The Role of Natto in Society
Prior to the Edo period (which began in 1603), natto was something that people naturally made at home rather than something they purchased. Over time, people in remote areas maintained this trend, but in cities such as Edo, natto became something that people bought from natto vendors.
Natto vendors walked around with buckets or bamboo draining baskets containing natto, which they would ladle out and sell to people. They were a common sight in the mornings in Edo.
Up to that time, natto was principally eaten in soup. But in the latter part of the Edo period, the custom of eating natto on top of freshly cooked rice became established.
No doubt the freshly made natto looked very lustrous and delicious, so it would be a waste to put it in soup — it would surely be delicious on top of freshly cooked rice! There are no records, so we do not know for certain whether Edo people felt this way, but it certainly sounds reasonable.
From home-cooked to purchased, from an ingredient in soup to a topping for rice...
...the social transformation of natto began in the Edo period.
Prior to the Meiji Period (after 1800)
The manner of selling natto that began in the Edo period — ladling it out from a bucket or bamboo draining basket — began to decline after the start of the Meiji period.
This occurred because the principal method of selling natto changed to straw bundles.
A textbook published in the Meiji period describes a competition between a young girl selling straw bundles containing natto and an old woman selling natto out of a bucket.
Meiji Period (in the first half of the 1900s)
In 1905, Makoto Sawamura, Professor of Agriculture at The University of Tokyo, made a discovery that would later revolutionize the production of natto. This was the discovery of the natto bacillus. Sawamura extracted the natto bacillus from natto and determined that it was a member of the genus Bacillus.
Subsequently, in 1912, Shunsuke Matsumura, Doctor of Agriculture at Morioka Agricultural College, developed a way to separate only the healthy strains from the natto bacillus and gather them together. He sold the natto that he made using these separated elite strains on the college campus, and it received a favorable reaction.
Taisho and Early Showa Periods
In 1919, Jun Hanzawa, Doctor of Agriculture at Hokkaido University, developed a good quality container to use in place of straw bundles, and he proposed a new production method using pure cultured bacillus. It is no exaggeration to say that at this point the modern manufacturing technologies for producing natto were almost complete.
Let's turn our attention to the method by which natto was sold.
When construction of the Mito Station building in Ibaraki Prefecture had been completed, a manufacturer that had been selling natto as a gift item in front of the station since the Meiji period built a space to sell natto on the Tokyo-bound platform. This was a brilliant idea and proved to be a big hit.
The natto became very popular with tourists going home from Kairakuen, one of the three great gardens of Japan, and the association of Mito with natto became firmly established. Naturally, the success of Mito natto is not unrelated to the fact that the ultra-small soybeans grown in this region are delicious.
This happened around 1936.