Patience a virtue in miso making

Englishman Tony Flenley sticks with tradition, keeps 105-year-old Osaka business alive


If miso is part of your daily routine, “you’re having a decent life,” says Tony Flenley, Japan’s only British miso maker. Flenley, who runs a 105-year-old miso company in Osaka, believes the time taken to prepare and eat the soup shows the right priorities have triumphed over a fast food lifestyle.

“People eat it less now,” says the managing director of Osaka Miso Jozo in central Osaka. He has run the company for 20 years, and has seen big changes in the trade of one of Japan’s traditional foodstuffs, miso paste, the soup stock renowned for its nutritious, delicious and healthful qualities.

The Englishman first came to Japan in 1977 after graduating from the University of Swansea, South Wales. He opted for English teaching, choosing Japan over Spain as his first work location. While teaching he met and married a local girl whose father had been running a well-established miso business from a few years after World War II.

Flenley returned home in 1979 for a couple of years teaching in London, followed by two years in Kuwait, teaching oil company employees. He came back to Japan and for a few years ran a language school in Nagoya, involved with Toyota Motor Corp.’s English instruction operation.

After another stint in the U.K. to study for an master’s of arts course, he took a job at a private high school in Osaka, while completing his dissertation. During the school holidays he helped out at his father-in-law’s miso factory. He was contemplating a university teaching job when his father-in-law asked him whether he would be interested in taking over Osaka Miso Jozo.

Pleased with the opportunity of trying something new, Flenley accepted the challenge and started learning, from the bottom up, the intricate process of turning soybeans and rice into miso. “I had to learn a lot by watching,” he says. “Without being condescending, a factory worker who has overseen a process for years is not necessarily so articulate about explaining it.”

He also went to work in another miso factory to learn the craft. “This is the traditional system of sons learning the basics before taking over the family business — although I was 37 at the time.”

Flenley also needed to understand the chemistry of the process that allows powerful mold enzymes to break down beans and rice into miso. So for three months he studied at the local laboratory that today supplies his company with koji, the starting compound for miso, made from malted rice or barley. An intricate analysis of the workings of yeasts, lactic acid and aspergillus bacteria was necessary. For someone who had long abandoned any sort of science study, there was an irony in suddenly being immersed in a world of test tubes and clip boards.

Although his father-in-law was nearing 70 at that time, he still intended to take an active part in running the company, while the younger man gradually took over the reins. Flenley thought the old man was likely to retire completely after about five years, and that then he would be in sole charge of the company.

Of more immediate concern when Flenley joined Osaka Miso Jozo in April 1990 were some company politics. The miso factory boss felt threatened by the new appointment “although I’d planned to be managing in the office, rather than on the factory floor,” Flenley says. However, the factory supervisor left after four months and Flenley found himself running the operation hands on.

This was the era when Japan’s long economic boom was just about to come to an end. At the time there was full employment and staff were difficult to find. Working in a miso factory could be considered one of the “KKK” jobs — kitanai, kitsui and kiken (dirty, difficult, dangerous) — as there were 60 kg sacks of beans to lift, much cleaning and it was cold.

Flenley decided to make the job more attractive for potential applicants. So he offered free English lessons to new employees. The scheme “brought lots of people who wanted to learn English but who were not necessarily much good at factory work.”

Then Japan’s bubble economy burst. Demand across the economy went down and sales of miso suffered, too. Saturdays at the company were made days off. A new incentive to attract more physical types was then offered — free sports club membership. This innovation had some success, until the sheer numbers of new job seekers meant applicants were chasing any employment without considering the hard work involved.

Today the company has 13 employees, including those selling miso in a shop in Osaka’s Central Wholesale Market.

Several types of miso are made by Osaka Miso Jozo. One is the famous Kansai sweet white miso, which takes three to four weeks of natural fermentation to produce. Flenley does not interrupt the process nor speed it up “although some producers do the whole thing in one night,” he says. Another, more time-consuming product is red miso, aged for two years in huge, 50-year-old wood barrels.

Flenley thinks it is important for small companies like his, which produces 220,000 kg of miso a year, to stick to traditional processes. “We have a niche market of restaurants, shops and markets, and they need to know that the taste and quality of our miso stays consistent,” he says.

He believes if small miso companies can continue to find customers, they can keep their place in the market, although it is smaller than before and lifetime customers are no longer guaranteed. “We still have a good number of loyal customers, although 20 years ago there were more. Then they wouldn’t change unless you messed up. Now potential clients shop around more because of the emphasis on price by big food wholesalers and supermarkets.”

When he started at Osaka Miso Jozo, annual production was 400,000 kg. “We used to sell a lot of 20 kilo tubs. Now the containers are more likely to be 1 kg or 500 gram ones. Although of course the markup is higher on smaller amounts.”

Middle-size miso producers are finding it hardest to survive, says Flenley, having neither a natural home in the smaller, niche gourmet market, nor being able to compete with the large volume producers who supply supermarkets.

