[From April Issue 2015]
Tea in its many forms is deeply connected to Japanese history and culture. One of the most popular teas consumed today is sencha; a green tea invented by NAGATANI Soshichiro – founder of what was to become Nagatanien Co., Ltd. – in the Edo era (17-19th centuries). That is to say that originally the Nagatani family ran a tea production business. Sencha was eventually exported to Western countries and, along with raw silk thread, became one of Japan’s major exports.
In 1952, NAGATANI Yoshio, the tenth Nagatani to run the family business, developed “Ochazuke Nori” with his father Takezo so that people could easily consume delicious ochazuke (a dish of rice and tea) at home. At that time ochazuke nori was powdered shredded seaweed, seasoning, and arare (rice crackers) mixed together by hand. As neither aluminum foil nor polyethylene was available in those days, to prevent humidity from spoiling the seaweed, 100 bags of double the usual thickness were stored in a bottle that had a layer of lime placed inside its base.
Sales of Ochazuke Nori steadily increased and it eventually became a hit product nationwide. In 1953, a year after the product was launched, Yoshio established Nagatanien Honpo Co., Ltd. He subsequently created a series of long selling products such as “Matsutake no Aji Osuimono,” “Sake Chazuke,” “Asage” and “Sushi Taro,” all of which can still be found in stores today.
In 1979, a man, who was in charge of the production department, was chosen to be the company’s first “idle employee.” Yoshio told him, “You don’t have to come to work. You can spend as much as you want. You don’t need to report back. Eat whatever you want and come up with something in two years.” Having created a series of hit products, Yoshio knew that “good ideas don’t only surface when you’re sitting at a desk.”
The man from the production department followed his orders and, searching for ideas for new products, traveled extensively sampling food both in and outside of Japan. Two years later, he ended up launching “Mabo Harusame,” a combination of “Chinese soup” and “harusame” (thin noodles). Mabo Harusame, the world’s first instant Chinese food, was a big hit. Along with this product, the dish itself became popular nationwide.
In 2003, the A-Label range for people with food allergies was created. During the developmental stage, some employees voiced concerns that it would be hard to maintain quality without eggs, milk and flour, but these difficulties were overcome with the launch of a curry in a sealed plastic pouch and furikake (dried seasoning for rice). In response to an unexpected influx of positive comments from mothers – such as “I’ve been waiting for a product like this” and “Please create more products like this in the future” – more resources are being allocated to product development and the marketing of this range.
At the time of writing, the “What are you going to put on Japan?” project, to get consumers to suggest new ways of eating Ochazuke Nori, is underway. Ochazuke, made of typical ingredients used in Japanese cuisine such as rice, tea and seaweed, is likened to Japan itself. “Ochazuke cars” are now traveling around Japan showcasing recipes that incorporate local delicacies.
Text: ITO Koichi