A corporate museum needs “drama.” These are the words of a professor of the Smithsonian Institution in the United States when they first visited the Sharp Technology Innovation Museum. It is difficult to convey a company’s charm by simply displaying products and presenting its history on panels. Drama is not only limited to success stories. It can also be found in many hardships, which is why it attracts people. This report will explore the guides of Sharp Technology Innovation Museum and their mission to keep conveying that “drama.”
The Mizkan Museum: A Business Compass Leading to a Vision for the Future
Tadashi Inokuchi, PR Consulting Dentsu Inc.
Mizkan, well-known for its Ajipon, has been a long-established vinegar manufacturer for 219 years. In addition to having the largest market share in Japan, the company also has sales channels in North America and Europe. It is a leading company that conveys Japanese food culture globally. Mizkan and Mizkan Museum (MIM) are located in Handa City, Aichi Prefecture, where the company was founded. MIM exists as a compass for its business and the employees who work there. We asked Mizkan about the purpose of establishing the museum and its future development, which is integrated and coexists with the local community while respecting the identity of its birthplace, Handa.
A facility that condenses the intentions of a long-established business existing since the Edo period
More than 200 years ago, in Handa, Aichi Prefecture, in 1804 in the late Edo period, Mizkan was founded by Matazaemon Nakano as a vinegar maker. Sake manufacturing was thriving in Handa, and the company used the sake lees that remained after production to make vinegar, which was cheaper than making it from rice, tastier and sweeter, and suited sushi. Sales expanded to Edo, or present-day Tokyo, and led to the spread of sushi among commoners during the Edo period.
Mizkan Corporate Museum was opened once in 1986 as “Vinegar Village,” a museum that recounted its history since the Edo period. The then Crown Prince and Crown Princess had visited on an inspection tour after its opening, after which it was opened to the general public. In 2015, the museum was expanded to triple its size, renovated, and reopened with many experiential elements, which stands today as Mizkan Museum (MIM).
The museum concepts: “Tradition, Innovation, and Environment”
Mizkan Museum’s concepts are tradition, innovation, and environment. It looks back on the company’s history. It presents the seeds of innovation that it further continues to aim for after more than 200 years of business while never failing to remember to consider the environment in all its activities.
It also defines three roles for the company: creating fans of Mizkan, being a tourism resource for the area, and being an avenue for educating children. With a history of change and challenge inherited from the company’s founding, Mizkan aims to contribute to society through food products using its vinegar-making and brewing technologies, to contribute to regional revitalization through tourism and the economy as a company rooted in the community, and to pass on the appeals of Japanese food culture to children of the next generation.
The 8th generation leader’s determination to establish a museum and his attention to detail
“It took considerable determination to renovate,” says Yoshihisa Niimi, director of Mizkan Museum. The initial reason for the renovation was the need for seismic reinforcement for employee safety amid buildings that continue to stand as they were during the Edo period. However, the company hesitated in destroying the buildings, standing there since that era, and were also valuable cultural assets. The seventh-generation head of the family had been particularly concerned about maintaining the status quo. However, the eighth head of the family made the wise decision to renovate the building, believing that the safety of his employees was more important for a company that had continued for two centuries and was still going strong. While the wooden structure was replaced with reinforced concrete, the warehouse’s exterior remains unchanged, and the landscape has not changed. The renovations have been made in keeping with the wishes of the previous generations.
“The eighth-generation head was very particular about every part of the building, and we discussed every inch of the building, wall by wall and floor by floor. For some features, we used the exterior walls from Nakano Bank, which previously existed in Handa, and reused materials from the time as much as possible to emphasize the history.
We do not put up any promotional posters so as not to spoil the atmosphere of the building, and we are careful about maintenance, not only for the exterior but also on the inside. All our employees work together to weed the courtyard. The cleanliness of the building is rated highly in visitor questionnaires, and the cleaning staff, who love the facility, clean every nook and cranny. It is truly amazing how everyone involved feels strongly attached to the facility,” Director Niimi said.