Supermarkets now often decide the price of a range of products, including miso. There is sometimes a bidding process to enter if a company wants to get an order. He explains that the previous, established system for food makers to find new markets “was for specialist wholesalers to personally visit the producer or wholesale market and ask for samples. Now there are general wholesalers who are not so knowledgeable, collecting lots of different types of food and drink samples and taking them directly to hotels and ryokan. Or they order them straight off the Internet.”

Another market that has shrunk in recent years is the miso that was traditionally added to New Year treats. Fish wholesalers used to buy large amounts of miso to soak fish in. This was sold as o-seibo (yearend gifts) or as part of o-sechi ryori (New Year’s Day food). “As shops were closed on Jan. 1, 2, and 3, there was a rush to buy food at the end of the year, resulting in booming sales. Now the shops open on Jan. 1, so there is no end-of-year rush.”

“Supermarkets’ desire for cheap food forces producers to take short cuts or use inferior ingredients,” Flenley says. He recalls visiting another miso maker who had temperature-controlled vats to quicken the fermentation process. “How do you decide to adjust how fast you speed up the fermentation?” he asks. “Depending on the demand for miso” was the answer.

Flenley believes that “the insistence on cheap prices by supermarkets” is killing Japanese food culture. “It’s not just miso. If food producers are continually forced to keep prices down, they can survive only by making inferior products. The Japanese are getting used to the taste of cheap food.”

Another example, he says, is natto fermented soybeans, which are only half fermented when you buy them in a supermarket. If you eat it a couple of weeks after the sell-by date, it will be properly fermented!” The popularity of happoshu is another instance he cites of a compromise on traditional ingredients “which has produced a whole generation who don’t know what real beer tastes like.”

There are three types of miso: soybean, rice and bean, and barley and bean. Soybeans and salts make up the main ingredients of any kind of miso. When kome koji or malted rice is used, it makes rice miso, which accounts for 80 percent of the paste brewed in Japan, although it differs greatly in hue and taste according to the region where it is made and can be sweet, salty, red or white. When mugi koji, or malted barley is added, it makes barley miso. Mame miso is made with malted soybeans.

Entering a store room stacked to the ceiling with sacks of rice and soybeans, Flenley says the rice he uses is the indigenous Japonica type. However “for reasons known mostly to the ministry of agriculture” bulk buyers like him are unable to source it locally. The rice is imported from the United States and the beans from Canada.

The miso factory is not housed in its original building. Although the plant emerged unscathed from the bombing of Osaka during the war, when much of the surrounding area was flattened. “It survived the American bombers but not me,” jokes Flenley. It developed cracks after the Kobe earthquake of 1995 and when five years later they widened and part of a ceiling collapsed, he decided to demolish the building, then 82 years old, and put up a new one.

Flenley’s father-in-law lived to the same age as the building. Presiding over the boom years of the trade, he believed the company needed to stay as big as possible. His son-in-law argued that as a niche miso maker, the best option for the future was to stay small. The differences in outlook came to an end when the old man “died with his boots on” on New Year’s Eve 2004, nearly 15 years after Flenley had joined the company.

Longevity is one of the many health claims made for miso. The theory is that soybeans are good for humans and even better when broken down into an easily digested form. The health effects of the enzymes and amino acids in miso paste have been studied.

In 1981, an animal study found that miso inhibits stomach and liver cancer. Its proteins, sugars, calcium and magnesium were also found to lower blood pressure. Soybean constituents, which remain unaltered even after being processed into miso paste, help lower cholesterol. One key ingredient, DDMP-saponin, has been identified as an agent which helps prevent age related disorders. The role miso plays in enhancing digestion and the absorption of protein is also believed to maintain the youthfulness of cells and to slow aging.

“The whole world should be using miso,” says Flenley, and there are some indications that it is beginning to. Domestic consumption is down, with 1,300 miso manufacturing plants nationwide compared with 1,600 a decade ago. Production is 520,000 tons, as against 560,000 tons at the beginning of the decade. But miso exports today stand at 6,200 tons, more than double the 3,000 at the turn of the century.

There are moves to make miso more fun and combine it with unaccustomed ingredients. In a Kansai television food show “Yoi Don,” Flenley took his miso to an Italian restaurant where the chef made dishes like pasta sauce and a chocolate tart, using miso. Another NHK spot he featured in was themed “Let’s make bread miso.” After the “Yoi Don” slot the Osaka Miso Jozo Web site attracted 200 orders.

The television coverage was picked up by the Seven-11 convenience store chain and Flenley’s miso was used in a special line of onigiri (rice ball) and garlic. The store also used his miso in a limited version of a bento boxed meal.

Flenley, who writes a blog on his company’s site called Blue Eyed Miso Maker, has attracted a fair amount of Japanese media interest. Typically he appears on television specials a couple of times a year. “But last year it was more like seven or eight.”

His Japanese miso-making counterparts — who are not invited onto television, nor get their pictures on the front page of the Nikkei business daily, as his recently was — rib him about all this. “The 15 minutes of fame idea, it seems for foreigners doing something unusual in Japan, has been extended to 30 minutes,” he chuckles.