Hisamitsu Museum—conveying to the world a culture of hand treatments
Registered as a trademark in more than 100 countries, “Salonpas” is the world’s number one anti-inflammatory pain relief patch product in global sales. Today, it has even become a lingua franca around the world. In this article, we would like to introduce Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical’s museum, which conveys the culture that created Salonpas and serves as the origin of the Te-a-te or hand treatment it brings to the world.
Kyoko Fujii, PR Consulting Dentsu Inc.
The Hisamitsu Museum (Photo courtesy of Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical)
A corporate museum created by Bonanotte, a master of figurative sculpture
Hisamitsu Museum was established in 2019 in Tosu, Saga, as part of a project commemorating the 170th anniversary of the company’s founding. Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical, famous for its topical analgesic and anti-inflammatory drug Salonpas, has its Kyushu headquarters in Tosu, where the company was founded, and its Tokyo headquarters in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. The museum is located at the company’s Kyushu headquarters, the construction of which had been planned in 2017, the company’s 170th anniversary, to pass on to its employees the business philosophy and principles inherited from the founder.
While it is called a museum, it was initially established as a training facility for employees and does not have a website or brochures, as is common with other corporate museums. Although the museum is not open to the public as a standalone facility, it accepts tours on request from group visitors who come to view the Salonpas factory located next to it.
With a total floor space of 687 square meters and approximately 90 articles on display, the two-story museum is not large in scale. Still, the basic design of the elegant building was conceived by Italian sculptor Cecco Bonanotte, a genius in figurative sculpture known as the poet of representational art. The museum’s modern and simple, yet distinctive design conveys a message not only from its interior exhibits but also from its exterior.
There is another museum in Tosu City that Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical established: the Nakatomi Memorial Medicine Museum, which opened to commemorate the 145th anniversary of the company’s founding to convey to future generations the history of pharmaceuticals in Japan and abroad, starting with Tajiro (the name of a location in the eastern part of Tosu during the Edo era; now called Tashiro). The Nakatomi Memorial Foundation was later established, and the museum’s management was transferred to the foundation. Bonanotte also created the basic design of the Nakatomi Memorial Medicine Museum.
Hisamitsu Museum is managed by the General Affairs Department of the company’s Kyushu Headquarters. On this occasion, Sakae Yano, Executive Officer and General Manager of the Kyushu Headquarters General Affairs Department, BU Headquarters, and Megumi Sasaki, General Affairs Section, General Affairs Department, took us on a museum tour.
1st-floor exhibition room (Photo courtesy of Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical)
Wicker trunks convey the founder’s spirit
The first floor consists of a display of the words of past presidents, from the company’s founder, Nihei Hisamitsu, to the current and sixth president, Kazuhide Nakatomi, and the products they developed, along with videos. A training room is situated on the second floor, with exhibits of Bonanotte’s sculptures, drawings, and other works.
The wicker trunks are the first thing that catches the eye upon entering the exhibition room. Mr. Yano, who was responsible for the project to establish the museum, said, “From our first owner who went to Hyuga (Miyazaki) to sell medicine carrying a wicker trunk on his back, this museum tells us how our predecessors went about doing their business. This museum was established so we can stop, turn back, and boost our morale when in doubt.” The wicker trunks are symbolic items that allow people to think about the company’s founding spirit.
Wicker trunks (Photographed by the writer of this article)
Ms. Sasaki says the museum is used for training new employees, fifth-year employees, and managers, who have offered various types of feedback after visiting the museum. For example, “It has boosted my motivation to work,” and “I now feel greater pride and respect for the company and my seniors.”
Employee training (Photo courtesy of Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical)
The museum was established in 2019. The rapid spread of COVID-19 forced it to limit its acceptance of visitors in 2020 and 2021. Nevertheless, although the museum was not open to the public, 5,000 people visited between its opening and before the COVID epidemic in February 2020. Furthermore, as Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical holds its shareholder meetings at its Kyushu Headquarters, tours were also conducted for stockholders before the COVID outbreak in 2019.
Tosu City, the location of the museum’s founding
This museum is located in the eastern part of Tosu, called Tajiro during the Edo period, which became the Tashiro territory of the Tsushima Domain (called Tsushima in Nagasaki Prefecture today).
Located on the border with Fukuoka, Tashiro has an inseparable relationship with Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical. Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical’s origins lie in Komatsuya, a drug distributor founded in Tashiro in 1847.
Japan’s four major over-the-counter drug bases
While “drug merchants in Toyama” are famous, Tashiro was the birthplace of one of “Japan’s four major over-the-counter drug bases”, along with Toyama, Yamato (Nara), and Omi (Shiga). Vendors called “Baiyaku-san” would leave medicine at each household, return six months to a year later, and collect the money for the items used during the period, a system called placement sales, where medications were left at people’s homes for sale. Tashiro was the starting point for the Nagasaki-Kaido road and had a posting station. Western medicine was easily obtained from Nagasaki, where Western medicine had been popular through Dutch texts, and the pharmacy business flourished.
Sales routes expanded to Shikoku besides the Kyushu area during the Meiji era, and the company prospered as a base for household medicines. About 500 salespeople traveled from Tashiro throughout the country during its peak. Nihei Hisamitsu, the founder of Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical, is one such dealer who started his business as a traveling merchant.