Buildings around the perimeter maintain an old-fashioned atmosphere that does not detract from the landscape (Photo taken by the writer)
The nickname of the facility, MIM, was chosen in a call made among employees of the Mizkan Group to come up with a name, which also shows that the Group considers employee participation important. The logo was designed by graphic designer Taku Satoh and is said to depict a series of roofs of the Mizkan Handa Plant.
The museum is divided into five zones
The museum has five areas, with the themes of Earth, Wind, Time, Water, and Light. The first area is the Room of Earth, which conveys the Mizkan Group’s spirit of craftsmanship that has been passed down for generations since the Edo period (1603-1868). Here, visitors can investigate a large cask in front of them and see a modern factory below, creating an interesting time tunnel effect. Past the cask is a hands-on area where children and adults alike can experience carrying casks and participate in quizzes, for example, to guess the amount of vinegar contained by listening to the sounds of the cask being struck.
A reproduction of how vinegar was made at the time, set up to show it tying into the present factory when people look into the large cask
The next part, Gallery of the Wind, tells the history of the Mizkan Group through photographs that trace the history of interaction with the community. What is interesting is that outside the front window, which has photo panels on both ends, visitors can see an old-fashioned tree that is also shown in the photo. The tree is an unassuming reminder of the many layers of history accumulated at this site over the ages. Spreading before the passageway leading to the Gallery of the Wind is a courtyard with a uniquely designed modern windmill swaying in an area where water bobs in the air. The facility is designed to be environmentally friendly, which is one of its concepts using various forms of natural energy, such as wind, water, and sunlight.
A tree seen from the Gallery of the Wind, standing at the same site throughout the years
The last zone for exploring Mizkan’s history is the Room of Time, which boasts a breathtaking view. Visitors can see the history of the Mizkan Group’s transformation and challenges since the Edo period in an area with visuals that give one a sense that they are going back in time. A huge ship is set up in the exhibition hall—a large wooden vessel called “Bezaisen,” 20 meters long and five meters high, which carried vinegar from Handa to Edo during the Edo period.
The majestic Bezaisen, seen from the stern
Visitors can go up the ship’s deck and see a huge visual measuring three by 15 meters. The video is a re-creation of the Bezaisen that transported vinegar from Handa to Edo and tells the story of the blooming of Edo’s sushi culture. Visitors can enjoy a thrilling and immersive experience watching the ship sail in a stormy sea, with strong winds blowing against their faces.
On the walls around the ship is a historical picture scroll of Mizkan.
In the Water Theater, visitors can watch a video that expresses the Group’s vision, “Bringing flavor to life.” The theme is “Food and Life in Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter,” and the video shows how Japanese food is deeply connected to memories of the seasons. The film was shot over a year and six months in various parts of Japan, with appearances by local people from multiple locations.
The last area is The Park of Light, a zone of immersive content that is particularly popular among children. Visitors can learn how to make sushi, print an Ajipon label with their own picture on it, and learn various cooking recipes.
Experiential corner (L) where visitors can learn how to make sushi using playdough, and the Ajipon Studio (R), the most popular attraction at the site
The most popular vinegar, Jun-Sakekasu-su Mitsuban Yamabuki, sold in limited quantities at the gift shop at the end of the tour
Among the five zones, the most popular is the Bezaisen in the Toki no Kura (Room of Time) and the Ajipon Studio in the Hikari no Niwa (The Park of Light). The Ajipon Studio sometimes sells 50 original prints daily; some couples buy them as wedding favors. “What makes this museum different from others is that it has many mechanisms for visitors to not only look around but also actively enjoy themselves,” says Director Niimi. “Museum directors often get together and discuss whether to focus on learning or entertainment. At our museum, we believe that entertainment is necessary for creating memorable experiences, and we always make every effort to make the guided tours as enjoyable as possible.”
