Soy sauce family rises from the rubble

Photo by moodboard/moodboard / Getty Images
Photo by moodboard/moodboard / Getty Images

Many family businesses are proud of the contribution they make to their local community. Few can hope to emulate a ninth-generation Japanese soy sauce maker which has literally emerged from the ruins of a town that was destroyed by the 2011 tsunami to become a symbol of regeneration.

Soy sauce-manufacture is dominated by family businesses. Eight families, the oldest of which started trading in 1603, formed Kikkoman in 1917. Yamato was founded in 1911. But even older is Yagisawa Shoten Co, which was founded in 1807.

Horrifyingly, the business was almost destroyed on March 11 2011 when a tsunami ripped through the Pacific coast of Japan and flattened its home town of Rikuzentakata, killing 1,800 people.

According to this brilliant AP story about the business, seven employees lost relatives, and one died. Yagisawa Shoten’s factory and inventory was destroyed. Given that the product has to mature for two years before it can be sold, the future looked bleak. But its 41-year-old head Michihiro Kono, who had recently taken over the business from his father, was determined to continue. He kept on the 38 staff, initially asking them to do volunteer work.

He then set about re-building his business, and was finally persuaded to look to a Tokyo-based crowdfunding site for cash. “We are a company in the boondocks and so we didn’t know that much about crowd-funding. We did not have a very good image. We thought of takeovers like vulture funds,” Kono told AP. “But it turned out to be a great system for a company like us.”

Touched by the story, donors gave 10,000 yen each until a total of 150m yen ($820,000) had been raised. This was a great help, but just as big a problem as money was that the unique Yagisawa Shoten cultures – vital to the taste of the sauce – had been lost.

Incredibly, though, it turned out that the company had donated a sample to the town’s university as part of a cancer research project, and it survived. Now the business is back to 80% of its pre-tsunami production levels, brewing sauce again in new six-tonne vats. Its signature source is now named “Miracle”.

In a town where lives are being re-built as slowly as the buildings that have now started to replace rubble, the dedication of a family business offers hope and meaning.