Woman taps camellia to nurture Tohoku industries back to life



For a businesswoman who wanted to support the recovery of the Tohoku region following the tragic 2011 earthquake-tsunami disaster, locally grown camellia plants with strong roots that survived the waves offered a beacon of hope.

Although little known even among Japanese, residents in the Kesen area covering the cities of Rikuzentakata and Ofunato in Iwate Prefecture have traditionally handpicked camellia seeds to extract oil for use in cooking, skin and hair care.

But as camellia oil cannot be mass produced, camellia oil factories in the area had dwindled down to one by the time of the disaster as cheaper cooking oil became widely available.

Sayaka Watanabe, 34, a former consultant at International Business Machines Corp., said she took her cue from Moroccan argan oil, which is edible and also used around the world for skin and hair treatment.

“I thought it would be a good idea to add value to Kesen camellia oil so that it can be marketed,” Watanabe said.

Since launching a hand cream with camellia oil as an additive in December 2012, the lineup of Sanriku Tsubaki Dream Products handled by her firm, re:terra Co., and its partners has expanded to cover lip balm and tea, which is made by fermenting the leaves of the camellia plant. A new product, a body cream, is scheduled to be released later this year.

Sanriku refers to a Tohoku coastal region and tsubaki means camellia in Japanese.

Despite the lack of experience in marketing cosmetic products, Watanabe drafted a business plan with founding partners in late 2011 — Hollywood Cosmetics Co. and Enjoykai, a charity group comprising female doctors — to develop a camellia oil hand cream.

The Tokyo-based cosmetics company’s president was keen to engage in corporate social responsibility, while the doctors were looking for a new project after demand waned for the free health checkups they had been offering disaster survivors, Watanabe said.

The cosmetics maker manufactured the product, while the doctors, heavy users of hand cream to avoid dry skin because of the frequent washing their profession requires, advised on texture, scent and package design.

Seeking a local partner, Watanabe approached Shuichi Ishikawa, who had run the only camellia oil factory in Tohoku before the disaster. But it was difficult to persuade him to restart operations as the waves had swept away his home and oil mill and also claimed his son, who was supposed to inherit the family business, which dated back to 1955.

“At first, he was reluctant to resume the business just for the sake of short-term profits for a private company. Work to extract oil from camellia seeds also reminded him of his son,” she said. Ishikawa’s son worked as a firefighter in Rikuzentakata and died during disaster-relief operations.

However, Ishikawa and his wife, Harue, both in their 60s, eventually agreed to help with camellia oil production at Seishokan, a welfare facility employing 15 physically or intellectually disabled people that has vowed to succeed in the oil-producing business in the disaster-hit city.

Ishikawa seemed to change his mind “because he wished to preserve camellias, a treasure for the local community,” Watanabe said.

The products are marketed online and were temporarily sold at major department stores, including outlets of Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd. To date, about 20,000 tubes of hand cream and 10,000 sticks of lip balm have been produced for sale at ¥1,800 ($16) and ¥1,100 each before tax, respectively. The lip balm went on sale in July 2013.

The products have also been marketed at events in the United States, Britain, Spain, Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong to raise awareness about reconstruction efforts in Tohoku.

As the business got up and running, Watanabe faced an unexpected problem — the lack of Kesen camellia oil. Demand for the oil had surged after major cosmetics company Shiseido Co. started selling salad dressing using the oil for a limited period from fall 2014 as a way of supporting areas affected by the disaster.

“Using camellia oil imported from China was an option, but our goal was to create local jobs. I wondered whether we should give up our business,” she said.

Determined to nurture industry in the area over the long term, however, Watanabe started a camellia farm in Rikuzentakata with a local partner in October 2015 to produce tea. While it takes more than 10 years after a sapling has been planted before oil can be extracted from the plant’s seeds, the leaves used in the production of tea can be harvested four times a year.

“To achieve sustainable development in a community, too much outside support could ruin efforts by locals to operate businesses by themselves,” she said.

The camellia projects have generated about 30 local jobs, including seasonal workers, at Seishokan and Banzai Factory Co., the partner that manages the farm.

In December, Watanabe began online sales of camellia tea priced at ¥950 per can. Up to now, around 300 cans containing 20 grams each of tea have been sold.

Five years after the disaster struck, her dream is to expand sales of Kesen camellia products both in Japan and abroad.

“People unfamiliar with the situation in Tohoku still have a negative image associated with tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear crisis. We’d like to fill the areas where tragedy occurred with beautiful red camellia flowers and invite Japanese and foreign tourists,” Watanabe said. There is now talk of holding a film festival in the city to draw visitors, she added.

Watanabe, who is also engaged in aid projects in Cambodia and other developing countries, said she sees similarities in supporting disaster-hit rural areas in Japan and helping impoverished communities abroad.

This means instead of speedy decision-making processes often required in urban areas, long-term engagement is needed for the benefit of the communities receiving aid, she said.

With any luck, the blossoming of camellias at home and abroad has only just begun.

  • Philosopher

    That’s the feel-good story of the day! I’d love to be able to buy some of these products as they’re an ethical souvenir of Japan. Where are they available?