People Interviews

Takashi Sato, an 8th-Generation Soy Sauce Producer and CEO of San-J (Jirushi), Is in Large Part, What Makes Tamari Soy Sauce Cool.

The two-centuries-old soy sauce producer started to import to the United States in 1978 and opened a plant in Henrico, Virginia, in 1987. The CEO, Takashi Sato’san, is the one connecting that history to all of us, which is not the norm for Japanese-based companies.

A large number of Japanese companies in the United States reside in Los Angeles due to their reliance on the Japanese community, which is a smart approach when entering the US market. Except, most become too dependent on the community, and even though many of these companies are in the US, they, unfortunately, do not actively engage the greater community.

Not so with San-J. They set up shop in Henrico, Virginia, and their CEO Takashi Sato’san actively engages the community. On top of all that, he is also not self-serving, only promoting San-J. Instead, he is a massive proponent for his craft and all things fermented, which makes him a cool dude, and why I reached out to him to do a Q&A.

San-Jirushi in Japan and San-J in the USA

“When the Sato family began making soy sauce and miso as the San-Jirushi company in 1804, they started a legacy that still boldly endures. Eight generations have passed along the method of brewing high-quality Tamari from the finest soybeans.”

San-J International, Inc.
Photo Description: the San-J product line-up shows a number of glass soy sauce bottles. Each bottle has their new product labeling which has their prominent 3-rivers circular logo. Each label has various San-J logos which represent the different product offerings offered by San-J (tamari lite, organic, etc).
The San-J tamari shoyu product line up with the companies new product labeling.

Two-Centuries of Producing Soy Sauce

In the food industry, there are those food producers who use every possible buzzword in the food industry to market their products. Whereas, San-J is an 8th-generation Japanese/Japanese American tamari producer and the Sato family has two centuries within their craft backing them up.

Competing Japanese soy sauce producers to San-J are also often naturally brewed and non-GMO which is almost expected when you are in a country with over several thousand other soy sauce producers. So trying to get by with a mediocre product or on a gimmick is not how San-Jirushi has been able to survive and dominate the Japanese market for the last two centuries.

Photo Description: an outline of Japan with the number 1,141 that represents the number of soy sauce producers in Japan.
1,141 is the number of soy sauce producers in Japan as of 2019 although back in the 70’s there were upwards of 6K.

What a Cool Dude/CEO

I can not think of any other CEO of a large Japanese or Japanese-American company that interacts or actively engages the market. The vast majority, partially due to language, avoid any engagement. Also, culturally, the Japanese are a lot like the Apple brand, which is one-sided and solely focused on their craft/product development.

San-Jirushi’s logo of three horizontal bars represent the three rivers. The name San-Jirushi means “the mark of three.”

Q&A with Takashi Sato’san, CEO of San-J Tamari, USA

Takashi’san, you are the eighth generation of the Sato family, but from what I can figure out, was your dad the first to come to the United States? So the two of you would be first-generation Japanese American (issei)? If so, can you please tell us a little about when you and your family came to the United States and what that was like?

Yes you are correct that it was my father who established San-J as US subsidiary of San-Jirushi in 1978. However, instead being immigrated to US, he only spent one third or half of year in US until I took over. In that sense, it would be me who became the first-generation Japanese American. 

In fact, when he started the company in the US in 1978, he suggested our family to immigrate to US. However, all the family members, my mother, two sisters and myself, all wanted to stay in Japan so my father decided to take couple long business trips a year. Our sisters and I were teenagers and we hesitated to change our environment and community. That was why we wanted to stay in Japan when my father started this business. 

Then, in 2001 when I was 29 years old, I joined San-J and came to the US. When I came here, I thought I would want to spend only couple years and go back to Japan again. It was because I thought of myself as city person who had grown up in Tokyo which is different from the life in Richmond, Virginia where San-J is located. However, once I started in the US, I realized that I like living here so that I decided to stay longer, which ended up being 20 years as of this year.

Photo Description: a worker at the Japanese San-Jirushi plant is standing next to a wooden barrel (a kioke). What looks to be soy sauce is draining from the spigot at the bottom into another container.
The shot is of San-J’s facility in Japan. It is of their wooden tanks (kioke). Although the majority of their product are done in FRP to stainless steel tanks (only 1% of producers still use kioke style tanks).

I assume that you currently reside in Richmond, Virginia? If so, I imagine there is not a large Japanese or Japanese American community in Richmond? I know I personally miss Los Angeles for the food, do you also feel the same?

I lived in Richmond between 2001 and 2017. After I married, we moved to Washington DC. The reason is, as you mentioned above, we wanted to be a part of Japanese and Chinese community (my wife is Chinese) as well as the American community. 

