MITOKU - Japan's Natural Foods Pioneer
by John Belleme
If you are cooking with a high quality, traditional Japanese food that was made in Japan or drink organic green tea that was grown in Japan, there is about an 80% chance it came from Mitoku Company, Ltd., of Tokyo, Japan. This company has profoundly influenced the eating habits of food conscious Americans and has been very influential in setting the manufacturing standards for Japanese natural and macrobiotic foods made in Japan and other parts of the world. However, the statement "made in Japan" has not always been held in such high esteem. In fact, I am old enough to remember when "made in Japan" was a joke.
After the devastation of World War II, Japan reindustrialized with an eye toward export markets in the United States and Europe. However, Japan's early attempts at exporting consumer goods were tacky and not very good quality. About 35 years ago all that changed. Those remarkable transistor radios you could hold in the palm of your hand appeared first, then tiny tape recorders and "tummy TVs". We began trading in our gas guzzlers for fuel efficient Hondas, and before long, Japanese steakhouse chefs were tossing shrimp into the air with spatulas and catching them in plates behind their backs.
Ironically, about the time Americans and Europeans were warming up to the dazzling array of new high tech consumer goods from Japan, George Ohsawa was roaming the globe preaching his philosophy of yin and yang, an eclectic blend of ancient Shinto, Taoist and Buddhist principles and Oriental medicine, which he called "macrobiotics". In Boston, two of Ohsawa's students, Michio and Tomoko (Aveline) Kushi, were busy teaching macrobiotics to a growing number of students who were drawn to the life changing possibilities of this new way of living.
The Kushi's timing could not have been better. The philosophy of yin and yang attracted people from many walks of life, including hippies, intellectuals, old Bohemians, and people disillusioned with America's materialistic ways. After lecturing for several years, in 1967, the Kushis founded Erewhon, a small Boston natural foods store supplying macrobiotic students with staples such as grains, beans and other basic foods that are part of the dietary recommendations of the macrobiotic way of life. However, the Kushis soon realized that the quality of food needed was not available in the United States. When Michio Kushi discussed his difficulties with an old university friend, his friend remembered a former schoolmate who was now in the import and export business. He thought his business friend in Tokyo, Japan, might be able to help. That man was Akiyoshi Kazama, the founder of Mitoku.
Kazama's business experience in both the United States and Japan made him a prime candidate for the type of partnership Kushi was looking for. A graduate of Waseda University, in Tokyo, Kazama was selected by Yamanashi perfecture, in 1956, to study business in the United States. After arriving in the Chicago area he was placed with a firm, and to his astonishment, learned that one of his coworkers was none other than Iva Togun, "Tokyo Rose", the infamous voice of Radio Tokyo who taunted allied forces in the Pacific during World War II. His relationship with Iva was short-lived, however, because he was immediately drafted into the American Army and earned the dubious distinction of being the first Japanese national to serve in the United States military after World War II. In the service, Kazama was entrusted with the responsibility for large sums of money.
The association between 39-year-old Kazama and the Kushis was to be a perfect match, for Kazama was both a sharp businessman and a great lover of good food. Although he had never encountered macrobiotics before, as a connoisseur he had made his own discoveries about the best quality foods. Invariably his personal favorites were traditionally made from the finest ingredients and free of high tech processing and chemical additives. Above all he admired those foods that had what he called "spirit". But Japan, like other industrialized countries, had turned away from their traditional dietary roots in favor of mass-produced, highly processed foods with little of the integrity, flavor, or health promoting qualities of the original product. For example, just about all of Japan's important fermented foods, such as shoyu, tamari, miso, rice vinegar and mirin were being made by hurried, high temperature aging and contained highly processed ingredients. Mr. Kazama knew that finding producers willing to meet Kushi's macrobiotic standards would not be easy, but he was inspired by the idea of introducing Americans to the ancient culinary treasures of Japan. In the late sixties and early seventies, Mr. Kazama began crisscrossing the Japanese archipelago in an all out effort to supply Erewhon with macrobiotic quality foods. Many early possibilities led to dead ends and frustration; however, there were a few notable exceptions, such as Johsen shoyu, which was naturally aged in twelve-foot-tall cedar tanks for eighteen months and made from whole soybeans and wheat, and dark, rich Hatcho miso, which has been made by the same recipe and method for over eight hundred years! Soon Kazama was joined by Westerners such Blake Rankin, an American, Christopher Dawson, a New Zealander, and Robbie Swinnerton, an Englishman, who helped in the search and export of traditional Japanese foods. By the end of the 1970s, Kazama and the Mitoku band of wandering food detectives had uncovered a virtual cornucopia of rare, flavorful, and medicinal foods, such as long-aged, whole soybean, wheat free tamari; brown rice vinegar that is aged for twelve months in one hundred-year-old earthen jars that are buried in the earth to help regulate the temperature of the delicate fermentation process; kanten and tofu that are freeze-dried in the snow just as it was done before the introduction of electricity; sweet amber mirin made from aging distilled sake and amazake; and natural grain malts with a gentle sweetness that does not overwhelm the taste buds like modern syrups made from enzymes.
