TOKYO — Kenji Ekuan, a Japanese industrial designer whose instantly recognizable soy sauce bottle — red-capped and elegantly teardrop-shaped — became one of his country’s most ubiquitous postwar exports, died here on Sunday. He was 85.
His death, of heart failure, was confirmed by GK Design Group, which Mr. Ekuan helped found in the 1950s and continued to lead as chairman. He had a form of arrhythmia and had been hospitalized since early this month.
Mr. Ekuan was a prolific and widely lauded designer whose work shaped products closely associated with modern Japan, including Yamaha motorcycles and a bullet train used in the country’s Shinkansen high-speed rail network.
He was also an evangelist for a potent national ethos, combining pacifism and materialism, which Japanembraced after the devastation of World War II. He had witnessed the war’s effects firsthand as a teenager, in his family’s hometown, Hiroshima, days after its destruction by an atomic bomb.
“Faced with that nothingness, I felt a great nostalgia for human culture,” he told The New York Times in 2012.
“I needed something to touch, to look at,” he added. “Right then I decided to be a maker of things.”
Mr. Ekuan had been away at naval college when the bomb struck, but a younger sister was killed. His father, a Buddhist priest who oversaw a temple in the city, died a year later of a radiation-related illness. Mr. Ekuan briefly trained for the priesthood before committing to the world of design.
He retained a philosophical view of his work, however, and of the role of design in general. “The path of Buddha is the path to salvation for all living things, but I realized that, for me, the path to salvation lay in objects,” he wrote in a serialized memoir published in the Japanese daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun in 2002. “Objects have their own world. Making an object means imbuing it with its own spirit.”
Mr. Ekuan’s aesthetic drew on classical Japanese forms as well as Western influences. His family owned a well-known Buddhist painting depicting heaven and hell, which it displayed at the temple in Hiroshima just one day a year. It was destroyed by the bomb along with the temple, but it remained “one of my design ideals,” Mr. Ekuan wrote in his memoir.
He also read “Blondie” comics and admired American inventiveness. The G.I.s in Japan after the war, with their Jeeps and pressed gabardine trousers, were like a “moving exhibition,” he told The Times. At the National University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo, where he enrolled in 1950, he encouraged his fellow students to give shape to a contemporary “Japanese lifestyle.”
Mr. Ekuan won the soy sauce contract, from the Kikkoman Corporation, while still in his 20s. It took him three years and 100 prototypes to come up with a final design for his dispenser, which combined a gracefully curving form with an innovative, dripless spout. More than 300 million of the bottles have been sold.
Mr. Ekuan’s contribution to the bullet train network was a lean, long-nosed version called the Komachi, which began running on the northern Akita Shinkansen branch line in 1997. He also designed the Narita Express shuttle trains that ferry passengers between Tokyo and Narita International Airport.
Mr. Ekuan often worked with advanced technology, but he disliked futurism for its own sake. “When we think of the evolution of design, we might imagine a world where robots are everywhere, but that’s not it,” he told Cinra.net, an online design magazine, in 2013. “The ultimate design is little different from the natural world.”
Kenji Ekuan was born on Sept. 11, 1929, in Tokyo. When he was a year old, he moved with his family to Hawaii, where his father worked as a Buddhist missionary. They returned to Japan when Kenji was 7. He is survived by a brother and a sister.