Corporate museums are part academic and business and occupy the grey zone in between. It is an organization that works with several departments in a company including public relations, branding, advertising, and HR. This series aims to look at the role, function, and future of museums run by corporations through interviews with PR professionals.


Mikimoto Pearl Island: Supporting Public Diplomacy

Kokichi Mikimoto was the first person in the world to successfully culture pearls. Kokichi, who was also founded the luxury pearl company, Mikimoto, recognized the importance of public diplomacy early on through the influence of his friend Eiichi Shibusawa. He opened Mikimoto Pearl Island in Toba City, Mie Prefecture, and promoted private diplomacy with other countries
through his pearls using “soft power” that Japan can be proud of. A museum was built on Mikimoto Pearl Island after he passed away and has since welcomed many distinguished guests from around Japan and the world. In this article, we explore what corporate museums can achieve in terms of public diplomacy.


Kyoko Fujii, PR Consulting Dentsu Inc.



Mikimoto Pearl Island


Mikimoto Pearl Island is located in Toba Bay, Mie Prefecture, and is the island on which Kokichi Mikimoto, the founder of Mikimoto, first successfully created cultured pearls in 1893. Originally called Ojima, Kokichi purchased the island in 1929, developed it, and opened the island to the public in 1951 as a place for leisure activities. There are two museums on the island. Because the museums are operated by Mikimoto Pearl Island Co., Ltd., Mikimoto’s group company, they are not Mikimoto corporate museums by definition. However, Mikimoto’s founder opened the island to the public and one of the museums housed there exhibits artifacts about the founder’s life and achievements, so in a broad sense, it is a corporate museum.


A museum that combines tourism, education, and industry

Mikimoto Pearl Island is home to the Pearl Museum and Kokichi Mikimoto Memorial Hall. Pearl Museum exhibits a collection of pearl jewelry and introduces the pearl’s from historical, natural science, industrial, and social science. Kokichi Mikimoto Memorial Hall exhibits various artifacts that shed light on the life and character of the Pearl King from Toba City himself, Kokichi Mikimoto.

Mikimoto Pearl Island, located in Ise-Shima National Park, welcomed 157,000 visitors in 2019 before COVID-19 and is an important industrial tourism destination in Mie Prefecture. In addition to tourists and visitors who come to learn, second-year Mikimoto employees and others in the pearl industry visit the island each year as part of their training.

The island also hosts regular meetings with Mikimoto about exhibitions and pearl research. Both museums have many activities catered for children. Elementary school students and other children can learn about pearls through exhibits and experiences at the facilities.


Director Noboru Shibahara of Mikimoto Pearl Island was kind enough to show us around the island (Photo taken by the writer of this article)


For people around the world

On TripAdvisor, there are reviews written in Japanese, English, Chinese, and French. People around the world are interested in the island. Although it is located far from tourist hub Tokyo, as of April 2023, about 20% of the visitors are from outside Japan.

Although it attracts many visitors from neighboring countries, the island has become a popular tourist destination among the French after receiving two stars in Michelin Green Guide Japan, a travel guide for foreign tourists visiting Japan. Brochures are available in many languages including English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, and Korean. Currently, the island has seven guides including two certified curators and several English speakers.

Island operator Mikimoto Pearl Island actively visited travel agencies abroad to have the island included in tours. Mikimoto Pearl Island is a member of the local Mie Prefecture Tourism Association and Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and at times work together with local municipalities such as Mie Prefecture and Toba City to promote inbound tourism.


What exactly are pearls anyway?

Mikimoto is a jewelry manufacturer and retailer headquartered in Koto Ward, Tokyo and has a flagship store in Ginza 4-chome. The company has stores in major cities around the world and boasts the world’s largest market share for pearls.

Pearls, the Mikimoto’s main product, are gemstones produced in six kinds of shellfish including akoya pearl oysters. Until Kokichi succeeded in creating cultured pearls, only natural pearls were available. Oysters produce when a foreign substance enters them, so not all contain pearls. Unlike cultured pearls, which contain round nuclei that produce round pearls, most of the pearls found in natural oysters are irregularly shaped. Since the nucleus is often absent or extremely small, it takes a very long time to become large. Large round natural pearls are very rare and expensive, with one or two found out of a thousand oysters.

