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‘Mr. Shiseido’ blends beauty and business

Yoshiharu Fukuhara not only headed the iconic company his grandfather started, but there's his orchids and cameras — and a museum to run, too

by Edan Corkill

In July 1942, seven months after the attack on Pearl Harbor that started the Pacific War, Tokyo hosted one of the most ambitious exhibitions of art the world had ever seen. “Leonardo da Vinci,” staged in an exhibition hall in the central district of Ueno, featured 600 exhibits by and related to the Italian master whose life, from 1452 to 1519, and works in both the arts and sciences, place him at the very pinnacle of the European Renaissance.

Among the many thousands of visitors who crammed in for some wartime distraction was an 11-year-old boy named Yoshiharu Fukuhara. Gazing at da Vinci’s paintings, drawings and designs for such machines as helicopters and water pumps, the young Fukuhara was astonished that a single person could embody such diverse interests and expertise.

It’s not surprising that da Vinci struck a chord with Fukuhara. His own family boasted several modern-day Renaissance men. The pattern for their lives was to combine artistic activities with careers at the business that Fukuhara’s grandfather, Arinobu, had founded in 1872: the cosmetics and toiletries-maker Shiseido. As Fukuhara explained recently to The Japan Times, it was a pattern he followed himself.

By the time Fukuhara was born, in 1931, Shiseido — whose name derives from a passage in the “I Ching” calling for “the virtues of the Earth” to be praised — had established a thousands-strong network of stores throughout Japan, where it profitably sold its toothpaste, perfumes, facial powders, vanishing creams and soaps.

The company was then under the leadership of Fukuhara’s uncle, Shinzo, a multitalented man who had not only steered the business through expansion and incorporation, in 1927, but had also established himself as one of Japan’s leading art photographers. In 1919, he was also responsible for creating what is now Japan’s oldest existing art gallery, the Shiseido Gallery in Tokyo.

Fukuhara’s father, Nobuyoshi, also shared his brother Shinzo’s twin interests of business and photography. When he wasn’t keeping tabs on the Shiseido books as the firm’s accountant, he was snapping flowers in his carefully kept garden.

The young Fukuhara followed his forebears into Shiseido in 1953 — a move he puts down to a series of coincidences rather than familial grooming. Nevertheless, his commitment to the company, and the respect he was accorded within it, led to him being named the president of its then-new U.S. subsidiary, Shiseido Cosmetics America, in 1966. Just over two decades later, in 1987, he took over the presidency of the entire operation.

Fukuhara oversaw massive expansion of the Japanese brand, playing a direct role in its metamorphosis into an international, or, as he says, a “stateless” icon. Shiseido now has annual net sales of over ¥690 billion, with more than a third coming from abroad. Top products such as its Tsubaki shampoos and the Shiseido makeup line have seen it become a household name not just in Japan but in Asia and elsewhere around the world.

Nevertheless, Fukuhara never forgot the lesson he learned from da Vinci and his own family members, and the horizons of his interests have always extended far beyond the Shiseido domain. His two greatest passions are orchid cultivation and photography, both of which he has pursued since his student days.

But he has done more than that. For the last two decades, in particular, Fukuhara, now 78, has become a self-made champion of the arts, lobbying high-flyers in the public and private sectors to improve their support for the arts.

His reputation was such that 10 years ago he was handed the reins of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, in Ebisu. Tasked by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara to turn the then-ailing institution around, his decade-long tenure as director has been a stunning success, with visitor numbers doubling.

Fukuhara still retains the title of Honorary Chairman at Shiseido, and it was in the company’s headquarters in central Ginza — just blocks from where his grandfather founded the business 138 years ago — that he sat down to talk with The Japan Times.

Your grandfather was Arinobu Fukuhara, the founder of Shiseido, and your father, Nobuyoshi, worked at the company. Were you conscious from a young age of having been born into the “Shiseido family”?

Yes, from the very beginning. My father wasn’t involved in the management of the company, but he worked there for years as the company accountant.

Back then there was no concept of a weekend, so on Saturdays my mother would take me from our home in Chojamaru (Meguro Ward) to Ginza on the tram. Shiseido was located in Ginza, and we’d meet my dad there and he’d buy us dinner. We’d go to places like the Shiseido Parlour (a Western-style restaurant operated by the company). My father also liked photography, and there was a Shiseido pharmacy, which had a film-developing service where we used to take his films.

What was your life at home like?

You mentioned that my father was the son of Arinobu, the founder of the company. That’s true, but he was the fifth son, the youngest son. In Japan, the youngest son doesn’t really count. The system at the time was that the eldest son took over the family and inherited everything.

