Corporate museums lie somewhere in between the academic world of museums and the business world of companies. They also serve as organizations that help companies manage many aspects of their operations, including public relations, branding, advertising, and human resources. This article series will explore corporate museums, their roles and functions, and the opportunities they present, all with the help of PR professionals.



Kunihiro Saito, PR Consulting Dentsu Inc.


Kao Museum: Communicating the Cultural History of Hygiene and Kao’s Commitment to Integrity

Kao’s head office is in Kayabacho, Nihonbashi, Tokyo, but the company also owns its Sumida Complex in the neighborhood of Bunka, in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward. The office includes the company’s research and development, business, supply chain, and management divisions. The Sumida Complex, which is walking distance from Kameido Station, houses the Kao Museum. In this piece, we discuss the museum’s role.


Kao’s Sumida Complex / Kao Museum (Photo courtesy of Kao)


Prioritizing a close relationship with the public

Kao’s Sumida Complex first opened in 1923 as the company’s Tokyo Azuma Factory. In August 2023, Kao celebrated its 100th anniversary of business at that address. Inside today’s Sumida Complex is the company’s Tokyo Plant. In January 2023, the plant relaunched as Kao’s “Incubation Center, Tokyo” a facility designed to support the company in new businesses and challenges. This center is transforming into a hub that supports precision manufacturing for the benefit of all people, society, and the planet. The redesigned Sumida Complex also now includes a new plaza open to the local community and space to serve as a temporary evacuation center in the event of natural disasters, and features environmentally-friendly design incorporating high-durability asphalt iapaving created from recycled PET bottles and solar power generation facilities. The premises have been designed in coordination with the local Sumida Ward authorities to support the local area’s urban development and disaster prevention, aiming to contribute to the local community and become a familiar venue in the lives of local people.

Only a limited number of major global companies maintain a combined research and production facility in Tokyo. However, as Kao is a company developing products closely integrated into people’s lifestyles, we can understand the importance of maintaining a research and production center at the Sumida Complex, a central city location that keeps the company close to its customer base and the many media organizations that call Tokyo home, helping the company communicate with the public, maintain a strong PR presence, and launch successful new products.

Among the 10 manufacturing plants Kao operates in Japan, the Tokyo Plant, located inside the Sumida Complex, is the oldest. When Kao was first founded, the company manufactured its products in Shinjuku. However, as sales of Kao Soap, the company’s main product, continued to grow, Kao moved to a plot in Sumida Ward (which at the time was in Honjo Ward) in 1896. Six years later, in 1902, the company opened a new plant in Mukoujima Ukejicho before, in 1922, building another new plant in Azumamachi (the current site of the Sumida Complex), with operations at that plant beginning the following year. However, the day after the company completed its move to Azumamachi, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck, with the plant incurring severe damage. After the earthquake, all of the company’s employees worked together to recover from the disaster, incredibly managing to restart production of Kao Soap after just 20 days. With the site located between the Ara River and the Sumida River, growth in water-borne transportation boosted the company’s ability to distribute products manufactured at the plant, contributing to the development of Kao’s business.

Kao Museum opened in January 2007 inside Kao’s Sumida Complex following redevelopment of a smaller Kao museum dedicated to “cleanliness and lifestyles” which first opened in October 1990. The museum’s exhibits focus on the company’s commitment to social contributions, which has been passed down through the organization since its founding. It also focuses on Japan’s “culture of cleanliness”, which plays a key role in the foundation and growth of Kao, while also providing a forum for people to think about how we can build on the path to create the future.

With Kao’s business activities diversifying, and as a result becoming more complex and difficult to understand, the museum aims to serve as a “Communication Hub” that positions an overall view of the company’s business activities within the context of its history, promoting understanding of the business among consumers, suppliers and employees alike. Kao is currently engaged in a diverse range of businesses, both BtoC and BtoB, covering industries including hygiene and “living care” (household products), health and beauty, cosmetics, “life care” (healthcare support), and a chemicals business that manufacturers industrial chemical products.

Members of the public don’t often have the chance to understand the overall nature of Kao’s business, but the spacious museum, with its wide range of exhibits, helps meet that need, testifying to the company’s rich 136-year history.

Kao Museum is run by the Corporate Culture department, which is part of the Corporate Strategy division. The museum functions as a publicity asset for the company, helping to communicate its corporate philosophy and culture to various parties inside and outside the company.

With the aim of maximization employee commitment and contribution, one of the company’s current core management issues, Kao is increasing the number of opportunities Kao Group employees have to visit the museum and, in general, making more of an effort to ensure that all employees understand the company’s philosophy in the light of the company’s history. During the coronavirus pandemic, an additional exhibit was added to the museum on the subject of the Kao’s “handwashing campaign” from 1932.

Many employees are surprised to hear that the company began promoting health and hygiene so many years ago. The museum visits therefore contribute to improved employee engagement, with feedback from employees showing how it helps them gain a deeper understanding of the origins of the company’s ESG commitment and management principles.