As you imagine, there are more opportunities to enjoy Japanese culture in Washington DC area, which is good for our children. But, compared to LA, choices are very limited (we don’t have Mitsuwa for example). So, yes, I sometimes miss Japan for the food. But, we also enjoy American food including BBQ, pizza and burgers so that I feel that we are lucky to enjoy various cultures at the same time.    

I love your (@Takashi_tamari) Instagram page (San-J also has a corporate page @SanJTamari) because all of your posts reflect a knowledge and passion for what you do. It reminds me of a segment on Michael Cimarusti, the Michelin chef for Providence in Los Angeles, who had traveled to Japan. During his visit, he was impressed by how many multi-generational families were involved in their craft from soy sauce, miso, wood working, to cutlery. You also reflect that and on your IG page you mention how many 100+ year old companies Japan has, over 19K (one of, if not the highest in the world). So growing up, was the family business something you always wanted to do or was a race car driver, teacher, or a guitarist for a band ever a thought?

My father always told me that I can choose different path and I also thought that I would do so in the future, though I didn’t have any specific job in mind. But I always wanted to do something related to what you eat. So, after I graduated college, I joined a different company, Ajinomoto, which is the biggest food manufacture in Japan. It was very good company where business is growing steadily, and people are also so nice. 

But, in couple years at Ajinomoto, I started to have an interest in San-J. From the viewpoint of huge corporation like Ajinomoto who has more than $10 billon of sales revenue, I was curious how a tiny family owned corporation like San-J could have built certain distribution in US, which is not easy for most Japanese food companies including Ajinomoto. So, that is when I decided to join San-J.   

Photo Description: a close-up of a cooked soy bean. If you use your fingernail to press into the soybean, if you can depress your nail into it at least 1mm an stops, you know it's time for the next stage of the process, the koji.
A close-up of a cooked soybean (the heart of soy sauce), and if you follow Sato’san on Instagram (@Takashi_tamari), you will learn if your soybean is properly cooked prior to being blended with koji.

One of the reasons why your Instagram page is good is because you put a lot of effort into it, and I really enjoyed this story:

“Rocky Aoki made our history. If you ever lived in US, you must have visited Benihana, Teppan-yaki style grill restaurant, which was founded by Rocky Aoki who is also known as a father of Steve Aoki and Devon Aoki.

Why am I saying that Rocky Aoki contributed to our history? Then, I need to start with my father, Takayoshi Sato. He was a second son of our family so that, as common in Japan, he was supposed to make his own living instead of joining family business in Japan. So, after graduating from college, my father joined Toyota, car company. At Toyota, he was assigned to international sales department so that he often came to US to sell Toyota car and sometimes took his customers to dinner to build good business relationship. Then, he always visited Benihana because Rocky Aoki is my father’s high school classmate.

They cook beef with soy sauce on teppan grill. It was 1970’s. Not a few American people had already experienced soy sauce. But it was with sushi not with beef. So, some American customers of my father didn’t like it, but some did. Watching his customers’ reaction, my father realized like “it would be exciting to sell Toyota car in America, but it must be more thrilling to sell soy sauce for American”. Then, my father quit the job and founded soy sauce company in Richmond VA, USA, which was in 1978. In that sense, yes Rocky Aoki played a very important role in our history.

I met Mr. Aoki only once. It was 30+ years ago when I was at junior high school. In fact, it was my very first visit to US in my life. My father took me to his “mansion” located outside of Manhattan. We didn’t stay long. Only thing I remember was that he was calm and polite man.

– Takashi Sato, San-J USA via Instagram

Thank you for this question. Yes I am planning more in future. But, in fact, those plans are not for my own company/product but for whole fermentation industry in Japan including soy sauce, miso, mirin, koji etc. In short, I want to support fermentation breweries to survive in next 100 years. 

How I came up with this idea. In Japan, the number of fermentation breweries is decreasing. Why? It’s mainly because what we eat in Japan is getting Westernized so that those traditional fermented foods are not being used as much as compared to before. In addition, because our population is decreasing every year even down to half in next 100 years, I believe most breweries in this fermentation industry will be kicked out of business sooner or later. In other words, there would be no future for them if they stick to the domestic (Japanese) market since the number of consumers is decreasing. So, to survive, fermentation breweries in Japan need to branch outwards for additional opportunities to sell their products to foreign countries/markets, which I am able to support. 

How to support? I would like to provide more opportunities for consumers in foreign countries to know/learn Japanese fermented products. Approaches I have in mind are as follows. 

My own IG: I will keep posted. 

Fermentation Tourism:  I would like to arrange some tour to visit breweries in Japan. Those experience to visit the place and to meet brewers would certainly strength commitment to the breweries and their products. For example, napa valley is famous for its tourism, which also contributes California wine consumption in the world at the end.   That is what I would like to do in Japan. Tour to visit fermentation breweries in Japan. 

