Tomoji Yokoishi, 49, recalls how astonished he was 21 years ago by three pretty women sitting next to him in a sushi restaurant in Osaka’s Namba district.
It wasn’t their beauty that caught Yokoishi’s eye, but the way they were toying with scarlet maple leaves used to garnish the food, floating them in a glass of water and finally placing one tenderly in a pink handkerchief to take home.
Yokoishi, who at the time was working at an agricultural cooperative in Tokushima Prefecture, was amazed at the way the women were fascinated with the red leaves. And it changed his life forever.
“For me, leaves were something you found in your backyard, not something worthy of interest,” he said. “If people find value in pretty leaves, I thought I may be able to make a business out of it.”
Something clicked. If he could come up with a way to sell leaves, it would create jobs for women and the elderly back at his hometown in Kamikatsu, Tokushima Prefecture — something he had been pondering for a long time.
Most women in Kamikatsu back then did not have full-time jobs and spent their spare time gossiping about mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. Seniors also had no jobs because the local specialty, mandarin oranges, required heavy lifting to harvest.
More than 20 years later, the small mountain town, population just 2,000, has become one of the most vigorous in Japan thanks to Yokoishi and Irodori Co., which was established in 1999 with both local government and private-sector help to sell “tsumamono” decorative leaves.
Irodori, which has contracts with 190 farmers, many of them in their 70s, now posts ¥260 million in annual sales.
About 4,000 people annually visit Kamikatsu, where half of the population is 65 or older, and many visit Yokoishi’s company to learn how his leaf-selling business flourished in such a small town.
Of course, Rome was not built in a day, as the saying goes.
Despite his strong passion for the leaf business, most farmers turned down his request at first, partly because they didn’t believe there would actually be people willing to pay for leaves and partly out of pride.
“People had the impression that leaves were something only the poor would produce,” Yokoishi said. “They didn’t want their neighbors to think of them as that desperate.”
So in 1986, Irodori’s business started out with only four female farmers, who used to harvest leaves and branches for ikebana flower arrangement. The leaf-selling business remained a project of the agricultural co-op until 1999, when Irodori was established.
But again, Yokoishi faced a big hurdle. The products didn’t sell.
“I didn’t know how the leaves were used at restaurants,” Yokoishi said, adding he had no knowledge of what kind of leaves buyers would want back then.
So Yokoishi started to ask chefs for advice, only to be shouted at, threatened or even have a bucket of water thrown over him.
Japanese chefs normally don’t want outsiders coming into their kitchens for fear they will steal their secret recipes, and they didn’t hide their irritation.
It was not until he spent two years visiting the expensive “ryotei” restaurants as a customer, using up all his salary and bonuses, that one of the chefs invited him into the kitchen.
The chef taught him which leaves were needed in which season of the year and the meaning each leaf had.
“For instance, a ‘yuzuriha’ leaf is a symbol of rebirth” used for New Year’s cuisine to celebrate the start of a new year, he said. He also learned the leaves need to be spotless and packed in the same size.
Yokoishi also approached wholesalers and restaurants nationwide, asking them to buy his leaves.
His efforts gradually paid off and wholesale markets began to get orders from restaurants. As demand started to pick up, more farmers began to show an interest.
He also took his farmers, dressed in work clothes, to expensive, fancy Japanese restaurants that were buying their leaves, believing that if they knew how their products were being used, they would be more motivated.
But another purpose was to show them the world outside Kamikatsu.
“Even if the products are made in rural areas, farmers have to have good taste like in cities,” Yokoishi said. “After several visits, they began to dress up and put on makeup for the tour.”
Yokoishi installed computers for all contract farmers and sent daily information on orders for the next day, as well as on their rank of the day based on the amount they brought in.
“The key is to become a producer, orchestrating the business environment,” said Yokoishi, Irodori’s vice president and de facto chief. “You need to become an (inconspicuous) wire-puller, not a president with dominant leadership.”
What he focused on was to create a system so that farmers would be encouraged to produce more and give them enough information so they would understand the demand.
Many local governments and businesses have tried to launch similar ventures without success. And Yokoishi understands why: They don’t have the necessary contacts with wholesalers, haven’t educated the farmers to have better taste and lack the necessary infrastructure.
The leaf-selling business, however, started to look shaky in 1996 when Yokoishi quit the co-op due to his low salary and started working for the Kamikatsu town office.
At that time, his three children were about to go to college and his monthly salary of about ¥190,000 net was not enough to pay their tuition.
In two years, annual sales of JA’s Kamikatsu branch dropped from ¥1.7 billion to ¥700 million.
“The whole town went haywire,” said Yokoishi. “I had a feeling I would be asked to come back.”
Yokoishi’s prediction was right. The town created Irodori as a third-sector firm, and made Yokoishi its director.
Since then, Irodori’s business has steadily grown, with some farmers earning more than ¥10 million a year.
“They used to tell their children that they would be stuck in the town if they don’t study hard,” Yokoishi said. “The greatest change is that elderly farmers started to ask their children and grandchildren to come for a visit on holidays . . . it means they have pride in their town.”
Yokoishi’s ambition for the future is to expand his business overseas, where health-conscious consumers are increasingly tempted by Japanese cuisine.
“When I think of Japanese culture, Japanese cuisine comes to mind,” Yokoishi said. “I want to spread Japanese culture.”
In this occasional series, we interview entrepreneurs whose spirit may hold the key to a more competitive Japan.