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A Lost Soy Sauce Fungus Is Helping Post-Tsunami Japan to Bounce Back

In January, Japanese officials declared that foods produced around Fukushima are all but radiation-free and safe to consume. But the rest of Japan—and its food producers—have continued to struggle to pick up the pieces left by a natural disaster that...

by Munchies Staff
Mar 10 2015, 7:24pm

Photo via Flickr user kattebelletje

Tomorrow will mark four years to the day when a tsunami crashed into the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on the Japanese island of Honshu, triggering the largest nuclear incident since Chernobyl. It caused unimaginable damage to homes and businesses, and left a lasting scar on the environment.

In January, Japanese officials thankfully declared that foods produced in region surrounding the plant are all but radiation-free and safe to consume. But while the power plant and its fallout have taken precedence in headlines, the rest of Japan—and its food producers—have continued to struggle to pick up the pieces left by a natural disaster that killed nearly 16,000 people.

One such company is Yagisawa Shoten Co., a soy sauce brewer profiled this week by the Associated Press. Founded in 1807, the Iwate Prefecture-based company was nearly wiped out as a result of the tsunami, its factory and its entire inventory destroyed as a result.

Even though he faced 220 million yen (about $2 million) in damages, Yagisawa president Michihiro Kono—a ninth-generation soy sauce brewer—managed to raise 150 million yen (about $1.5 million) through a crowdfunding site called Music Securities Inc., as well as secure some government assistance.

Despite having neither a product nor a factory, Kono continued to pay his employees and kept the company alive—going as far as distributing other companies' soy sauce products, according to the AP.

But then he managed to track down some of the precious fungal cultures that his family had long used to kick-start soy sauce fermentation—cultures that he thought had been destroyed by the tsunami. He had donated them to a university before the disaster in the hopes that they might be used in cancer-fighting research.

Now, those cultures are helping Kono to brew the same soy sauce that his family had made for more than two centuries—including its two-year-aged "Miracle" soy sauce. "This is the sauce that is made from the pre-disaster mash," notes Yagisawa's site.

The Associated Press reports that while Yagisawa is still operating at a loss, it has managed to find some new customers and continues to regrow its business. It may take a while to return to normal, but even a little bit of fungus can help Japan get back on its feet.