My dad would often call himself heyazumi, which means he was like a boarder who rents a room. People would mention to my father that he was the son of the founder of Shiseido, and he would just say, “No, no, I’m just a heyazumi.” He had a bit of a complex about it.

His eldest brother, your uncle Shinzo, became the first president of Shiseido when the company was incorporated in 1927. Shinzo was also a well-known photographer. Was your father on good terms with his brothers?

Yes, he was. Only two of his brothers were alive — Shinzo and Nobutatsu, who was also a photographer. So my father went around with them all the time, learning things from them, copying them.

You were 10 years old when Japan launched the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Were you aware of the war and what it meant?

I wasn’t able to read the proper newspapers, but we had what was called the Shogakusei Shimbun (primary school student newspaper), and I read that. Gradually I noticed that relations with America and other places were deteriorating. I could sense something was going to happen. It put everyone in a gloomy mood. I remember when my English teacher came to class one day and told us that he was going to war — that was in 1937, and he was being sent to Shanghai.

Did you worry that you might end up going to war, too?

No. My uncles and father always said that there’s no way such a war would continue for long. Of course, we weren’t thinking that Japan would lose. We didn’t really think it would win, either, but we just thought it couldn’t last. Everyone was saying that.

In your 2007 autobiography, “Boku no Fukusen Jinsei” (“My Twin-track Life”), you wrote that you had a transformative experience in 1942, when you saw an exhibition of work by Leonardo da Vinci in Ueno. How did it affect you, and why was such an important show held during the war?

Tokyo was supposed to have the Olympics in 1940, but they were canceled because of the war and I believe the Japanese government decided that in order to keep the public in good spirits they would hold that exhibition. I imagine they arranged it with the Italian and German governments. It was held at a place called the Ikenohata Sangyokan in Ueno — it doesn’t exist now. The show included paintings, but also da Vinci’s designs for ladders and contraptions to scale castle walls, designs for a helicopter, a water pump and so on.

I just remember thinking it was amazing that he did so many things. I never thought that I wanted to become Leonardo da Vinci, but I think seeing that exhibition opened my eyes to the possibility of having diverse interests and working in diverse fields.

Later in your career you took on a wide range of work, but first, in 1953, you entered Shiseido. How did that come about?

I originally wanted to be a biologist and to study DNA; to become a geneticist. My father liked gardening, so I had looked at all sorts of plants with him.

However, my father thought I needed to become the head of the family, as I didn’t have any brothers, so he wanted me to do economics. But, you know, economics was so boring! When I wasn’t at school (Keio University), I was out growing plants and taking photographs, and then after a while I started doing part-time photography work for a publisher of gardening and science texts.

Why did you enter Shiseido after you graduated?

Well, at the time Shiseido was in a lot of trouble. There was a real chance it would go bankrupt. It was just after the war, and they couldn’t procure any raw materials. They couldn’t buy glass bottles; they couldn’t get the plastic caps. They couldn’t get oil and things to make cosmetics.

With conditions so bad, there was no recruitment of new graduates. I was thinking of maybe going to a publishing company. But then it just so happened that in the early 1950s things started to look up. Procurement of materials became a little easier. The president at the time was a man named Noboru Matsumoto, who had been a friend of my uncle Shinzo. He had studied at New York University and he understood that our industry was essentially a peace industry. In order for the company to grow in times of peace, he knew it was essential to take on new people. They resumed the recruiting process in 1953, the very year that I graduated.

In your book you say that Shiseido developed its presence in the domestic market through the 1930s, and it was planned for the next generation to take it international. Those plans were disrupted by the war. How did that affect your work there?

The notion that Shiseido had to look abroad was set out by my uncle Shinzo and his friend Noboru Matsumoto (who served as the second president). Both had studied in the United States, so both had very international perspectives. They knew that wherever you went, to Singapore or wherever, you always saw the same cosmetics companies, like the French brand Coty. They decided that a cosmetics company could not survive on its domestic market alone. They thought that the generation after them would take the company international, but then the war came and that didn’t happen. The task fell to my generation.

You entered Shiseido in 1953 and, after working in various sections — including the Product Development Division — you were sent to the U.S. in 1966 to lead the subsidiary, Shiseido Cosmetics America. What was your mission?

Well, before then I had been to America twice on research trips in the early 1960s. I was able to see how the American factories operated and go to department stores and see how their sales process worked.

