News from Japan
The advent of microwave ovens in the 1960s transformed the atmosphere of Japanese cuisine. These devices also introduced new words into the culinary lexicon, such as the word “chen”, which refers to the bell from the timekeeping indicator of early models.
Microwave ovens have become such a big part of our daily lives, yet few people think about the sounds or tones they emit. An electric microwave usually emits a certain beep or tone when cooking is completed. As for the older generations, they may recall early primitive devices that made a loud and specific ringtone. In Japanese, this sound, referred to as onomatopoeia, “chen”, is closely related to microwaves and comes from words such as “richen” and “chen soro”, which means to heat something in a microwave.
The first company in Japan to offer microwave ovens with bells was Hayakawa Electrical Appliances, the predecessor of today’s Sharp. We spoke with a company representative to talk about the evolution of microwave ovens and the return of iconic Chen models.
According to Sharp, the comments from professional chefs were the inspiration for the idea of a microwave oven timer bell. The first Sharp model, launched in 1962, was not ringing, which made it necessary for users to visually check whether the appliance had finished cooking or heating. So chefs often complained that they had accidentally forgotten about microwave food during busy periods in the kitchen, but found that the dishes became cold and tasteless. They argued that there had to be a safe way to know that the equipment had done its job.
The engineers solved the problem and through several stages of trial and error they decided to use a bicycle bell. A member of the design team came up with the idea during a leisurely ride, noting that bicycle bells can be clearly heard leaving other sounds around in the shadows. Therefore, Sharp released its first ‘Chen’ (resonance) model in 1976 and a home version the following year.
Change the tone of voice
The idea of noise equipment was quite simple and worked on the same principle as the counter. When the oven number reaches zero, the bell rings, already familiar with the familiar ‘chen’ sound to notify the food processor that the microwave oven is finished. Although electronic sounds have largely replaced bell sounds, devices such as dryer ovens still retain the familiar ringtone.
According to Sharp, terms such as “chin soro” associated with microwave ovens appeared in Japan due to the widespread use of frozen and processed foods. Television commercials helped to spread new words among families, and over time they entered the lexicon of Japanese cuisine.
With advances in technology, methods for controlling the operation of microwave ovens have become increasingly sophisticated. About 40 years ago, Sharp switched from bells to electric bells, then electronic tones and whistles. In addition to offering more cooking options, advanced models allowed consumers to choose from a selection of tones and adjust things such as sound length and pitch according to preferences or needs.
Revival of early models
In 2018, Sharp rang the bell to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original microwave ovens with bells to celebrate the history of the innovative device. Instead of an analog timer, the company has started adding an electronic ‘Chen’ sound to the Hellseo AX series steam oven options, which cook in a high temperature steam system.
Early-model microwave oven bells may be a thing of the past, but even young chefs may enjoy listening to the original ancient “chen” sound when preparing meals.
(Originally published in Japanese on Prime Online by Fuji News Network on May 4, 2022. English translation by Nippon.com staff. All photos are provided by Sharp.)
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