Aside from company employees, a diverse range of other people also visit the facility including employees of companies that do business with Kao, officials from government ministries and agencies, personnel from universities involved in joint research with Kao, schools and other organizations, and finally members of the public. Following the removal of pandemic-era restrictions on overseas travel, a growing number of personnel from overseas Kao Group companies and other partners from outside Japan are also visiting the museum.

In 2019, 18,000 people visited the museum. While the number of visitors fell from 2020 onwards due to closures during the pandemic and restrictions on visitor numbers, footfall began to increase again from the second half of 2023, and the cumulative number of visitors between 2007 and July 2023 now exceeds 250,000. Tours of the exhibits are guided by museum staff. Some of the exhibit explanations are multilingual, including translations in English and Chinese alongside Japanese.

In preparing this article, I spoke with Museum Director Akira Fuji. He has worked for Kao for more than 35 years and has a deep knowledge of the company after working in product development in the United States and various posts including Vice-president of Kao’s Personal Health Care Products Research Laboratory.


Akira Fuji, Director of Kao Museum, who guided the author around the exhibits.
The museum is affiliated with Kao’s Corporate Culture department, Corporate Strategy division.
(Photo taken by the writer)


Focusing on “Hygiene Culture” to understand Kao’s past and reveal Kao’s future

One keyword stands out when trying to summarize the exhibits on show at Kao Museum: “hygiene.” Kao’s roots as a manufacturer date back to the release of its past’s in-house product, Kao Soap. The soap, launched in 1890, established itself as a high-quality, reasonably priced, domestically produced soap brand.

Kao Museum is divided into three zones. The first zone focuses on the cultural history of hygiene, describing how hygiene culture emerged during human history, as well as the evolution of hygiene culture in a Japanese historical context, linking that history to the foundation of Kao in Japan’s Meiji Period (the period of modernization that followed the end of Japan’s samurai era).

The exhibit starts with records and artifacts from the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, noting how, at that point in history, human beings already had soap. The exhibits then move onto the Roman Empire, explaining the construction of public thermal baths known as thermae, which include the well-known Baths of Caracalla. These baths helped the public keep clean and serve as a testament to the Roman enjoyment of bathing culture.

The exhibits on Japan refer to the Prince Oama no Mikoto, who appears in Nihon Shoki, an ancient chronicle, and who, according to legend, soothed his wounds in a steam bath after an arrow pierced his back during The Jinshin War. By the Edo Period (1603 to 1868), drinking water was supplied to the city of Edo (now Tokyo) from the upper reaches of the Tama River. Underground water passageways were built, allowing citizens to benefit from supplies of clean well water. Human waste was not flushed directly into the river but collected in latrines and reused as fertilizer. People also produced their own laundry detergent by dissolving in water ash produced while cooking. This culture of avoiding wastage and promoting re-use supported a culture of hygiene, laying the groundwork for the high standards of cleanliness practiced by today’s Japanese people.


Kao’s History

The second zone features the sometimes complex history of the company stretching from Kao’s foundation to the present day. It focuses on historical topics and highlights the company’s corporate philosophy and product development stance, which have been passed down the generations to the present day.

Kao’s history begins in 1887 when Tomiro Nagase, at the age of 23, opened the Nagase Shoten, a store in Nihonbashi Bakurocho, Tokyo, that sold daily essentials including soap and toothpaste.

At the time, people could only buy expensive, high-quality imported soap or cheap, poor quality Japanese soap. However, Nagase, through a process of trial and error, succeeded in developing a low-cost high-quality domestically produced soap, which he completed and launched in 1890. He sold the soap with an explanation of more than 10 pages and a certificate of quality, packaging the product in a paulownia box, to emphasize the feeling of craftsmanship. The huge success of the soap, which became a landmark product for Kao, played a crucial role in shaping the future of the company.


Kao Soap (in a paulownia box), released in 1890 (Photo courtesy of Kao)


The company name Kao was another invention of Tomiro Nagase. He filed a registered trademark application for the name Kao, using the Japanese characters for fragrant (香) and king (王) in a combination that sounded the same as the contemporary pronunciation of the Japanese word for face, his intention being to describe a product that could be used on the face and had a great fragrance, while also sounding appropriate for a high quality product. However, as Nagase had always planned to expand his sales to reach China and other countries in Asia, he later decided to switch the “ka” meaning “fragrant (香) for another “ka” meaning flower (花), as the latter character is considered auspicious in China, while also being easy for ordinary people to read and write. As a result his Kao products launched with the characters 花王. This brand name, invented approximately 130 years ago, remains in use today. The success of the name shows Nagase’s global vision and creativity in identifying a brand name with universal value.

Tomiro Nagase passed away at the young age of 48. In 1927, his son, also called Tomiro Nagase, became the company’s second president. On his appointment as company president, he declared that “the goals of corporate management are to expand the company while fulfilling a social mission.” This philosophy represents the same concept as the modern concept of ‘creating shared value’ (CSV) and contributing to society through a company’s main business. These exhibits, showing how the company’s long-standing philosophy links closely to modern business practices, surprise visitors to the museum.