I heard that Shiseido would exhibit at the New York World Fair, in 1964-65, but I had no idea that it would affect me. One day I was called in by the company president and told to go to America within a month. What had happened was that, at the World Fair, Shiseido had been noticed by several department-store buyers, including some from Macy’s, and they had asked us to make a booth. But to do that we needed to create a subsidiary. When I arrived in 1966, the subsidiary had already been set up, but it wasn’t doing well.

At that time Japan was just emerging as an economic powerhouse. How were you and Shiseido perceived in the U.S.?

They thought of us as being exotic. At Macy’s, for example, they held an event called the “Far East Festival,” with Shiseido, Sony and Seiko — the three S’s from Japan. Shiseido’s display had a big red gate, you know, like at a temple, and there were pictures of people in kimono and so on. We looked at it and said, “No, no, that’s all wrong.” That was not what our company is about.

You were there to sell makeup and cosmetics. What kind of image did you want to present?

My idea was that we needed to be more international — stateless, universal. I wanted to strive for the kind of beauty that would be recognized by people from all over the world.

How did you go about selling products in America?

The decision to set up the U.S. subsidiary had been made very hastily, so we had very little strategy. The main problem was that we weren’t able to send funds freely from Japan, because here the Ministry of Treasury (now the Finance Ministry) still had strict controls on currency exchange. The idea was that you had to make do with the profits you could generate overseas. But that just wasn’t possible.

What did you sell?

Back at headquarters in Japan, they thought we should focus on cheap toiletries in America. We had a transparent soap product called Honey Cake they wanted us to sell nationally at supermarkets and elsewhere over there. But because of our restricted access to funds from Japan, that just wasn’t possible. I ended up arguing with head office, and I came back to Japan in 1969.

When you came back you had the opportunity to develop the kinds of products that you thought would sell overseas. In fact, I believe that was the first time for Shiseido to make products specifically with non-Japanese in mind.

Yes, when I got back I joined the Corporate Planning Department and then the Product Development Department. I had experienced how difficult it is to sell products overseas. My idea was that we should focus on more expensive products — to aim for higher-end customers with makeup and skin-care products. At the time, the middle class was rising throughout the world.

Among the products you made was the Inoui line of women’s makeup, and Tactics, a line of men’s skin-care and hair products and other toiletries. What was different about making products for the Japanese and the foreign markets?

With the Japanese market, it was all about aiming products to suit the changes happening in the Japanese lifestyle. The middle class hadn’t emerged in Japan to the extent it had in the U.S., so the products were different.

Overseas, we started out by simply making our own versions of the same kinds of cosmetics that were being made and sold by the big foreign companies, such as Avon. We also tried to make new products that were one grade above those products.

In your efforts to present the Inoui makeup line as being international, you removed the Shiseido corporate logo (a flowering camellia). You also started to work with international designers. Tell me about your collaboration with Serge Lutens, the French designer with whom you collaborated in Europe. What did he do for you?

We got him to do the entire brand image for Europe. Well, actually, he initially approached us. He had worked for Vogue and Christian Dior and was considered a prodigy in the fashion world. We said we had no money and he said, “I know you don’t.” He said he would give us the biggest impact for the minimum of money. And he did.

The designs he made look quite exotic, as if he was very conscious of Shiseido’s Japanese origins. His posters tend to include Japanese motifs, such as Asian-looking women, while some of his packaging, such as for the Moisture Mist line of makeup, was influenced by Japanese lacquerware. Did that not undermine the universal image you were after?

Hmm, yes, he certainly was conscious of our roots. He got hints from things like Japanese Buddhist statues and Japanese paintings, but he did not simply make a pastiche of those things. What he did was make something that wasn’t Japanese and wasn’t European. It was stateless, universal. The foundations were the traditional Japanese and European cultures, but the products were something different.

The first design he did was actually inspired by Roland Barthes’ book about Japan, “Empire of Signs” — it showed a woman holding a deep-red circle reminiscent of the sun on a lacquer-black background. The only letters on the poster were Shiseido.

People in the company headquarters in Tokyo didn’t support it, but it ended up establishing Shiseido’s image in France.

Shiseido grew through the 1980s, but ran into difficulties in the ’90s at the time Japan’s so-called bubble economy burst. You were president from 1987 till 1997. As president, you made a lot of different plans to try to turn the company around, including some unusual ones, such as issuing a directive that the president, yourself, should be called by your name and not by the deferential term “shacho” (president). Another was that employees should be allowed to wear casual clothes. Can you explain the reason you made these policies and what effect they had?

