp reviews, these plastic food samples aren't going anywhere. Sampuru has landed on the big screen, in classrooms, and souvenir shops, and, of course, in restaurant windows. As mass tourism has exploded in Japan, sampuru has served as an invaluable tool for foreigners across language barriers. Even if they don't know any Japanese, they can just point at what they want to eat.
Hanus: It's something that's very unique to this country, something that's been around for going on now, you know, almost 100 years and it still survived.
Narrator: Its significance in Japanese culture can be seen on literally every corner, but it's the skill behind the sampuru art form that keeps us salivating.