The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun
Mito firm pushes global vision for fermented soybeans
On Dec. 26, as 2018 was drawing to a close, Natto Co. Chief Executive Officer Hirotada Miyashita was in a Tokyo studio, taking photos of natto for his Mito-based company’s website. A table groaned under bowls of rice topped with natto and garnished with everything from salted cod roe spiced with red pepper to young sardines to kimchi. All the toppings had been purchased from a convenience store, showing that anybody could easily make these dishes. A smile crossed Miyashita’s face as the ingredients were heaped into bowls one after the other. “That’s great, it looks tasty,” he said.
Miyashita, who is from Mito, established the company on July 10, 2018. July 10 is known as “Natto Day” in Japan, and Miyashita has big plans for the fermented soybeans. He set up the company with the goal of “delivering natto to dinner tables around the world,” and has started overseas promotions of natto, a specialty of Mito, by branding it as NATTO, using the Roman alphabet. This venture also aims to give an economic boost to Miyashita’s hometown.
Natto Co. is already exporting its products to Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore, and this year the company plans to begin sales in Australia, Malaysia and the United States.
The Japan External Trade Organization’s branch in Ibaraki Prefecture is also supporting this sales drive. “We want to work with them to use natto to tell the whole world about the attractions of Mito,” Tomohiro Kinomoto, chief of the branch, said.
After completing his studies at Ibaraki University’s graduate school, Miyashita started working for a company in the NTT Group. Each time he returned to Mito for a visit, the sight of many shuttered shops made his heart ache. “I wanted to do something to breathe life back into the city,” recalled Miyashita, 34.
After he posted a message about his feelings on Facebook, three of his university friends contacted him and they met up to discuss the issue. As they chatted, they agreed on one thing: “When someone says Mito, natto springs to mind.”
In January 2015, they formed “Natto Boys,” a project team that was the predecessor of Natto Co. The group introduced about 120 kinds of nattoand-rice dishes on Facebook, which generated a huge response. At one point, the growth rate in the number of “likes” their posts got was the fourth-highest in Japan.
“We realized natto had tremendous potential,” Miyashita said.
Miyashita’s activities inspired a new member — from Africa — to join the natto boys.
Sako Lancine, who heads an association of Cote d’Ivoire residents in Japan, loves natto so much that he eats it every day. Lancine, 37, came to Japan in 2002 as a government-sponsored student. After graduating from Ibaraki University, he started working at an information technology company in Japan, where he met Miyashita as a client. While talking, they discovered their shared love of natto. According to Lancine, Cote d’Ivoire has a kind of seasoning similar to natto. “I think African people also could become fond of natto,” Lancine told Miyashita.
Listening to Sako Lancine of Cote d’Ivoire convinced Hirotada Miyashita, CEO of Natto Co., based in Mito, to launch the fermented soybeans on the African market.
“Natto is highly nutritious, so I thought people in Africa would be happy to eat it,” Miyashita said.
After hearing from an acquaintance about an upcoming international trade fair in Tanzania, Miyashita decided to use his own business experience to introduce natto to the world. The team raised about ¥500,000 through crowdfunding to cover the cost of participating in the trade fair and traveled to the African nation in July 2015. Lancine helped compile their visa applications and offered advice about what kind of promotional activities the team should do in Tanzania. Visitors to the trade fair gave feedback such as, “It has a chocolate or coffee flavor.” Team members also went out in the streets to distribute natto samples.
Since then, Miyashita’s team has periodically delivered natto to Africa, and Natto Co. is making preparations to export the food there.
After making this foray into the African market, Miyashita established a natto importing company in Hong Kong, where he was working at a local telecommunications business. Natto was a hit in Hong Kong, so Miyashita decided it was time to fully devote himself to overseas exports of the food. He returned to Japan in 2017 and founded Natto Co. the following year.
The company won first place in a business plan contest held in Mito in November 2018 with its proposal to “revitalize Mito by opening a shop specializing in natto-on-rice dishes.” Preparations for opening this shop are moving full-steam ahead. “I’ll definitely make it a reality,” Miyashita said.
In the future, Miyashita intends to expand his operations beyond exporting and selling natto. He plans to work with universities and other entities to research the bacteria found in natto and spread information — domestically and internationally — about the benefits of the food other than for eating, in fields such as health, beauty and environmental issues.
Miyashita’s aspiration to revitalize his hometown has since morphed into plans to deliver natto to the world. Indeed, his quest has barely started. “There will be difficulties ahead, but I’m serious about helping to energize the local economy,” Miyashita said.