By then I had spent a long time in middle-management positions and I knew that the company was hamstrung by administration and bureaucracy. In other words, you couldn’t do anything freely. I had always thought that if they allowed us to do things a little more freely, then we could do good work.

There was also a culture of only having your eyes on your superiors. When I became president, I wanted the employees to look at society — not their own bosses. It’s similar to what’s happening to some other Japanese companies now. Usually people in a Japanese company call the president “shacho-san.” If they do that, it means they are thinking too much about the company hierarchy and not enough about their customers.

Did that actually lead to a significant change in their way of thinking?

It did. But there were people who were against it. Like with the free-dress rule, too. It wasn’t like we were asking them to dress in whatever way they wanted — they just didn’t have to wear a necktie and be formal every day. But I immediately got a call from a senior adviser to the company who asked me if it meant employees could come to work in their pajamas.

Since resigning as president of Shiseido in 1997, you have applied your management skills to other organizations, in particular the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

That’s right.

The idea of installing a corporate figure as the head of a public museum was slightly controversial. At the time, Japan’s public museums were suffering from declining visitor numbers and Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara decided it was necessary to inject “corporate know-how” into his struggling museums. You were appointed in 2000, and you have managed to turn the museum around. Do you think Ishihara was correct in trying to mix corporate management with public museums?

Personally, I never really set out to bring corporate know-how into the museum. Having become director and gone and looked at what was happening there, it was clear that everyone was doing great work. What was lacking was direction. No one knew which way to go. So I tried to add direction, to think about what kind of vision the museum should have and the direction it should head in the future.

What kind of vision did you decide on?

We decided many things, but we really wanted to make exhibitions that would leave visitors with at least one truly memorable experience. At the time, the museum was really designed for people already deeply interested in photography. I always liked photography, but even I had only been once or twice — because it was boring. In terms of vision, we wanted to become “the nation’s center” for photography — the place people would contact when they wanted to know about Japanese photography.

You’ve been there 10 years now. How much longer are you planning to stay?

I’m not sure, but things are going well. The annual number of visitors has doubled since I arrived. So things are exciting at the moment.

Speaking of photography, you are holding an exhibition of your own photographs — not at the museum, but at the Wako department store in Ginza. Can you tell me about that?

Since I was young I have been interested in gardening and biology, and one of my hobbies has been to cultivate orchids. About 20 years ago I started taking photos of them. This exhibition is a collection of all the best photos I have taken over the years.

What do you like about taking photos of orchids?

Orchids have so many expressions, so many faces. The challenge is to try to capture those expressions.

Getting back to Shiseido, you are now the company’s honorary chairman, so you’re not directly involved in its day-to-day operations. But can you tell me how you think it is performing, and what challenges lie ahead for it?

I think it is doing well, keeping up with the times. The main problem now is obviously the domestic market. This is the same as for any company, Kao or Toyota or whatever. The challenge is that now we have got a handle on the global market, we need to think about how to reconstruct the domestic market.

I take it you mean the fact that Japan’s population is shrinking and aging. Does that mean Shiseido is on the right track by making new products such as cosmetics for seniors?

Yes. You know, the population itself is changing, so that is what you have to do. The people with money now are the seniors and the semi-seniors. To put it differently, they have money but they don’t have interesting ways to spend it. All the major manufacturers are facing the same challenge. Unless they deal with this, then the Japanese economy will shrink more and more.

Currently there are no members of the Fukuhara family in top leadership positions at Shiseido. What do you think will happen to the nature of the relationship between the Fukuhara family and Shiseido in the future?

From the time of the first president, Shinzo, we have always said that we would strictly separate ownership and management. And now the number of shares that the Fukuharas own is quite small. The reason is because the company has got larger and larger, but our family wasn’t able to keep paying to increase its holdings. So, as the company grew, the percentage we owned decreased. What is left is the heritage, the question of whether the founder’s principles are still being maintained.

Do you mean his principles regarding the company’s commitment to society and culture?

That’s right. From the day I started in the company I always believed that it had to develop in tandem with society. Ultimately, it’s the development of society that invigorates the company.

And hence the da Vinci-like breadth of your interests — in business, but also in society and culture?

That’s right. That’s the reason I have devoted myself to working with museums and other public bodies for the last few years. Doing that sort of work is very important — for the society and, ultimately, the company.

“Watashi to Ran, 138″ (“Orchids and I, 138″), an exhibition of photographs of orchids by Yoshiharu Fukuharu, continues at the Wako Department Store in Tokyo’s Ginza district until March 18. Admission is free.