Pearls have been loved by people since ancient Roman times 2000 years ago. The Egyptians knew about and there are records of pearls dating back to about 3200 BC. Ancient Japan was also a major pearl production area and pearls have been found in ruins dating back to the early Jomon period. Ancient Japanese people used pearls as tributes to China, and there are descriptions of Japanese pearls in Wajinden and the Book of the Later Hanin China. Pearls often appear in classics such as Nihonshoki, Kojiki, and Manyoshu.


The Pearl Museum


The Pearl Museum (Photo courtesy of Mikimoto Pearl Island)


The Pearl Museum, Japan’s first museum dedicated to pearls, details how pearls are made and how they are culture with materials and videos titled, “People and Pearls: Thinking about Their Relationship.”

There is also an extensive collection of antique jewelry made from natural pearls, as well as luxurious arts and crafts made from cultured pearls. The collection also includes ancient Roman jewelry made about 2000 years ago, giving you a chance to learn about the history of jewelry not only in Japan but also in other parts of the world.


Kokichi Mikimoto Memorial Hall


Kokichi Mikimoto Memorial Hall. This hall won the Good Design Award for Architecture and Environmental Design in 1995. (Photo courtesy of Mikimoto Pearl Island)


Kokichi Mikimoto Memorial Hall, on the other hand, uses numerous photographs, Kokichi’s belongings, and detailed display boards to exhibit his eventful life and achievements, from his birth in 1858 as the eldest son of a family that owned the udon restaurant “Awako” in Toba to his passing at age 96. Many of his personal belongings and collections convey Kokichi’s unique philosophy on life and lifestyle.

Kokichi gained a lot of experience as a merchant, peddling vegetables from an early age, and when he turned 20, he went to tour Tokyo and Yokohama where he saw pearls, a Shima specialty, sold at high prices. It was then that Kokichi decided to not rely on luck to find pearls but to make them with his own hands.

After exchanges with Narayoshi Yanagi, the secretary general of the Dainippon Fisheries Association, and Kakichi Mitsukuri of Tokyo Imperial University, he sought to create cultured pearls. On July 11, 1893 at Ojima (now Mikimoto Pearl Island), Toba, he finally succeeded in creating the world’s first cultured semicircular pearls on July 11, 1893, at Ojima (now Mikimoto Pearl Island) in Toba.

Kokichi Mikimoto Memorial Hall has a replica of his birthplace Awako, impressions Kokichi left behind in Toba, and a diorama that shows Toba as it was then. His relationship to his hometown is one of the main themes.

Kokichi loved the scenery of his hometown and since the Taisho period, wanted to make Shima Peninsula a national park. In 1931, he submitted a proposal to the Minister of Home Affairs, and went further, improving the traffic and roads, and building parks on the east and west sides of Mt. Asakuma. Thanks to his passion and efforts, Ise-Shima National Park became the first national park to be established after World War II.

Although the neither is registered as museums, the Pearl Museum is registered with the Mie Prefectural Museum Association as a place similar to a museum. The museum and Kokichi Mikimoto Memorial Hall are also members of the Japan Association of Museums and carry out academic and cultural missions such as organizing, preserving, and exhibiting valuable historical artifacts.

In Kokichi Mikimoto Memorial Hall, a letter addressed to Kokichi by inventor Thomas Edison is on display. Japanese industrialist Eiichi Shibusawa introduced him to Edison and when Kokichi visited Europe and America in 1927, it is said that Edison told him that his achievement was “a wonder of the world.” Their meeting was reported in the New York Times, and Mikimoto’s name quickly spread in the US.


Letter from Thomas Edison (Photo courtesy of Mikimoto Pearl Island)


Ama diving show

The museum and memorial hall are not the only attractions on Mikimoto Pearl Island. There is also an ama diving show. In the past, ama (female pearl divers) were indispensable for pearl farming. They dive down to the seabed to collect Akoya oysters and then put the shells back after inserting a nucleus. They would also move oysters to safer places when there were red tides or typhoons and were very important to the success of cultured pearls.


