“Brand is thicker than Blood” Interview with Masashi Watanabe – Eighth generation Head and Representative Director of Funabashiya – What this old family-run enterprise maintain as its heritage, and how they change in business

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“Those spontaneous smiles people show when tasting something good, is a sign of happiness. By linking them together, we may realize a soul-content society”-
Under such philosophy, “Funabashiya”, which produce and sell “Kuzumochi”, an Edo (old saying for Tokyo) typical Japanese confectionery, is an old company lasting 211 years and counting, since establishment from the Edo period (1603-1867). I have interviewed Mr. Masashi Watanabe, Funabashiya’s 8th Head of Company who is not just relying on their heritage and tradition, but also applying managerial innovation which fits to today’s era in order to bring progress to the company. We have asked him about the unknown fascinations of their Kuzumochi, and their plan to expand into the fields of medical and health categories. (Interview by Shusaku Hayakawa, business consultant)

The Kuzumochi they spend 450 days to mature would last only 2 days

Hayakawa (H): Funabashiya carries along over a 200 year history with your motto “Forever straightforwardly Kuzumochi-driven”. Please tell us about the history of Kuzumochi, and where the name of your company comes from.

Watanabe (W): Kuzumochi originally were enjoyed as snacks among farmers ranging from Eastern Tokyo to Shimousa (Today’s Northern Chiba Prefecture, including Funabashi). It was eaten with melted wheat and poured black sugar. Our ancestors used to run a tofu shop next to a shrine in Funabashi, but had the eager to sell Kuzumochi instead, in a place with more crowds, bringing them to the entrance paths of Kameido Tenjin shrine in Tokyo. People may wonder why Funabashi while at Kameido! Well, we just took our name from where we originally came from.

H: What are the points where you are particular when making Kuzumochi? Are there some sorts of secrets to create the unique texture?

W: Although not known much, Kuzumochi is the only fermented food among Japanese confectionery. We make it gluten free by washing with wheat, and to ferment using left over starch which remained after the wash.
The resilient texture cannot be realized just by steaming, fermentation must take place.
The period cannot be 300 days or 500 days, it must be 450 days where at its best.
Therefore, Kuzumochi eaten just now were tucked 450 days ago. Just like wine, taste may change according to the weather of the year when it was tucked.
If we have a very hot summer, fermentation shall proceed, making the Kuzumochi bouncier as texture, and tasty.

Actually, we have reduced odor from fermentation than before. People would not mind yogurt or natto being sour as they are recognized as fermented. However, it is not the case for kuzumochi, so we are erasing the smell. Otherwise, we intentionally have customers hear the sound from crystal bowls when we make the kuzumochi. Among all that we have done, this had to be the best, it indeed became a secret recipe.. Choice of water is critical, as it will mature the kuzumochi for the next 450 days. We have factories in Gifu and Okinawa, both where we pump natural water.

H: So the kuzumochi will last only 2 days before expiry after 450 days of fermentation?

W: As we say “taste the moment of happiness”, we would like to provide our customers happiness, although that might be just one moment. Preservatives, vacuum packaging may enable us to increase production and sales, but we want our customers to eat natural ingredients. After all, we human bodies expect food to be natural. We will discontinue selling if we cannot do so. We keep both fermentation and expiration periods as they are, reflecting our values of an Edokko (Tokyoite) grace, fragility, and business fashion.

H: Does your health and youth also come from kuzumochi?

W: I believe so. As they are fermented, seemingly it cleans off my intestines. I go through bowel movements every time after I dine. As a matter of fact, compared to the decade between 1965 and 1974, our current daily diet contains 7 times more of toxic substances.
Due to this people who claim illness are increasing. In addition, if your bowel movements are not as frequent as they are supposed to be, it shall be a problem. Imagine meat being left under a 37 degree Celcius environment for 24 hours. If that is happening in your body, don’t you think it should be bad for you? We found out there are 13 different types of lactic acid bacteria in kuzumochi. As they say, illness comes from intestines. I believe lactic acid to be very effective.

H: Nowadays there are intense competition not only from health-conscious foods, but also other items such as Japanese confectioneries and sweets. What is your strength in kuzumochi?

W: No one can copy us. For instance, if it was daifuku, anybody can. However, it will take 450 days to copy kuzumochi. It is not so easy to catch up with our 200 year history of expertise.

Essential innovation in order to maintain tradition

H: In a world where 95 out of 100 businesses fail, it is something for a business to last for 220 years. Are there methods, philosophy, or other aspects you have inherited from your ancestors?

W: What’s important in family business is within the Father-son relationship. It is almost impossible to pass over the same paradigm from a father to son. Instead, a son will have to develop its own even by opposing to the father.

In my family, we have a theory called “Brand is thicker than blood”. Even a son cannot become the heir if he is not suitable as the Head of Funabashiya. There were actually sons who were incompetent within the transfer of our eight generations. They were not able to succeed, and eventually were forced out of the business. My grandfather did not hesitate to kick out his own son. He instead adopted my father. My grandfather was also adopted. My son will also not inherit if not suitable. You cannot destroy the business itself for the sake of keeping you son in the business.