The 90-minute guided tour goes by in a flash
The museum tour can be enjoyed as a 90-minute guided tour, and Mizkan makes considerable preparations to set up these guides. Their interpretive services to visitors are adjusted according to their demographics, and they constantly go through simulations from the visitor’s perspective to consider how they can enjoy the tours. If many children are on tour, the museum will allocate more time for immersive content rather than talking about historical aspects. Mr. Niimi says he always visits other museums to study the roles of their guides.
Mr. Niimi says that the Mizkan Museum’s strength is that it has archives, which form the basis for its storytelling. It has approximately 170,000 items comprising 200 years of records, and a foundation has been established for its study. Toki no Kura was created based on data, for example, on what items had been procured during which part of the Edo era and how much was sold, making it possible to mention specifics, such as the fact that sales of vinegar exceeded 2,000 ryo during the period. Specifics can only be given because the account books still exist today.
Targeting third-grade pupils and their parents’ generation
While the museum is enjoyable for adults, its main target is third-grade children. “The main users of vinegar today are in their 60s and 70s. The question is how we approach the young child-rearing generation. We hope the museum will serve as an opportunity for third graders and their parents to learn about and experience vinegar and vinegar-based dishes at home,” Mr. Niimi says.
Brochures are available for familiarizing visitors with vinegar. People can relax with a quiz and then move on to a tour.
Tours have been very successful for elementary school children, and most elementary schools in the Handa area have visited the museum on a field trip. Mr. Niimi explained that the immersive attractions mentioned earlier on carrying tubs and making sushi were designed with third graders in mind.
Also, for employees and business partners
The museum is not only used to appeal to external parties but also for internal purposes. It is a place where employees can learn about the company’s more than 200 years of history, not only for employees in Japan but also for those who visit on business from abroad. They, too, come to the museum and leave impressed. An employee from the United Kingdom was so impressed with the images of the various locations that he took back videos to show all the employees in his country.
“The people on staff love MIM dearly, and they make amazing suggestions daily for improvements. Our outsourced staff also make suggestions on better places to set our questionnaires. Of course, we considered that, and the suggestion was addressed within half an hour. There was also a time when a person who used to work here donated a wheelchair. The person said we didn’t have enough wheelchairs when he was on staff and always regretted that some people couldn’t tour the museum because of that and wanted to do something about it. I’m very grateful,” Mr. Niimi says. It warms the heart to hear that people’s love for the museum continues after retirement.
Also, dedicated times are set for tours for business partners. There is a special tour given twice a day and occasionally when the museum is closed on Thursdays.
Directly operated by the holding company
At Mizkan, the museum is an organization that belongs directly to the holding company. It is Mizkan’s communications hub, and while it is directly linked to management, it also works closely with each department. It works closely with the public relations department as a core for disseminating information externally, coordinates with human resources on training programs for new employees, and works with general affairs in terms of cooperation with the local community. In addition, it also collaborates with the sales department in building relationships with business partners.
Regarding local ties, Mr. Niimi says the museum is always eager to participate in any events being held. He says that rather than doing what the museum would like, it tries to avoid standing out too much and helps the community do what it wants.
“HOTORI brunch,” an event that called on people to enjoy brunch by the canal bank next to the company’s head office.
As a compass for business
Mr. Niimi, who talked to us about the museum on this occasion, was responsible for MIM’s launch. After leaving the museum for a while after its establishment, he assumed the position of director in January 2022, saying he has always served Mizkan as a marketer, loves to plan, and often goes to negotiations in the Handa area, supported by the fact that he is a native of the city. In March 2022, Mr. Kei Akamatsu, another individual with experience in advertising, promotion, and sales planning, transferred to MIM, and the deployment of such personnel shows how serious Mizkan is about the museum.
As the company continues to exist and expand after two centuries to the next centennial and on to five hundred years in business, the museum’s existence is significant as a compass for business and the people who engage in the industry to check the directions they should take. Seven years have passed since the museum’s renovation and reopening, and the company is planning further expansions as it realizes the “Future Vision Declaration” it announced in 2018. It will be interesting to watch the activities of Mizkan as a company that always looks ahead.
Director Yoshihisa Niimi, Mizkan Museum