Don’t Eat That : Fake Food in Japan

Have you ever sat down to eat at a restaurant, saw your friend’s dish arrive, and then thought, oh, I wish I had ordered that instead? Then perhaps it would have been helpful to see a fake food sample before ordering – aka the menu in the form of hyper realistic plastic food. That is exactly what you’ll find on display in restaurants all over Japan. Fake food has a one hundred year history and there’s a whole industry dedicated to it. 

In this article we dive into what fake food is, its history and why it’s so popular. To find out where you can have a go at creating fake food yourself, be sure to stay till the end! 

Jump to:

What is Fake Food?

What Can You Make Into Fake Food?

The History Behind Fake Food in Japan

How did Fake Food Become so Popular

Who is Takizo Iwasaki – the Father of Fake Food?

How is Fake Food Made?

Why Gifu is Famous for Fake Food 

The Art of Fake Food

Experience the Craft of Fake Food Yourself

What is Fake Food?

Fake food could be seen in most restaurants all across Japan | Photo by ludovico di giorgi on Unsplash

Fake food is the name given to food samples, made from either wax or plastic, on display at restaurants across Japan. Fake food emulates the overall look of a dish, right down to the texture, and is famous for its hyper realistic appearance as it’s usually handmade and made to order and so each piece is unique to each restaurant. In other words, you really do get what you see. 

Fake food displays can be found in a display case outside the restaurant next to the name and price of the dish, though they can sometimes be found inside the restaurant too. The fake food samples go by a few names in Japanese, such as 食品サンプル (food sample), 食品模型 (food model) and 料理見本(cooking sample). The sample includes everything included in the dish and can be quite elaborate – you can certainly be fooled into thinking they are real. 

Key Vocabulary

Shokuhin sanpuru
Food sample

Shokuhin mokei
Food mold 

Ryouri mihon
Cooking sample

What Can You Make Into Fake Food?

You can make fake food out of everything. | Photo by ayumi kubo on Unsplash

From realistic, steaming hot bowls of ramen to crispy fried shrimp, when it comes to fake food just about anything is possible. Below we’ve created a list of common fake food items you would likely see in display cabinets alongside their Japanese translations. 

エビ天ぷらebi tempurafried shrimp
そば麺soba mensoba noodles
味噌汁miso shirumiso soup

The History Behind Fake Food in Japan

With around a hundred years of history, fake food in Japan has become an essential tool for many restaurants and its uniqueness in how realistic it looks has made it a special part of Japanese culture. 

1920s – 1930s: Fake Food is Created Using Wax and Agar Molds

Fake food was made from wax at the start! | Image by Freepik

Unfortunately, it is unclear where and exactly when fake food first came from or by whom it was first created. However, it is thought to have come about at the end of the Taisho period and the beginning of the Showa period from various people and places. Its major selling point and reason for introduction was that it came at a time before the development of color photography, so it could be used as a sales tool to entice potential customers to grab a bite to eat at a particular restaurant. Particularly on crowded streets, customers would be much more likely to stop at a restaurant after seeing a tasty-looking, plastic food sample rather than reading the menu. It entertains the popular idea of eating with your eyes first. 

1970s: Fake Food is Made From Plastic instead of Wax 

Nowadays, fake food are made from plastics, and definitely more realistic!

At first fake food was predominantly made from wax but in the 1970s, artisans in the fake food industry began to switch to plastic instead of wax. This was after reported incidences of wax molds melting in display cases exposed to direct sunlight and melted vegetables didn’t quite have the same appeal… Resin, on the other hand, is far more durable and the use of silicone further enabled artisans to express even the finest of details in their fake food samples. Now, non-biodegradable PVC plastic (Polyvinyl Chloride) is used which is very robust and keeps for decades. 

How did Fake Food Become so Popular?  

Fake food is not only eye pleasing, but it also breaks the language barrier | Photo by Caroline Roose on Unsplash

It is thought that fake food became popular after being displayed at a department store in Osaka. Here, the display of fake food streamlined the ordering process, increased customer turnover and its efficiency led to a four-fold increase in sales. It was at this point in time that fake food defined itself not only as a way to convey the contents of a dish, but also as a sales promotion tool. From there, the fake food industry boomed and many restaurants adopted it in their displays. Nowadays, small fake food models on keychains and magnets can be bought as souvenirs as the business gains popularity with overseas visitors. Furthermore, fake food models can break down the language barrier that many tourists face when they visit Japan and can make choosing a meal a much less complicated process. 

