Traditional manufacturers embrace the Net

by Yasushi Azuma

OSAKA — Known for their resolute adherence to time-honored styles and techniques, the craftspeople and manufacturers of traditional products in the Kinki region are beginning to embrace the digital age.

While still refusing to compromise on production processes or quality, they believe the use of innovative marketing techniques may help keep their heritage alive.

“Manufacturers must reach out from their world” to market their goods, said Takashi Yamato, a 54-year-old manufacturer of “tsukudani,” a Japanese delicacy made up of preserved vegetables, fish and shellfish boiled in a sweetened soy sauce.

“Otherwise,” he said, “our valuable products will simply not be noticed in society.”

Because of increasing marketing difficulties, Yamato devoted himself to uniting the region’s local makers to promote their products. With him leading the way, Kinki Bussan Koryu Kyokai (Kinki Products Exchange Association) was established in Osaka in June 1995.

While initially geared toward helping members meet shoppers face to face, the association — later renamed Kinki Furusato Soseikai (Association for Re-creating Kinki as a Hometown) — gradually moved toward the Internet.

Their site is scheduled to make its debut next January at the earliest.

Kenji Kitagawa, 42, a former deputy editor of a gourmet magazine and now a freelance writer in Kobe, has been appointed as system manager to deal with the Internet business.

“The Web site should not be just a shopping space to post lists of products to sell, but the members’ philosophy must be conveyed to consumers through the Internet,” Kitagawa explained.

“Our Web site will present detailed explanations about the products, about the manufacturers themselves and the manufacturing processes,” he added. “So, only those who read the information and are satisfied with the prices will buy products.”

The association’s members appear to be satisfied with Kitagawa’s approach.

“As long as consumers buy my products understanding their authenticity and the manufacturing process behind them, it’s fine with me, even if I don’t know who my customers are,” declared Ryoji Iwasa, a 69-year-old soy sauce manufacturer from Shiga Prefecture.

Other members embracing the concept of Net-based marketing are a 51-year-old poultry farmer and a 47-year-old farmer who produces Japanese apricots for “umeboshi” pickles.

Their support for the project highlights the leaps the association has made in its approach.

Yamato started his crusade by seeking out locations such as sales corners in department stores to allow the local manufacturers to meet with people and explain their products in the hopes of winning a lasting clientele.

Then, as now, the local makers were having difficulty selling their goods, which are available in limited numbers and locations and are sometimes in direct competition with much cheaper supermarket products.

Local governments were not sympathetic to their concerns, with all local government sections — including that of Osaka city — rejecting Yamato’s requests for support. Some manufacturers upon which Yamato had counted as comrades, meanwhile, did not prove to be so. “All those who were seeking profit as a top priority naturally left us,” he explained.

Even today, after five years of work to bolster regional makers’ sales, Yamato’s shop, Edosan Yamatoya, located on a quiet street in Osaka’s Nishi Ward, only draws a couple of customers each day.

Having given up on getting help from local authorities — “What can local governments actually do for us?” he wonders aloud — Yamato was pushed toward the Net, despite his initial reluctance.

“I believed that the Internet often misleads consumers,” he said. “That’s why I was at first against the idea of establishing a Web site.”

Now, he says, whatever changes the Internet brings, the philosophy he and his fellow association members share with regard to their products will never change.

Yamato admits that the movement is still a low-profile affair, but he has no desire to expand the organization or to establish a network with other groups. “There are few organizations like ours nationwide,” he said.

He adds that while his association is experimenting with the possibilities of the digital age, he remains skeptical that it will be the answer to all the members’ problems.