Sonia Totten is the founding member of FBN Japan. Suzy Bibko is Editor-in-Chief of Families in Business magazine.
The presidents of Japan's oldest traditional confectioner, Toraya, have not always agreed on the company's direction – but their ancient philosophy of tradition, founded on the continuation of innovation, has sustained the evolution of the company
'Wagashi', or Japanese confectionery, is often considered the embodiment of Japan, as it evokes the essence of the country's seasons, culture, literature and arts. These traditional sweet delicacies evolved from mere candy into an art form in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. Today, the tradition is kept alive by Toraya, Japan's oldest traditional confectionery and a family company that has long played an integral role in the history of wagashi.
Bean-jam bun beginnings
Wagashi are artistically designed to appeal to all five senses. This is done through the use of special molds to reproduce the beauty of nature as well as through poetic names "chosen to remind us of the different seasons and the good feelings associated with each of them." Essentially, there are four fundamental types of wagashi. The first comprises cakes and dumplings made of rice, millet and other grains that have been the staple of the Japanese diet since ancient times, as well as fruits and nuts. The second type of wagashi evolved from Chinese confectionery introduced to Japan by envoys returning from China during the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries. The third type developed from 'tenjin', refreshments brought to Japan from China between the 12th and 16th centuries by Zen monks. The fourth type of wagashi are those related to western-style confectionery, introduced to Japan through trade with Portugal and Spain in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
It was around this time, during the Edo period (1603-1868), that the Kyoto tea ceremony culture became influential in reworking Japan's varied confectionery to conform to current tastes and cultural sentiments. Wagashi soon replaced fruit as the refreshment served with tea. In turn, this led to the creation of the classic forms of wagashi known throughout Japan today.
Toraya's role in the history of wagashi began with a recipe for 'manju' – bean-jam buns. Manju are a standard type of wagashi, though they have changed a great deal from when they were first introduced. Basically, there are two kinds of manju, both of which were first developed in China. 'Shioze manju' was introduced in Japan in 1341. The other type, to which Toraya has a connection, are known today as 'Toraya manju'. It was brought to Japan some 100 years earlier by a priest named Shoitsu Kokushi upon his return from China. The story goes that in 1241, Shoitsu Kikushi gave the recipe for Toraya manju to Kichiemon Kurinami, a teahouse owner, as a gesture of thanks for his hospitality. Kichiemon Kurinami in turn elected to name his teahouse "Toraya". While the relationship between Kichiemon Kurinami's Toraya and the present-day Toraya remains unclear, it is known that the original recipe for Toraya manju strongly influenced Toraya's manju recipe today – a staple of its line of wagashi confectionery.
An imperial past
Toraya traces its history back to the sixteenth century when Enchu Kurokawa started the firm in Kyoto. Enchu, considered the father of Toraya, built up a prosperous and popular confectionery business in Kyoto. Whereas other shops at this time were expanding into Edo or Osaka, Enchu confined his business dealings to Kyoto until the last years of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868).
Toraya's second proprietor, Kichiemon Kurokawa, devoted himself to the business and won great favour among the nobility and other notable Kyoto families. It was also during Kichiemon's reign that a number of stories emerged, connected with Vaisravans, the revered god of fortune. Passed down throughout the Kurokawa family to this day, the most famous tale tells of a day when Kichiemon was hurrying home from a visit to Vaisravans when he heard a voice from nowhere calling out his name. He looked around, but no one was there. So he continued on his way, only to hear the voice a second time. Puzzled, Kichiemon searched through the grass where the voice seemed to emanate from, and there he found an image of Vaisravans. Legend has it that Kichiemon recalled that the tiger (tora) was the emissary of Vaisravans, and so he carried back the god's image to worship, considering it a reward for the family's constant faith. Today, Vaisravans is still the guardian deity of Toraya and is outwardly evidenced by the incorporation of Vasiravans' emissary into the company's name.