H: What surprised you when you first joined Funabashiya after you quit your job as a banker, and what were the difficulties when you took over the Head position?

W: I am deeply thankful for the staffs to maintain the manufacturing procedures which had long lasted for ages. However, I often got surprised by what they did! They would tell themselves their job for the day is finished, and start drinking from 4 in the afternoon. They would not teach someone logically, but rather bark, and sometimes rely on violence rather than the talking. On a Sunday they would go sports-betting on horse races ending up abandoning the shop with no one to look after.
I had to firmly instruct orders from the top to prevent all of this to happen. Many left the company because of this, but hired new graduates as replacement, increasing who will understand my views.

H: Do you see a difference between your father and yourself in terms of leadership?

W: My father ran the business when the economy was still booming in one direction under high growth rates. People’s positions were promoted automatically. Heads who would demonstrate strong leadership were accepted in those days. Nowadays, you would rather have in mind to form a flat team. In my father’s days, our organization was formed like a pyramid. Today, an orchestra. Head will act as a conductor, and adjust the entire team accordingly if there were anyone who may not catch up. Staffs feel more comfort knowing the Head is besides you understanding what you see and have in mind. You cannot continue to force staffs to do under your way, otherwise they will eventually leave you. To have them feel they’re climbing the steps together in a fruitful manner is important.

H: We do not engage into leaders who describe their leadership in such way. I’ve also heard how interesting your corporate recruitment orientation meetings are, produced by young staffs in the company.

W: Nearly 20,000 students post in their application for the meeting of such an old confectionery company like us, not located in such a high esteemed area. Hired staffs will be trained through courses and activities to improve according to their individual skills, so we see many staffs grow their talent in a fast manner. We have launched various projects in order to have staffs grow their own initiatives, and share our vision.

H: What do you want your staffs to learn the most?

W: One will be the cultural aspects of this company, such as how Funabashiya came into our customer’s daily life in the first place. For instance, one customer of ours recently passed away at the age of 104. That customer left a will saying to place a kuzumochi and a photo of our shop in his funeral. So we have sent them both. Before he died, he had told people, for him during the struggle in midst of wartime and post-war, his only fun was to eat our kuzumochi in front of the Kameido Shrine. He was brought by his grandmother in his childhood, brought his own kids and grandchildren after growing up, and eventually bringing great grandchild at 104. He is to have said to “Bring with him the kuzumochi to gift the devil at hell’s gate”. This is what I mean about the cultural aspects in the company.
The other will be our social value to exist. Ask yourself for what do we exist for, how do we contribute towards society. Ask not of your own corporate profit, but what you do to make the world a happier place. For us, that would be to learn about toxic substances going into our body through our daily diet. I would want our staffs to be highly conscious of this matter.

Desire to contribute to the world through “Fermentation”

H: Can you share your latest business plans?

W: One is to maintain our heritage and to spread the fermentation culture around the world. The other is to collaborate with medical areas as an innovative step, on a thought to utilize lactic acid inside the kuzumochi to improve people’s intestine health. I have desire to popularize fermentation as popular as Karaoke.

Everyone has a desire to be healthy, and there is a huge market along with it. Funabashiya’s kuzumochi is not a phony product, as proven by our 212 year history. We would like to segregate medical products from general. Men’s intestines are worse than that of women’s. Men eat more meat and drink more beer. It will be so convenient if we can prepare a gelatin of lactic acid from kuzumochi ready to eat for these men. We would like to sell items which would last for 2 years before expiry. Gum disease may also be fought. Plaques are dealt usually with anti-biotics at dentists. Maybe the gelatin may cleanse such disease. We are also approached from firms dealing athlete’s foot and cosmetics.

We are also advancing our talks about overseas expansion such as Investment in the Philippines, a market foreseen to grow the most in the future. We may not be able to introduce kuzumochi as they are, but can be some other fermented “Made in Japan” confectionery. Also reactions were good when we were talking about fermentation at Shanghai and Thailand. This will expand further. Kuzumochi is an old product, but our company is still growing. This I believe it is because there is something special about kuzumochi. Our business is growing in both sales and profit even after the 2008 economic crisis. We would like to continue our mission step by step to tell the positive effect fermented products have for health improvement, in a definite straightforward manner.

(Masashi Watanabe)
Representative Director, Funabashiya
Born in Tokyo, 1964. B.A from St. Paul’s University. Joined a major commercial bank, experiencing corporate finance and bond trading before leaving to join Funabashiya in 1993. Succeeded as 8th Head of company in 2008. Applying reforms in the 200 year old enterprise, now the company enjoys attention from the younger generation. Job applicants from students reach approximately 17000. His motto: “all but myself are masters of my life”

(Corporate info)
Funabashiya K.K.
Founded in 1805. Established as form of current company in October 1952.
Business details: Production/distribution of kuzumochi and other sweets. Operation of cafe shops.
No. of employees: 180
Head office address: 3-2-14 Kameido, Koto, Tokyo. Tel +81-3-6280-1522
URL: http://www.funabashiya.co.jp/sph/