Meanwhile, in the United States macrobiotics was booming. Erewhon had grown from a small store to one of the country's largest natural food distributors, delivering Mitoku products down the East Coast to large stores in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Another Erewhon store had opened in Los Angeles and was importing Mitoku products. In the south, Tree of Life was branching out from its home in St. Augustine, Florida, and Westbrae was importing Mitoku products into California and distributing them in the western states. Although more slowly, macrobiotics was spreading on the other side of the Atlantic, with budding communities in the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium. Companies such as Lima in Belgium and Sun Wheel in England were a few of the early importers of Mitoku products in that part of the world.
With macrobiotics catching on around the world, Mitoku's future looked secure, however, everything changes to its opposite, particularly in the world of business and finance. Erewhon was growing so fast that it was soon stretched to the limits of its cash flow and financing capacity and, in 1979, began experiencing financial difficulties. As these troubles worsened, many companies stopped shipping to the Boston firm. Because of a deep personal commitment to the Kushis, Kazama continued to fill orders. When Erewhon finally collapsed in the fall of 1981, Mitoku was its largest creditor and took a three hundred thousand dollar loss.
Erewhon's demise nearly destroyed Mitoku, however, with the help of the foreign and Japanese staff, Kazama nurtured the company back to health. Twenty-two years later, Mitoku is the world's largest exporter of traditional Japanese foods. With more than thirty customers in twenty-two countries, Mitoku exports over five hundred products to firms in North America, South America, Central America, Asia, the Middle East, the United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia. Sales have grown from Erewhon's first order of three thousand dollars in 1968 to over twelve million dollars in 2002. Mitoku is also one of Japan's largest importers and distributors of organic and natural foods from the United States, Canada, and Europe, selling these products along with traditional Japanese products to over ten thousand customers in Japan.Mitoku's success has transformed the lives of not only Kazama and his family, but, like a pebble dropped into a still pond, Mitoku's influence has had a ripple effect on people and businesses around the world. In Japan small family shops were able to revive ancient food traditions and sell their products at home and abroad. Names such as Johsen, Uchida, Mikawa, Onozaki, Ryujin, and others have become known in natural food stores from Paris to Rio de Janeiro. Moreover, Mitoku producers were introduced to using organic ingredients as Mitoku began importing organic grains and beans for domestic production. (There are very few Japanese organic growers.) As macrobiotics spread, Mitoku products led the way as Kazama rushed to keep up with the ever-increasing needs of the rapidly expanding market. Although demand often surpassed production, Mitoku never wavered from the standards outlined by the Kushis in 1968. Products must be made by traditional methods and recipes, aged at natural temperatures in traditional vessels, and made with organic ingredients, if at all possible. Even after the collapse of Erewhon the personal bond between the Kushis and Mr. Kazama continued to grow as their joint effort to introduce the world to macrobiotic foods moved forward with increasing momentum. Moreover, many of the westerners who came to work for Mitoku in the early years went on to start companies of their own. Christopher Dawson owns Clearspring, Mitoku's largest importer and Europe's foremost distributor of traditional Japanese foods. Blake Rankin went on to start Granum, a Seattle-based Mitoku importer. Bruce Macdonald, who helped open the Erewhon store in Los Angeles, is now the owner, along with daughter Crystal, of Natural Import Company, this country's main distributor of Mitoku brand products.
My wife Jan and I were also profoundly influenced by Kazama and Mitoku. In 1979 we were sent to Japan as part of a joint venture between Oak Feed, a Mitoku importer located in Miami, and Erewhon to make miso in the United States. We met Mr. Kazama in October of that year and he placed us at the Onozaki shop, which is located north of Tokyo. This was the greatest adventure of our lives, and we will be forever grateful to Kazama and Mitoku for the opportunity. We returned to the United States to build Erewhon Miso Company, but when Erewhon went into Chapter 11, the miso project was taken over by Great Eastern Sun.
The history of Mitoku is the story of one man's uncompromising dedication to quality and tradition. When I recently asked Mr. Kazama about the importance of his company in the world natural food movement, he did not talk about how his company raised the standards of natural foods around the world, but rather how Mitoku helped create an opportunity for numerous small Japanese family shops to rediscover their culinary roots and pass this heritage on to future generations. However, from the wider perspective, Michio Kushi has said, "The history of Mitoku Company, Ltd. is a symbol of the history of the macrobiotic movement throughout the world."
Although, at 72, Mr. Kazama looks at the past with gratitude and marvels at the mystery of it all, the future is certainly not clear. As the dollar began to weaken in the eighties, the price of Mitoku products became much more expensive. Soon Japanese foods were being made in other parts of the world at a cheaper price. However, some of these foods are either made by faster, less expensive methods or use lower quality ingredients. Mr. Kazama's goal is to let consumers around the world know there is a difference. When it comes to food, Mitoku has created a whole new meaning for "made in Japan."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Belleme and his wife Jan live in Saluda, North Carolina and have written numerous articles and several books about Japanese natural foods and health. They were involved in the establishment of the America Miso Company and just recently published a book about miso for SquareOne Publishers in New York.) They now run a non-profit program which hosts an annual "Taste of Health" Cruise to the islands. To learn more, please visit www.tasteofhealth.com