Back during the Tokugawa Shogunate, when Edo (now Tokyo) became the most populous place on Earth (with about 1 million people), the demae (which means “delivery men”) — men of great strength, flexibility, and endurance — roamed the streets of the city. On their shoulders were dozens of hot meals which they would have to deliver to the hungry people of Edo before the meals got cold.
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“Basically, you had a lot of urban density and an extremely developed capitalist economy,” says Nick Kapur, an associate professor of history of Japan and East Asia and the author of Japan at the Crossroads: Conflict and Compromise After Anpo. “People had commutes, much like today. They would walk across the city, so they didn’t have time to go back for lunch. A whole restaurant industry evolved to serve these workers.”
Cheap, filling, and nutritious, soba and udon noodles were the preferred foodstuff of the proletariat. A skilled demae could carry dozens of packed soba lunches at once. “Bicycles hadn’t been invented yet, so they would carry these soba trays and bowls in baskets that were hanging down from a pole that they would carry on their shoulders,” Kapur says. “These guys were fast. They would jog through the streets to get the food where it was going while it was still hot.”
When bicycles came into the picture, the demae industry was revolutionized. No longer did the men have to jog. However, because the city was thriving more than ever at that time, there was also more demand for hot noodles.
“You want the noodles to still be hot when you arrive, so speed is of the essence,” says Kapur. “In a lot of cases, they would be carrying lunch to one entire company, so that’s why they’re carrying maybe 20 or 30 portions together.”
In the 1950s, however, automobiles became popular in Japan, and the roads became less friendly toward the demae. Accidents frequently happened with the delivery men. And, in 1961, the government finally intervened by officially banning the use of delivery bikes in the streets of Tokyo. However, the demae carried on with their business, and the police did very little to stop them, as the latter stated that the former “will lose half of their customers” if they became stricter.
Learn more about the story of these legendary men over at Atlas Obscura.
(Image Credit: RIDER GVNG via YouTube)