Topical skin patches developed in Tashiro
During the Meiji era, Komatsuya’s Yoichi Hisamitsu (the second) changed the name of his shop to Hisamitsu Joeido and created a stomach antiseptic called Kishintan in 1869. Kishintan was a designated medicine for the military during the Sino-Japanese War that broke out in 1894 and was also used in the subsequent Russo-Japanese War.
In 1903, Saburo Hisamitsu (later adopted by Nakatomi family of the Kurume clan and became Saburo Nakatomi) was designated the third-generation proprietor, incorporated the company as Hisamitsu Brothers General Partnership Company, and began selling Kishintan to wholesalers in the Kansai region.
In 1907, the company began selling Asahi Mankinko, an ointment made of sesame oil mixed with red lead and spread on Japanese paper. Adhesive patches were one of Tashiro’s mainstay products, among which Asahi Mankinko was particularly popular during the Spanish influenza epidemic of the Taisho era (1912-1926) for its efficacy in relieving joint paint caused by high fever, and orders poured in. People began saying, “Etchu is for internal medicines, and Tashiro is for external medications,” thus, with its strength in adhesive patches, Tashiro Baiyaku was established and began expanding sales channels throughout the country.
Asahi Mankinko (Photo courtesy of Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical)
The birth of Salonpas
Meanwhile, Asahi Mankinko, black in color, had a distinctive odor and left a dark mark on the skin after removal. The company improved the manufacturing process, and in 1934, “Salonpas,” a pure white product with a fresh fragrance, was born.
The first generation Salonpas (Photo courtesy of Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical)
Since then, the product has grown dramatically, with exports to many countries and local production underway abroad, and is now trademarked in more than 100 countries across the globe, boasting the number one global sales share in the analgesic, anti-inflammatory patch category for six consecutive years since 2016 (according to a Euromonitor study).
Spreading its wings from Tosu to the world
The entire building and even the garden of the museum are imbued with Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical’s cherished ideas. While the fifth president, Hirotaka Nakatomi, was inspired by Bonanotte’s work during an encounter at a museum and commissioned the sculptor to design the building, he had not only done that for the sake of design but also because he empathized with Bonanotte’s concepts.
Bonanotte has many works created on the theme of birds. While humans are subject to many restrictions, birds are free to fly. The design of this museum is also based on the motif of “a bird flying freely out of the conventional framework.” It is said that the impactful design of the glass box floating above the ground without the support of pillars was inspired by the image of a bird in flight, never to be satisfied with the status quo but always looking toward the future with high expectations. The architecture expresses the company’s corporate mindset as it aims for further progress toward the 200th anniversary of its founding.
The museum’s design is based on the motif of a “bird flapping its wings freely to fly” (Photo courtesy of Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical
The corporate stance thrives in every detail
The building is an “exhibit,” with a caption plate on the lawn next to the entrance, as often seen at art museums, which says “Hisamitsu Museum 2019 Cecco Bonanotte.” Bonanotte’s sculptures are displayed throughout the garden, making this a corporate museum that serves as a cultural and artistic base.
Visitors are greeted at the entrance by a counter made from an old nettle tree that had taken root on the property. When the tree was cut down for fear of rotting and falling, it was discovered by chance to be 170 years old. Wood pieces are stacked like building blocks to express the tree’s history. The counter was built with hopes to continue moving forward with the tree that has watched over the company since its founding.
Incidentally, the museum is the first in Saga Prefecture and the second in Kyushu to receive ZEB (Net Zero Energy Building) certification. The facility excels in conserving and creating energy by reducing its energy load and actively utilizing natural energy. This is indeed a museum that expresses Hisamitsu’s corporate stance in every detail.
Sentiments for Tosu and Hisamitsu’s employees
Although Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical has two headquarters, one in Saga Prefecture and the other in Tokyo, the registered head office is still in Tosu. The company believes that the help of Tosu, Saga, and the local region has enabled it to grow from a small, local company to a “global brand.” With a desire to give back to the local community, Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical has made various efforts to interact with the local community, and the open-air tea ceremony events held in the Hisamitsu Museum garden, welcoming local officials and tea ceremony enthusiasts, are part of such exchanges.
At this museum, the company also expresses its remembrance of its past employees. A cenotaph is set up on the museum grounds to honor those who died after retirement or while working for Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical. It is thanks to them that Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical is what it is today, and managers offer prayers here each year as a sign of their gratitude.
Photo courtesy of Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical
These feelings of gratitude are also sometimes extended to healthcare workers. The Hisamitsu Museum participated in a “Blue Light-Up” initiative to express appreciation to medical workers battling the COVID-19 epidemic. The museum also participated in a “Red Light-Up Project” during the Red Cross Movement Month in May to raise awareness among many people of the importance of “humanity” as upheld by the Japanese Red Cross Society.
The museum is lit up in blue (Photo courtesy of Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical)
The museum is lit up in red (Photo courtesy of Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical)
Spreading the culture of “treatments” to the world
Since the launch of Asahi Mankinko in 1907, analgesic anti-inflammatory drugs such as Salonpas have been used by many people as pharmaceutical products that treat pain and stiffness through applications to their bodies. What Hisamitsu Pharmaceutical embraces is a culture of “treatment by hand,” or Te-a-te. The sentiment in “treatment by hand” is compassion for the person being treated, and that is the starting point for applying Salonpas patches and the culture of treatment that has been cherished since the company’s establishment. The Hisamitsu Museum will continue to pass on this culture of “treatment by hand” to employees while conveying gratitude to the local community, employees, and medical professionals while showing its beauty to the world as a building that symbolizes its corporate mindset.