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Umeken: From traditional Japanese medicine balls to innovative skincare solutions

Interview - April 16, 2024

Umeken, a small yet pioneering Japanese company, has blended centuries-old traditional medicine techniques with modern innovation to create a global impact in both healthcare and skincare industries.

SAKAMOTO HIDEKAZU, PRESIDENT OF UMEKEN CO., LTD.
SAKAMOTO HIDEKAZU | PRESIDENT OF UMEKEN CO., LTD.

Could you tell us about your company, how you came to be, and some of the key milestones throughout your history that have come to define the Umeken of 2023?

Unlike leading major companies, we are a small company, but we do possess a unique technology. Being a small group of specialists, we do not tend to do any mass production, but rather small lot manufacturing. When describing my company to you I should probably start with how our company came to be. Before starting this business, I worked for a Western medical company. I felt like I could not accept the harm caused by the side effects of Western medicine, so I decided to start something with Eastern medicine. I established Umeken in 1978 as a umeboshi company, a type of pickled Japanese plum known as Japan’s oldest health food. Japanese people have maintained their health by eating these plums for hundreds of years now.

In the beginning, we started with one product called “umeboshi”, with its ingredients being Japanese plums. The unique selling point was that we contained the extract and the juice in a ball-shaped form known in the Western world as medicine balls. I wanted to spread the good word of umeboshi across the entire country of Japan and then across the oceans to the entire world.

In 1983, we took part in our first trade show outside of Japan which was the Natural Expo held in Anaheim, California. We brought our umeboshi balls there and demonstrated them to the US attendees. This was a valuable chance for us to share our products with an international audience. This traditional medicine ball-making technique has been passed down from generation to generation for more than 200 years. Toyama prefecture is the largest producer of these products in Japan and the Chairman of Umeken is the last person to inherit these traditional techniques in Japan. This trip to Anaheim California in 1983 was covered by local newspapers and magazines. Many companies took part in that fair, but we were the only one that was picked up for media coverage for traditional ball making techniques.

These days we process some of these products by machines, but we do not have fully automated processes. Most of the machines in our facilities require skilled specialists who have taken up to 10 years to learn to fully operate them.

 

What are the specific advantages of your Ganzai Ball form over some more traditional medicine shapes?

There are a variety of sizes and some dosages we can only make in ball form. We can combine as many as 45 different types of oriental herbs into a single ball by using traditional manufacturing techniques. There have been concerns with formulating extraction ingredients into a tablet form, but no such concerns exist for the ball form. There are more than 200 years of history for this Ganzai Ball technique, with a variety of ingredients like oriental herbs, we have hundreds of different types of supplements that are approved by several countries including the Department of Health and Human Services in Japan. We decided to produce supplement balls for functional foods so that we could come up with thousands of different types. This approach allows us to tailor our products to meet customer demands and we can achieve the desired effect that the customer is looking for.



Can you provide us with some specific examples of some of the functional foods you are offering through your medicine balls?

One example is the Korean ginseng. In the past, Korean ginsengs were allowed to be used as medicine only, but there was a change in the law of the Ministry of Medicine in Japan which said that it was okay to use Korean ginsengs as a functional food, and this change happened about 50 years ago. The Ministry of Medicine determined that the Korean ginsengs were safe for consumption as food.

Over the last 45 years, we have come up with 300-400 different types of ball types of supplements. Another example is the Ume Plum Balls I mentioned earlier. Honestly, the plums themselves are too sour so we extracted the essence into the supplement ball so that they are easy to take for customers. Because of the traditional ball making technology, it is possible to mix with other forms of ingredients or go with a 100% plum extract paste type. Sometimes some plants like herbs can be very bitter, so in this case, the supplement ball proves to be an excellent vessel for functional foods.

 

Is it easier for children to take supplement balls rather than pills or tablets?

Yes, it is. People tend to feel safer when they ingest something round. I think that is simply because it is easier to swallow. This goes for both children and the elderly. In fact, it is also possible to produce a chewable supplement ball that you can chew and your body will absorb the nutrients. Furthermore, we’ve been masking or creating a better taste of this ball to help out those who are having a hard time eating a flavor they dislike. We produce items that make people happy to take nutrients, from children all the way to the elderly.

This entire process however cannot be automated. Half of the processes have to be completed by a skilled specialist. For types of capsules, tablet production, full automation is possible but it is impossible for our ball manufacturing system. These supplement balls require more than eight steps during production, with each having to be taken care of by skilled specialists. This is something that major manufacturers cannot do with their mass production methods.

 

Japan’s demographic is currently on a downward trajectory, with an aging population that is shrinking due to low birth rates. Technical inheritance issues, a labor crisis, and a shrinking domestic market are all prevalent issues that are coming to light due to this demographic situation. What have been some of the challenges this demographic shift has presented to your company and how have you been reacting to them? How have you been able to pass your traditional technique down to the younger generation?