Over the approximately 40-year period leading up to the appointment of Tomiro Nagase II as the company’s second president, the “Kao Soap” brand remained essentially unchanged from the time of its initial launch. However, Tomiro Nagase II was an innovator, and he instigated significant changes. Immediately after becoming president, he went on fact-finding tours to Europe and North America, which led him to start modernizing the company’s process of soap production. He made repeated improvements, including through the import of the latest manufacturing equipment from Europe, before launching, in 1931, a new, even higher-quality, low cost version of Kao Soap. The new product’s innovative packaging design helped ensure the rapid growth of its popularity among ordinary households. By reworking and improving a long-running product, Kao greatly increased the volume of soap in circulation, making a major contribution to improvements in Japan’s public hygiene.

This second zone also includes an exhibition that recreates a domestic scene from a household in a housing project during the 1960s, a period during which Japan experienced rapid economic growth. This exhibit, created with the cooperation of Japan’s Urban Renaissance Agency (formerly known as The Japan Housing Corporation), is one of the highlights of the museum. It displays a combined dining room-kitchen layout, which was revolutionary for the time, while also displaying other innovations of the time such as a flushing toilet and a bathroom. The exhibit is sure to prove nostalgic for anyone who remembers Japan’s postwar period of rapid industrial growth. Kao products from the era are also on display, showing how Kao supplies products consistent with people’s new lifestyle needs, helped advance the quality of life and culture of Japanese people during the rapid economic growth period.


An exhibit recreating a domestic scene from a communal housing development in the 1960s
(Photo courtesy of Kao)


The Philosophy of Kao’s Museum

“Good fortune is given only to those who work diligently and behave with integrity.” This is the motto of Kao’s founder, Tomiro Nagase, as displayed at the end of the museum’s history zone.

This approach is reflected in the company’s current corporate philosophy of the Kao Way and Kao’s commitment to integrity, which guides the actions of the more than 35,000 Kao Group employees working around the world. The Kao Way, Kao’s corporate philosophy, reflects the company’s purpose which has been, since the company’s founding, to realize a Kirei World in which all life lives in harmony. It reflects the company’s commitment to resolving various social issues and helping improve quality of life.


Calligraphy by Kao’s founder Tomiro Nagase:
“Good fortune is given only to those who work diligently and behave with integrity”
(Photo taken by the writer)


Kao’s Present and Future

The Museum’s final zone is the Communication Plaza, which exhibits Kao’s recent activities and showcases how the company is trying to work towards a better future.

One example is the company’s efforts to address environmental issues through the use of recycled PET bottles to create Newtrack, a chemical designed to improve the durability of asphalt. Simply adding Newtrack to asphalt in the ratio of around 1% volume improves the durability of the asphalt by multiple times. As autonomous driving starts to become more widespread, it is more likely that vehicles will travel over exactly the same portion of the road surface, eroding it and producing depressed vehicle tracks, resulting in the need for regular repairs to the asphalt. More durable asphalt reduces the repair frequency, reducing environmental impact. In this way, the museum shows not only the existing products that have created Kao’s story so far, but also how the company’s research and product development is shaping today’s world and the future of society.


Kao’s Communication Plaza. (Photo courtesy of Kao)


The Significance of a Corporate Museum in the Heart of Tokyo

In 2009, Kao put forward the corporate message “enriching lives, in harmony with nature.” In 2021, this was replaced with the slogan “Kirei—Making Life Beautiful.”, using the Japanese word Kirei (meaning beautiful, clean and well-ordered) to express the value that Kao wants to provide to society.

Museum Director Akira Fuji spoke to me about Kao’s purpose saying “our goal is to contribute to a prosperous and healthy future for people around the world by protecting the beauty of the planet, protecting peoples’ lives by completely removing sources of harm, and supporting people in living happy, beautiful lives [ kirei covers all of these concepts]. Inspired by our new corporate message, we are aiming to make further contributions to society, helping to create a Kirei life for all, providing care and enrichment for the life of all people and the planet.”

He added that “Kao began as a vendor and manufacturer of soap with a focus on beauty, cleanliness, and hygiene. Expressed in the concept kirei, we aim to deliver value to the public. This is at the core of our corporate philosophy, and a key part of our foundation as a company established in Japan. Our purpose is “to realize a Kirei world in which all life lives in harmony.” We believe that our stakeholders include not only our customers, but also the planet, and that is why we seek to build a harmony-based world.”

Kao Museum succeeds in communicating the company’s purpose. By showcasing the diversity of the company’s businesses and the growing diversity of its stakeholders, it creates a strong impression on visitors, highlighting the various products Kao provides to the world, and serving as an important communication tool that boosts stakeholder engagement.

While, compared to other forms of owned media, Kao Museum is limited in the number of people it can reach at any one time. Maintaining a museum alongside the company’s research facilities and incubation center in the heart of Tokyo, a major metropolis, ensures that the venue delivers a strong and powerful message that communicates Kao’s progress into the future.


The entrance to the Kao Museum (Photo courtesy of Kao)