The Japanese started the practice of using food models (食品サンプル shokuhin sanpuru) to present menus offered at the restaurants. The food models displayed outside of restaurant showcases not only attract customers, they also advertise food menus and whet appetites. They are all handcrafted to the finest detail, and can sometimes look more delicious than what are served on the plate. It is common to see hungry customers moving from one restaurant showcase to another, trying to decide which food model looks the most delicious.
During the Meiji era at the end of the 19th century, Japanese restaurant customers were often confused by the unfamiliar new Western cuisines flooding into Japan. Even with Japanese translations of the menus offered, most customers had no idea what they were ordering. To help, many restaurants used expensive and space-consuming methods of preparing food samples for their customers to see and order. Some restaurants provided detailed drawings or photos to reduce costs. But such one-dimensional presentations just did not whet appetites. Very little change was made from Meiji to Taisho and then Showa era.
The creator of the first food model was an entrepreneur from Gifu prefecture, Takizo Iwasaki. Eager to find his niche in the business world, he left Gifu for Osaka in search of his fortune in 1926 (first year of Showa era). Life was tough for Iwasaki in Osaka until one day, probably while eating rice omelette in a crowded lunch shop, he came up with the idea of food models. He recalled the wax human body on display at many Japanese apothecaries, plus the wax models of fruits and vegetables used in schools to teach nutrition. He believed he could apply such wax modelling to food.
Initially inspired by the shapes formed by candle wax dripping on a tatami mat, Iwasaki finally perfected a wax model of a rice omelette after days of trial and error. Other food models were made in his cramped Osaka apartment. To his joy, many food shops bought his wax food models. The food model concept was an overnight hit. In 1932, Iwasaki founded his company Iwasaki Be-I. Over the past decades, the company faced many industry competitors across Japan. But Iwasaki-Be-I remains the biggest producer of plastic food models to this day, commanding over 50% of the market share.