To retain skilled employees, we have taken good care of them. It actually takes years to complete the training for these specialists. In the future, we want to hire more young Asian employees, especially those who want to be Japanese nationals. We already have around four of these Asian employees who are fluent in English and their motherland languages, but ideally, we want to hire more. Additionally, by hiring Asians and allowing them to become Japanese nationals, we are contributing a solution to the population issue. This is my philosophy, but I think that our success is rooted in how we hire and work together with people. Our employees often invite their close relatives and friends to join our company. We utilize this network of existing employees often and I think this mindset leads to success. In fact, a lot of couples are working together in our company, and some parents have said that they want even their grandchildren to work here with us.

Across Asia, we do have distributors and 100% owned subsidiaries in eight countries outside of Japan. I think this can become a sort of hiring channel for us, meaning there are staff at these sites that might be interested in coming to Japan to work and become nationalized. I think this international, family-oriented nature is a part of our company’s unique culture.

 

How are your traditional oriental medicine balls received in Western countries? From our research, we understand that oriental medicine is slowly becoming something that is more accepted in the West, especially when compared to modern medicine where a lot of people are building immunity to antibiotics. As your products have been selling in both the US and Canadian markets for a long time,  can you tell us how your techniques are received there? Do you see a growing opinion that is more appreciative of Oriental medicine in the West?

Chinese herbs and Eastern medicine are preventive medicine, which is not familiar to Western customers even now. In 1997, Umeken USA was established. I used to have a partner called Mr. Han who was South Korean; he was my best friend with a strong pioneering spirit. He wanted to spread our techniques and products to the entire world. This is why he decided to establish Umeken USA. The target was Asians living in the US, which included people originating from countries like South Korea, China, and Vietnam. This is because Chinese medicine is popular among Asian people. In the USA and Canadian markets, we have now been doing business for more than 20 years and we are now seeing people give our products to their loved ones for special occasions such as Christmas and birthdays. They are also introducing our products to other Asian countries, adding the logo of their origin country. This has allowed us to promote our products among Asian communities.

Because of the success we have achieved among Asian communities in the US, we are now receiving more inquiries from Southeast countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore. Asian people want to share things they like with their loved ones. Additionally, Asian people do not want to give anything unsafe to the people they love, and I think that the fact that we have been doing business for 25 years in the US has proven that our products are not only safe but also effective. Customers know how good our products are and select them again and again. Looping back, the supplement balls were demonstrated at that trade show in Anaheim that I mentioned, and this product (Umeboshi) remains in our product lineup to this day. I would say that our products are described as long sellers. I think the fact that our products are selected as gifts for loved ones such as parents speaks to the quality and reputation we have gained.

You mentioned the aging demographic issue in Japan, but on the other hand, I believe that Japan ranks high in terms of people’s longevity. Even now, I think that Japan is number one. Just 50 years ago Japan only had 39 people aged over 100, but in a study conducted in 2012, 86,510 people were discovered over the age of 100. This survey and data were issued by the Ministry of Health. In fact, they are estimating that by 2120 most Japanese people will be older than 100.

The world’s population is paying attention to Japan and trying to figure out why people have such longevity. Food and supplements are contributing to this, and with this attention, I think that more people are paying attention to our healthy products. The plan in fact is to build a factory in the future where sales potential is quite high, which in turn will allow us to spread our products to the world. This philosophy is actually regarded as old wisdom of the medicine sellers of Toyama prefecture. The philosophy tells us to make others rich when we want to be rich ourselves. My goal is to maintain these traditional Toyama techniques and spread this spirit of altruism to people around the world.

 

How do you believe Japanese firms are able to maintain leadership in various industries despite stiff regional competition from similar firms in China, Korea, and Taiwan?

I have made several visits now to Southeast and Central Asian countries. The people there said that made-in-Japan products are simply the best thing. I think that because of this reputation across many different industries, it creates a situation where Japanese companies are easily able to enter international markets. Our medicine ball techniques are one of the unique advanced Japanese technologies. If I can spread my products around the world, I can also make contributions to the made-in-Japan brand. It feels like I am paying back the reputation that helped me in the past.

The market situation is changing, however, and we are now seeing the rise of e-commerce, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19. After the pandemic, there has been more of an emphasis on IT technologies, but having said that, I personally am still a believer in direct, face-to-face communication. Dialogue between ourselves and our customers remains vital. Obviously, with this in mind, it is important to combine technology into our business, but human-to-human communication remains important at all times. I hope that eventually, our products help the world to be a better place.