Ama diving show. Toba/Shima ama were designated a national Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property in March 2017. (Photo taken by the writer of this article)


Aquaculture technology has developed and ama divers are no longer needed, but Pearl Island hosts a show to share how they did supported pearl farming. There are ama in other parts of Japan, but this is the only place where you can see the divers dressed in the traditional white outfit.

When the divers surfaced \from the dive, they emit a whistling-like sigh to breathe. This sigh of sadness is called the “Ama divers’ seashore whistle” and has become unique to Ise-Shima. It has been selected as one of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan that the Ministry of the Environment wants to preserve.


Playing an important role in public diplomacy


Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visiting the island in 1975 (Photo courtesy of Mikimoto Pearl Island)


Many VIPs from Japan and abroad have visited the island, including royalty, heads of state, ambassadors to Japan, IOC presidents, and members of the Imperial Family. A number of state guests have visited in the past, including Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip (1975), Queen Rainier III and Princess Grace of Monaco (1981), and Queen Silvia of Sweden (1985).


The spouses of heads of state visiting the island during the G7 ISE-Shima Summit (Photo courtesy of Mikimoto Pearl Island)


At the G7 Ise-Shima Summit in 2016, Mikimoto Pearl Island became a place for cultural diplomacy. In a program to welcome the spouses of the leaders of the countries participating in the summit, the husband of German Chancellor Merkel, the wife of Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, and the wife of EU President Tusk visited the island. It is truly a place of diplomacy to deepen exchanges with other countries through Japan’s “soft power” of pearls from local regions.

“Soft power” is a concept advocated by Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University. While “hard power” is the power to move other countries against their will with military or economic might, “soft power” refers to the ability to move them by attracting others with the values and cultural appeal of a country.

Thus, Mikimoto Pearl Island is more than just a promotional tool for the Mikimoto brand. In addition to contributing to the local economy as an industrial tourism facility, the island and its pearls are bearers of Japan’s “soft power” public diplomacy.

Unlike traditional government-to-government diplomacy, “public diplomacy” refers to various non-governmental organizations and individuals. Through public relations and cultural exchange, it directly reaches out to the people of other countries and public opinion, explains Japan’s position to the people of other countries, and gains their understanding, thereby creating fans of Japan. Although the definition of public diplomacy has been varied so far, it has come to include not only the government but also private organizations and civilians.


Meeting Eiichi Shibusawa

Exhibitions at the museum show that Kokichi was conscious of “public diplomacy.” As the pearl business grew into one of Japan’s leading industries, Kokichi deepened his relationships with political and business leaders. In particular, videos show his interaction with Eiichi Shibusawa, the father of Japanese capitalism and a renowned pioneer of public diplomacy.

In 1926, Kokichi spent almost a year visiting Europe and the United States and became keenly aware of the importance of exchanges with foreign countries at the civilian level. As soon as he returned to Japan, he began developing Ojima. Shibusawa advised him to use the cultured pearls he created as a tool for Japanese public diplomacy. The opening of the island and its pearls quickly became popular a hot topic and many people who came to Japan, including royalty, politicians, and grand ministers from various countries have since visited.


Photo files of VIPs from around the world who visited the island (photo taken by the writer of this article)


After returning home, dignitaries would speak about their experiences on the island, leaving the people in their country impressed with the pearls from Japan. The photographs of luminaries who visited are not just a collection of commemorative photographs, but a valuable record of the history of public diplomacy.


Public diplomacy as strategic communications

Sometimes we cannot rely solely on governments for diplomacy. Public opinion has grown significantly with the rise of social media. Public opinion can increase negative or positive feelings towards countries, making international exchange at the private-sector level, which can positively influence public opinion, and increasingly important.

Both public diplomacy and public relations (PR) are strategic communications. Even bore World War II, Shibusawa and Kokichi both recognized the importance of international exchanges and acted accordingly.

Mikimoto Pearl Island continues to carry on Kokichi’s mission to raise Toba’s profile around the world, contribute to the development of local industries, and play a part in public diplomacy.