The relationships Kichiemon cultivated with nobility and prominent families in the 1600s ultimately resulted in half the firm's sales coming from its activities as purveyor to the Imperial Court during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The other half came from trade with samurais, court nobles and wealthy merchants such as the Mitsui family. However, this policy of not catering to the general public would soon change.
1869 was a year of transition not only for Toraya but also for Japan. Japan was harking in a new era that brought the transfer of the Imperial Court from Kyoto to Tokyo. Because so much of Toraya's business came from the Imperial Court, the twelfth master of Toraya, Mitsumasa Kurokawa, was faced with the decision of following the Court to Tokyo or staying put. Keeping the firm in Kyoto would mean a loss of half its trade. However, Mitsumasa was by no means certain the firm would survive if it followed the Court to Tokyo where wagashi confections already existed. The matter was further complicated when Mitsumasa received information that the Court would, in time, return to Kyoto.
Faced with such uncertainty, Mitsumasa, sent his younger brother Mitsuyasu to Tokyo as the firm's representative to find out what was really going on. Once in Tokyo, Mitsuyasu concluded that the Court would not return to Kyoto. On the basis of this information, Mitsumasa moved the business to Tokyo in 1879. The shop moved three more times, always staying in the same neighbourhood in Tokyo, finally settling in its present location in 1964.
Another critical moment in Toraya's history came in 1962, during the 'reign' of the 16th master, Mitsutomo Kurokawa. Against his father's wishes, Mitsutomo decided to open a Toraya outlet in the Tobu department store. This led to further and quick expansion: Toraya grew from 7 outlets to 56 within a decade. Eventually, shops were set up in Paris in 1980 and in New York in 1993. The company today has 79 shops and generates a turnover of ¥16,300 million (2001) (€141 million).
Transition to the top
Today, Toraya's President and 17th master is Mitsuhiro Kurokawa, descendant of Enchu Kurokawa. Mitsuhiro worked as a banker for three years after graduating from university and then joined Toraya at the age of 25. It was not easy for him to make the transition from banking to family firm. In fact, Mitsuhiro "felt the big gap coming from a large structured company to this small family business of 300 employees". He recalls, "Part of me enjoyed the 'at home' atmosphere, but another part of me said, 'Can we go on like this forever? Don't we need to reshuffle our strategy, manner and attitude in this ever changing economic environment?' When I worked at Toraya's production plant, I constantly argued with the plant head and tried to vitalise the system by being more professional."
Despite Mitsuhiro's unease at the firm, he did not leave. Rather, he became vice-president within a few months and then ascended to the presidency at age 47 in 1991 when his father passed away.
"I often thought about 'what would it be like to be at the top'", reflects Mitsuhiro. "But when I actually took the position of president, I realised that being at the top is nothing like being in any other position in terms of responsibility, pressure and self determination. I knew all that in my head but I didn't expect the magnitude of the heaviness when I took office." This is especially true when you have over 400 years of family history on your shoulders.
Tradition and innovation
It is difficult for Mitsuhiro not to ignore tradition and history when running the company today. In fact, tradition reared its head the moment Mitsuhiro became president. At Toraya, a time-honoured ritual takes place when the presidency is passed on: the retiring president and his successor pay a once-only visit together to worship before a statue of Bishamonten, one of the seven guardian deities of Buddhism, enshrined at the Kyoto Toraya shop. The significance of this ritual lies in the new president's realisation that the next time he worships there will be when he dies. Mitsuhiro said, "At the time of the ritual I was keenly aware of the fact that the responsibility for carrying on the company lay squarely on my shoulders."
However, Mitsuhiro knew that his ascension to Toraya's presidency did not mean he had to follow exactly in his forefather's footsteps, though he does appreciate what all his ancestors have been through and done to build such a successful company -– and how tradition fits in with the company today. "When I look back on the period since the end of World War II, a time in the firm's history characterised by the initial move into department stores and the opening of the shops overseas", explains Mitsuhiro, "I realise that Toraya has been engaged in reform in keeping with the changing times. To retain old things is not to protect traditions, and one must continually infuse the new in order to retain the old. Although tradition is regarded as something changeless, by constantly changing tradition generates energy. I am conscious that our products endure because of the energy created through the continuation of innovation by my ancestors. During its 450-year history, Toraya has at all times engaged in innovation in response to the times."