Who is Takizo Iwasaki – the Father of Fake Food?

Fun fact, the first fake food he made was Omelette! | Image by Kanesue, CC by 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

From a small town called Guji Hachiman in the Gifu prefecture, Takizo Iwasaki, who would later be named “the father of fake food” created the first ever hyper realistic fake food item – omelet rice in the early 1930s. His inspiration came from a memory from his childhood, a time when he was fascinated by the way hot candle wax, when poured into cool water, bloomed like a flower. He applied this idea to fake food models and the end result was intricate, hyper realistic food samples. In fact, his wife said that it was so realistic, she could not tell the difference between a real omelet and the wax one! 

How is Fake Food Made?

The more realistic the food, the longer it takes to replicate | Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Small items can take a day to make whereas larger, more complex dishes can take anywhere from a week onward. This is because fake food is always made to order and hand made. Even common dishes that you will find at many restaurants, such as Japanese curry rice, are all unique, as each curry will have a different serving of rice, use a different roux and so the overall appearance of the dish will vary from restaurant to restaurant. The process of making fake food can be divided into four stages.

  1. First, the restaurant has to send pictures of the dish and frozen food samples so that the mold can be made to produce an exact replica of the food served in the restaurant. Non-biodegradable PVC plastic (Polyvinyl Chloride) is then used which is very durable and can produce even the tiniest of details, from dimples on an egg omelet to wrinkles in a leaf of lettuce. 
  2. Next, the colored wax or plastic is prepared.
  3. Then the fake food is molded either using the molds created from step one or carefully by hand. 
  4. Finally, the fake food samples are arranged and set however they would be served at the restaurant and then it is ready for display. 

Did you know that fake food models can be ten to twenty times more expensive than the actual dish! This is because they are hand-made, making them one of a kind. 

Why Gifu is Famous for Fake Food 

Other than fake food, Gifu is also famous for Shirakawa-go | Photo by Laurentiu Morariu on Unsplash

The fake food industry originally boomed in Osaka, but with the onset of World War Two when wax, which is derived from petroleum, was restricted, the art moved with its artists back to their hometown in Gujo Hachiman, Gifu prefecture. There, wax molds for funeral offerings were crafted which kept the industry and craft alive. Nowadays many of the factories that produce fake food can be found in Gujo Hachiman, Gifu, and the factories there still make up more than half of Japan’s fake food. 

The Art of Fake Food

Nowadays, a lot of countries are also displaying fake food on their store! | Photo by Carlo Pentimalli on Unsplash

As fake food samples are now made from durable PVC, it lasts a long time and very rarely needs replacing, meaning that there is less of a demand. However, fake food samples have become a part of Japanese culture, the art is now celebrated by collectors and tourists in the form of keychains, magnets and décor. In addition, by displaying plastic food samples over actual food which quickly deteriorates throughout the day, other countries have shown increasing interest in adopting this practice. With increasing interest from overseas, many fake food factories now offer workshops so visitors can get hands on experience and insight into the art and craft. 

Experience the Craft of Fake Food Yourself

You can make your own fake food with us!

At Coto Academy, with our new culture course, you can dive into four weeks of adventure, a mixture of hands-on experience in Japanese culture alongside Japanese language practice. Included in this course, you can experience making fake food in Asakusa, nearby Kappabashi, Tokyo’s famous kitchen street. It also makes for an amazing souvenir that will capture and preserve delicious Japanese food for many years to come. You sure don’t want to miss this, secure your spot today! 

So, if given the chance, what Japanese fake food would you make?


Q. How many years does it take to master the craft of making fake food?

A. It can take up to 10 years to master the craft of making fake food.  

Q. What is fake food called in Japan?

A. Fake food goes by a few names in Japanese, such as shokuhin sanpuru (food sample), shokuhin mokei (food model) and ryouri mihon (cooking sample) but the easiest one to remember is just sample, pronounced as sanpuru in Japanese. 

Q. Why do Japanese restaurants put food replicas in their display windows?

A. To entice potential customers to eat at their restaurant showcasing what is offered.

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