In less than one week in early November, what would normally be an insignificant photo on Twitter Japan of a somewhat plain tofu shop in Chiba (near Tokyo) has amassed almost 2 million likes. Why? It is because of the unique yet subtle design that has been built into the rooftop design of this local, 4th generation neighborhood tofu shop, which has been in continuous operation since 1909.
The word in Japanese for “tofu” is normally written by combining two Chinese characters that literally mean “fermented beans.” In this case, though, the store front cryptically features 10 “letters” written in the Japanese phonetic alphabet katakana for the sound “fu” (sounds like “foo” in English).
「豆腐」 vs. 「フ」 written 10 times
Although not intuitive, this design resonates with Japanese people because one of multiple ways in Japanese to say the number 10 is with the sound “to” (sounds like “toe” in English). Thus, when the two elements of the design are put together this play on words comes out phonetically as ten “fu” or what can also be interpreted as the intended phonetic sound of “tofu” …in a stretch.
To fully understand why this makes sense you need to know something about how to read and write Japanese. Suffice to say there are lots of homonyms in Japanese, and Japanese people are fond of word games. It would probably take the average Japanese person a minute or two to comprehend this play on words. When they finally “get it” the reaction would be instantaneous appreciation for the understated ingenuity of whomever first came up with this uncommon design. It would, no doubt, also entice a potential customer to go inside the shop to purchase some tofu! That is, naturally, the ultimate intention behind the playful layout.
A family business…
It turns out that this relatively nondescript tofu shop has been torn down and rebuilt a total of four times since 1909. The same family still runs this tofu stand that was opened by their great, great, great grandparents. The ten “fu” design was, however, only recently incorporated into the building’s architecture about 15 years ago. While this small shop has been serving its immediate neighborhood for more than a century, now it is bound to gain at least more of a regional—if not national–profile since the Tweet went viral.
Mark Kennedy is a native of Chicago who has spent more than 20 years living, studying, and working in Japan. By day he is Country Head - Business Development, Nexdigm - Japan but becomes a writer after work. Mark is a lifelong student of the Japanese language and culture. He loves to travel throughout the country. Mark also is the author behind the "Real Gaijin" Substack, countryroadsjapan.com, as well as the Country Roads Japan and Coastal Sailing Japan YouTube channels. Photo supplied courtesy of the author who had stopped to check out the free-roaming horses and cows about half-way up to the summit of Mt. Aso, an active volcano in the center of Kyushu.