Thus, when Mitsuhiro took over, he made some changes. "My first decision as president was to look at every aspect of our business, our company and our products, both externally and internally. I valued opinions of outsiders when looking at our products, employees, business operations and our company in general. There were many cases in which what we've always thought was right or absolute turned out to be wrong or uncertain when we actually examined them. Discovering our weaknesses allowed us to be more modest and humble. I valued the opinions of outsiders very much and they contributed a lot in building the foundation for the top decision-making."
Mitsuhiro's attitude and management style is embodied in the company's ancient philosophy: tradition is founded on the continuation of innovation. Thus, each generation embraces the past but does not feel constricted by it. Mitsuhiro explains: "The management style of my grandfather was 'long and slender'. His idea was to operate a small but lasting business. On the other hand, my father expanded the business by making the big decision to open a shop in a department store. He had repeated, heated discussions with my grandfather regarding this decision to enlarge the business. My grandfather had carefully cultivated a premium image based on scarcity, as he thought that by eschewing purposeless expansion, it would give rise to a state of scarcity that prevented the spread of the brand and would in turn lead to the product's perpetuation. My father's position, though, was that times were changing and opening shops in department stores was unavoidable because the business couldn't be sustained as it was then structured. My father maintained that there was a way of setting up shops in department stores while still preserving a premium image. This idea was totally against the tradition of the company. However, my grandfather finally realised that it was his son's turn to make business decisions and let him take charge.
"Similar discussions continued between my father and I before he died – on this very subject. I take the side of my grandfather in believing business expansion is not in our best interest. At the same time, we do have to keep up with turnover, so our challenge is to provide good products and services that satisfy customer's needs."
Satisfying customer needs, as well as acting responsibly, has always been important at Toraya. So important, in fact, that they are embodied in the company's written code, which dates back to the 1800s. It consists of 15 articles prescribing a code of behaviour intended for contemplation at all times by the firm's employees. The articles include such things as treating customers responsibly, not spreading gossip and applying yourself at all times to proper training. Mitsuhiro feels that while the code may be from years past, "the way of thinking toward customers and the disposition toward workers in those days were the same as they are now".
Building a future
One tradition that has not changed, but likely will in the future, is the number of family members working in the company. Mitsuhiro is the only family member working at Toraya, and Mitsuhiro says, "it has always been this way throughout our history. There are many businesses with several siblings managing the company together and some are very successful at it. But we have our own way and it was been working well for us. Until my generation, it was a given that the eldest son would take over the business. But in my children's generation, we can't ignore the presence of females in business."
Mitsuhiro especially understands this, as he has three children, the eldest two of which are daughters. He said, "I've been telling my children since they were little that 'if you work hard and become an admirable and respected person, you may be able to become the president of Toraya one day – if, and only if, your ability and quality surpasses that of other forerunners'. When my son was about to graduate from junior-high school (age 14), he approached me and told me for the first time that he wants to think seriously about what I have been saying since he was little: he wanted to learn more about business so that one day he will be well qualified to become the leader of Toraya. He told me about his desire to go to the USA to study English and pursue his studies in business." No doubt this was a proud moment for Mitsuhiro, but he wanted to make sure his son wasn't going to make any rash decisions. So, explained Mitsuhiro, "I gave him one condition: that he was not to make a decision alone on a job after he graduates from university. I don't mind if he wants to stay in the USA and work for companies there before returning home, but I told him to consult me and we will make the decisions together."
Mitsuhiro respects his past while at the same time looks forward to the future and the evolution of this 450 year old family company. "We do not live in the past, nor can we recreate it – but we can learn from it. I believe that the care and effort we take today are how we may pass on the history and tradition of Toraya to the future."