 

In 2020, Umeken launched its own skincare brand in the form of Optimo, which contains stem cells, lipopolysaccharide (LPS), and oriental herbs. Why did you decide to launch your own skincare brand and what is your branding strategy to ensure successful growth?

I think first of all people always want something unique, better, and more sophisticated, so with that in mind, we started a farm 15 years ago to grow ingredients for food as well as cosmetics based in Miyakojima. I think the unique ingredients from our farm in Miyakojima are a great story to attract more people and an important marketing strategy for us. We have been doing business as a supplement OEM, but supplements contribute to the health of the body from the inside out. Cosmetics on the other hand are something that helps from the outside in. Each approach has limits, so we wanted to go beyond those limits by combining both approaches; cosmetics and supplements.

Conventionally there are side effects to medication, so with that in mind, I wanted to increase immunity, basically building a barrier inside the body that can protect and kill bacteria or cancer cells. We wanted to create a product that supports peoples’ original abilities so that we can contribute to improving the health of people more. Again, we are an OEM which means we are not professional with branding. However, I do believe the marketing methods that are effective are changing all the time. A method that was successful last month will not necessarily work tomorrow or next week. I think a core thing to remember is that we develop excellent products, the kind of products customers and employees can love. In particular, if our employees and their families love using our products then they are also convincing people they know of the validity of our products. This is our strategy to develop, market, and continue to produce an excellent skincare brand.

 

Is this only available in Japan or is it also available in other overseas markets?

We are negotiating with some companies, but we basically have set ourselves limits where we only make a contract with one company per country. We already have been exporting products to the US and some Southeast Asia countries.

 

There are so many skincare products out on the market. Why should people buy Optimo over some others?

I think it is important to focus on one element, and in particular, with our Optimo brand, we have focused on something we call SLB, which stands for Skin Layer Blossoming. This SLB represents three core ingredients. We want the users of our cosmetics to enhance their skin immunity. We do not see our Optimo brand as cosmetics, rather we see them as supplements. All we are trying to do is translate our philosophy for supplements into cosmetic-like products. We want to make something excellent that you use once and then come back again and again for life.

Optimo products contain an ingredient called bidens pilosa. We have done research on this plant for many years and we have been growing it on our farm. It is effective against inflammations and itchiness as well as atrophy. I am also confident that this special ingredient works great as a cosmetic, and this ethos is what led us to grow truly special and effective ingredients by ourselves. In addition, bidens pilosa is also used in supplements as a main ingredient and has helped a lot of people overseas with their health and skin problems.

 

Could you tell us a little about your R&D strategy?

Oriental herbs pay attention to different types of bodies. Some people tend to have warmer bodies while others have colder bodies. We can see the combination of parameters in the body and tailor the composition of oriental herbs to create an appropriate medicine.

These days people around the world spend a lot of time researching healthy ingredients, but what they are missing are these combinations that we have learned over 1,000 years of trial and error. We want to focus our research on the combinations, for example, finding a combination that boosts immunity. Let’s take calcium for example, when you usually intake it with foods such as milk it is not enough, so instead you can take it with minerals which will cause the calcium to be absorbed by the body better. This is a good example of the kinds of combinations we are currently researching. This will allow us to penetrate other markets.

We are Halal certified because these days this is becoming an important factor people look for, especially in emerging markets such as Indonesia where populations are growing at a rapid rate. By acquiring this certification, we can start to receive inquiries from locations we have never thought of before, thus giving us better opportunities to sell our made-in-Japan products around the world. Since we are now halal-certified, we still do business with companies in countries that require Halal certification.  It is okay with us that we do not sell Umeken branded products around the world, instead, the most important factor for us is that we are selling made-in-Japan products. 

 

Your business is set up well for networking. You have an OEM-based business where you can manufacture small orders for other companies, and then you also have your farm in Miyakojima where you extract ingredients that you can then integrate into your products. Can you tell us in terms of foreign partnerships, if you are open to these kinds of business relationships? Are you currently looking to give your services to foreign partners who would like to produce a product here in Japan or for the Asian market?

Yes, we are looking for partners with great sales capabilities so that we can supply excellent made-in-Japan products to them. They can sell on an OEM basis with their own brand, there is no need for them to say these products are from Umeken. Almost all of our partners right now are sales companies not manufacturing companies. We do have a strong confidence in developing and manufacturing the supplement with our traditional techniques, however in order to introduce these good products to other people in these countries, sales marketing and advertisement must be done by those experts who know how to deal.

 

Imagine that we came back in 2028 and had this interview all over again: do you have a personal goal that you would like to have achieved by then?

We have a goal of achieving 50% of our sales outside of Japan. While we have not reached that target yet, by the time you come back for a new interview we hope to achieve this goal.

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