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A fresh approach to Japanese food

French-German and his wife seek to rejuvenate a 140-year-old Odawara company

by Tomoko Otake

Nicolas Soergel graciously brings two tiny plates to the table. They each contain three pinkish “umeboshi” (salted, dry plums), but those on one of the plates have been preserved for just one year; the ones on the other plate — whose skins are a little more wrinkled — are three years old. “Please savor the flavor of ‘ume,’ ” he says in fluent Japanese.

And sure enough, the older ones smell and taste subtly milder, though both kinds contain the same amount of salt.

Hang on a minute. This is umeboshi — not wine or sake, over which people often compare the fragrance. Isn’t it a bit strange to sniff at sour plums? Soergel nods, grinning.

“Japan does not really have a culture of fragrance, does it?”

It is with this kind of fresh approach to Japanese food that Soergel — a French and German dual national and an eight-year Japan resident — is trying to revamp Chinriu Honten, a 140-year-old food business based in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, which he runs along with his wife, Takako Komine.

The firm, which specializes in selling umeboshi, “yuzu” (citrons) and other preserved foods, was founded by Monya Komine, who back in the Edo Period served as chief chef for Odawara Castle. Soergel’s wife took over the family business in March as its fifth-generation president, with him joining as managing director.

The 40-year-old native of Cologne, Germany, however, has a longer connection with Japan. While in college, he started learning Japanese, as the university he attended had a Japan research center nearby. After graduating, he worked for the German subsidiaries of Sony and Dyson for several years before coming to Japan in 2001 as a manager for the Japan subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Boehringer Ingelheim — along with his wife, whom he met in Salzburg, Austria. By then, he was fluent in Japanese.

Still, Soergel says he was initially stunned by the complexity of “keigo” (polite Japanese).

“I would understand the first 15 minutes of what people were saying, and then lost track,” Soergel recalled recently at the Odawara store, laughing. “But I survived by keeping a look on (my face) and saying, ‘So-desune’ (‘That’s right’).”

After being head-hunted a few times, he most recently worked at T-Systems Japan K.K., a German Telecom-affiliated company, where he rose up the ranks to serve as president of the Asia-Pacific region until April 2009.

While at T-Systems, he says he learned that the Japanese project management system is remarkably different from its European counterparts. Japanese try to plan projects in detail — predicting every little thing that could go wrong and who should respond and how. Also, he says he learned that many Japanese workers embrace two seemingly conflicting concepts: “ganbaru” (do your best) and “shoganai” (it can’t be helped).

“Japanese people work very hard at first, but then give up, saying shoganai.”

Soergel, however, says he doesn’t give up easily, noting that he often says “shogaaru! (it can be helped)” to other people.

At Chinriu Honten, he is trying to make the store relevant to younger people as its traditional client base is aging and disappearing.

“When we try to send yearend gift catalogs to our clients, we are often told, ‘Oh, she has passed away,’ ” Soergel says.

Soergel also sees potential for Western markets, where he says many people might not get used to eating the whole umeboshi but could enjoy ume pastes and sauces to go with meat dishes.

He has no regrets about leaving an international business career for a 20-employee family business.

“I think Japan’s traditional businesses are a rich heritage,” says Soergel, who commutes to Odawara from his condo in Minato Ward, Tokyo. “The problem is that no one is there to inheriting them.”

For advice on living in Japan, Soergel, who says he plans to stay here the rest of his life, defies the conventional wisdom, saying foreigners can’t be “patient” all the time.

“Foreigners are often told to be patient (when dealing with Japanese), but I don’t think that actually works,” he says. “Expats often have only two or three years. If they are too patient, their term would expire! And they have a mission to achieve in Japan.”

Instead, he recommends listening hard to what others say, as this has helped him deal with Westerners as well.

“I used to be very talkative,” he says. “But now I don’t talk as much. I listen — to tell what my clients really need. Then I can make proposals that would fit their needs.”