We are going to have the first tour in Oct 2022 in Hokuriku area, which will be coordinated with Mr. Hiraku Ogura who has the biggest influence in fermentation community in Japan. It is going to be 3 days tours with attendance of myself and Mr. Ogura. I do hope many people can join it, though we can prepare for limited number for this trip. In future, I would like to arrange it more often regularly in other area too. 

Soy sauce / koji course: I might want to provide some course for those who want to learn more about soy sauce and/or koji. It might include some program like workshop, factory tour, test or certification. 

Photo Description: after world war 2, a number of new materials were tested for soy sauce production, one of which was concrete. Although, nowadays fiberglass reinforced plastic and and stainless steel are the most commonplace materials used.
The San-Jirushi concrete tanks in Japan were all part of a century-long process of trial and error. Traditionally wooden tanks were used, although concrete was tried at one point, to the present-day use of FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic) and stainless steel (SUS).

On your website it says “tamari dates back before the seventh century, when it was first brought from China. It has long been considered the origin of Japanese soy sauce.” On your Instagram page, you are the perfect ambassador for not only tamari, but all types of shoyu (the five distinct types of Japanese soy sauce). So you are not just about tamari (San-J does have an impressive 90% market share), but you are a shoyu ambassador. I say that about you because you are able to converse on all aspects of the process and types of shoyu, so how did you come to be so knowledgeable. Obviously you grew up in the industry, but what were all the roles you have held within San-J?

To be honest, I am not the man who has that knowledge most at San-J. We have brew master, Mr. Mito, who oversees our brewing process. I am a president of San-J so that I need to manage not only production but also sales, marketing, and finance etc. Of course, I have more knowledge than ordinary consumers but still in learning process.  

Photo Description: a map of Japan with the number 33,076. The number is the amount of 100+ year old businesses in Japan.
33,076 is the number of 100+ year old companies in Japan, which is also the highest in the world (the US is in second place with 19,497).

Since tamari has the richest flavor, it could be good matching with meat, especially with fatty one.

On your Instagram page (@Takashi_tamari) you have a post where you used shoyu on ice cream which is something I need to try after I saw you post it. Although, what are some of your favorite dishes (traditional/unconventional) that are shoyu based?

What I like is to match soy sauce with traditional menu in each country, BBQ with soy sauce instead of BBQ sauce in US, fish & chips with soy sauce instead of vinegar in UK, sausage with soy sauce instead of mustard in Germany, escargot with soy sauce in France, pasta with soy sauce in Italy etc. I’m not saying that soy sauce is superior to traditional condiments in each menu in each country. Instead, what I wanted to tell is that soy sauce could give you more option to enjoy your favorite menu of your country, which could widen your experience with the menu. And I believe that soy sauce has a potential to do so. I would like to explore those opportunities. 

Photo Description: a shot of Sato'san and Yamamoto'san of Yamaroku shoyu in Shodo Shima, Japan. The cool part of the pic has Sato'san in a black San-J t-shirt, blue jeans, and white Nike shoes. Yamamoto’san looks to be in his work gear.
Sato’san of San-J and Yamamoto’san of Yamaroku shoyu in Shodo-shima, Japan.

I like the way of thinking of American people who don’t hesitate to change.  For example, below is the message I posted on corporate website. I came up to this idea after I started living in US. I think I have been influenced by American people in a good way.   

“We’ve held on to the core values and techniques of our heritage. However, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t changed our Tamari in any way. Everyone knows that our lifestyle has changed drastically, of course, in the last 200 years or even for the last few years. We’ve had to make some adjustments to keep up with these lifestyle changes and ensure our products endure.

For example, salt is one of the essential ingredients for Tamari Soy Sauce as it is a preserved seasoning, and salt also adds a good flavor. But when high sodium intake became a concern in recent years, we made less sodium versions of our Tamari to suit the needs of more customers. 

Also, lifestyle can be very different depending on where you are, such as Japan and the United States. When we started selling our products in the United States, we suggested recipes that can incorporate our Tamari into the American dinner table more easily. It didn’t matter to us if it wasn’t used in the same way as in Japan ― we had to evolve to bring our product to a new market.  “A splash of Tamari will make your soup, casserole, gravy, or spaghetti sauce taste so much better.” “Steak and Tamari go really well together.” It was exciting to introduce more flavor options to help make everyone’s ordinary meals a little extraordinary.

We are not afraid to make changes so our Tamari can continue to be loved by anyone, any time period and any location.”

– Takashi Sato, San-J International, Inc.

Thank you Takashi Sato’san for your time and being a cool CEO and overall dude.

www.san-j.com

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: