— Explored the life and works of a “Pearl King” Mikimoto Yukichi
In the Pearl Island, there is Mikimoto’s “Memorial Hall” along with the “Pearl Museum”. This Hall is showing the amazing works of Mikimoto Kokichi who developed Japanese pearl industry. Kokichi is also noted as an innovative entrepreneur to successfully produce the cultured pearls for the first time in the world. In the Hall, the biographical story of Mikimoto Kokichi’s life and work is elaborately described, such as how he began to engage in the pearl business in his young age, and how he challenged and succeeded to produce “cultured pearl” with even facing many difficulties and hardships. You’ll find a plenty of exhibits about Kokichi’s business life displayed by numerous photos, real products, memorials and documents, commentary panel and others.
♣ Life and work of Mikimoto Kokichi seen in the Memorial Hall
At the Memorial Hall, the life story of Kokichi since his childhood to the matured businessman who established his own pearl industries is displayed along the time line. And many interesting exhibits are found there with depicting the anecdotes on his 96-years-long business life, including the story about his devotion to the pearl making, and the engagement to his family, friends, and colleagues.
<His family and boyhood life>
Mikimot Kokichi was born as a son of small “Udon shop” (Noodle shop) in the port town Toba in 1858 in the late Edo period. It was said that he was a smart in nature and talented boy, and held an excellent business sense from young age. He had been helping his family’s shop since his childhood. He had to be hawking the marine goods and vegetables in the area to support the household because his family was quite poor. But he could learned much how commercial activity works through this experience.
In memorial hall, the restored model of ” Udon shop” named “Awa Ya” was exhibited where Kokichi had spent his younger ages. There also the episode is introduced showing his sales talent that successfully sold marine products to a harbored Western ship in Toba bay using his artist performances. It suggested that his business talent was already demonstrated from early age.
<Youth period being inspired business>
Around at his 20 years old, Kokichi visited Yokohama because he’d heard that dried abalones and pearls in Toba were sold well at high price among Chinese traders. He had thought these products could bring a business chance for him. As a matter of fact, the grinded pearls were widely used as medical stuff in China.
After that, Kokichi launched a small trading business of marine products, such as abalone, seaweed, while searching for the possibility of development of Akoya oyster as raw material for Shima’s pearl. Around this time, he had fortunately a chance to meet Yanagi Naraetsu who was a president of the National Fish Products Exhibition Committee. Also, from Mitsukuri Kakichi, an authority of marine science, he received a positive comment on pearl farming, like, ” Technically extremely difficult, but pearl farming itself is theoretically possible.”
Then Kokichi determined to start the pearl farming with believing in its success in someday future, even he recognized it would have accompanied with painful difficulties.
The background of the decision making is interestingly depicted in the memorial Hall along with many episodes about his families and friends.
<Troubles and challenges in aquaculture business>
Although he decided to cultivate cultured pearls, the business process had been seemed extremely difficult to handle for him. First of all, he had to feed a huge number of mother shells of Akoyagai in the sea for making pearls. Also, it wasn’t clear what substance was suitable as a “nucleus” for cultured pearls, how to plant this nucleus to Akoyagai by opening shell without hurting, and others, Kokichi had to experiment from the scratch.
Initially, he began to breed Akoya oysters in the sea of Ago Bay, near Toba, and experimented many times to embed various nucleus in the pearl shells in his aqua farms. It is said that Kokichi was repeatedly experimenting his work for long in the continuing of trial and error, even in the midst of many derision coming from neighboring people to be a kind of “swindle” activities. In addition, he had also to encounter so many crises to happen in this process that he was almost forced losing all his property.
However, four years later, in 1893, while red tide inflicted serious damage to Shima Bay and pearl shells, finally the several pieces of cultured pearls was discovered in the shore of Toba’s Aino-shima (present Pearl Island) among thousands of remaining shells. This is the moment when the world’s first cultured pearls were born. Kokichi thus became the first inventor to successfully develop cultured pearls. In this way, Kokichi established the new development methods of cultured pearl and gained the patent of pearl farming. The moment of birth of pearls and hard work engaged by him are displayed well in the exhibition with the form of panels, photographs, paintings and so on.
<Troubles and challenges in pearl aquaculture business>
Then Kokichi launched the pearl farming and began the pearl sales after taking “patent” (for Semicircle pearl production methods) in full-scale. First activities he’d done were the opening and expanding the breeding base of pearl shells at Tatoku-shima in Ago Bay, and he embarked a large-scale aqua farming business there. And, nearly 4200 pieces of pearls (semicircular) were successfully harvested in 1933, and he started the commercial business of pearl jewelry in his main trade items. On the other hand, many pearl researchers had been pursuing a method of making round pearls (true circle pearls) at this time around that time. Kokichi had also engaging in the works and devoted himself in study of full circular pearls too, while expanding the semicircular pearl business. After several years of laborious works, he finally reached the goal to be producing the long-awaited true pearls in his aquaculture farm in 1900. This story is also elaborately recorded in the Hall together with the collaborators’ contributions for it.
<Leap to overseas pearl business>
Kokichi, who had succeeded in pearl making, first opened his pearl shop in Ginza, Tokyo in 1888. He dispatched his brother Yoneda to the United States and tried to explore sales channels there with paying attention to the higher demand of pearls overseas. Also, the beautiful cultured pearls were becoming soon popular in domestic too. Particular it was loved by the Imperial Family. And Mikimoto pearl has chosen as an “Emperors goods” by the Imperial Court.
Thus, Mikimoto pearl has gradually permeated in the overseas markets and led to the business expansion in the UK and France. Around this time, Kokichi had actively participated in various World Expo and exhibited his artistic pearl jewelry products there. The strategy was succeeded and receive high valuation at the Expo.The memorial products exhibited at Expos are now displayed in the Pearl Museum as “Mikimoto Memorial Jewelry”. And it’s truly a splendid artistic works. In the Memorial Hall the early work “Military Leader’s Fan” is exhibited too.
Through these challenges, Mikimoto’s pearl marketing was expanded in the world. However, European and American jewelers, who were threatened by the appearance of new cultured pearls which boast of competitive power to natural pearls in quality, invited the hostile reaction against them, such as raising a lawsuit to Mikimoto pearls accusing they weren’t genuine pearls but only “imitation” ones.
However Western European scientists have revealed that Mikimoto’s cultured pearls are true pearls which hold same quality with natural pearls. And, the brand name of Mikimoto Pearl has resulted in being ironically elevated much on the contrary of such accusation. Then Mikimoto· could establish the solid status as a major pearl maker in the world, and, all the more, Japanese cultured pearls have grown as major Japanese export items.
<Strong commitment to quality of pearls>
Meanwhile, since many companies had entered in the cultured pearl business riding the pearl boom in Japan, the quality degrading problems had occurred, and even defective items had been appeared in the pearl market. As a result, the reputation of Japanese pearls, including Mikimoto’s pearl, was dropped fast in this period.
Against this situation, Kokichi had taken a drastic policy for recovering trust on the quality of pearl. It was the event of what it called “Pearl burn-out demonstration ” in massive scale in 1932. At that time, more than 750,000 pieces of expensive pearls were burned and discarded in front of public viewers. This event became widely covered by mass medias as an surprising “Incident” and it was widely resonated among pearl lovers. But, as a result, Mikimoto pearl recovered its reputation and established the name as a reliable jewelry maker even in overseas since then. Such anecdotes are also displayed as a memorial of Kokichi’s courageous action at the Memorial Hall
<Mikimoto pearl after the War>
In this way, Japan’s pearl business, particularly Mikimoto’s pearl business, has been overwhelming overseas natural pearls makers. However, the Pacific War inflicted serious damage to the Japanese pearl business. Nevertheless, it was fortunate to be able to show recovery sign soon, even after the defeating of the War, particularly thanks to the strong market demand of American ladies who is enthusiastically fond of Japanese pearls, because many US officers stationed in Japan have rashly flocked to Shima and Toba in order to purchase Mikimoto’s pearls for their souvenirs to their families. It was symbolic scene that the Allied commander General Ridgeway visited Shima and Toba with his lady at that time of period.
So Japanese cultured pearls, not only Mikimoto’s pearls business, but whole Japan could revive and success to export of pearls as valuable trading items from Japan since that time. These episodes are also exhibited here in the Memorial Hall.
<Human element and later years of Mikimoto Kokichi>
This way, the name of Mikimoto Yukichi became noted in the world as “King of Pearls”, and cultured pearls became one of Japan’s precious source exports. The memorial hall explains these activities as a great entrepreneurial talent of Kokichi, and also introduces several episodes on his human characteristics.
The numerous many memorable exhibits were displayed related to Kokichi’s family life, such as many records on his wife “Ume” who struggled with farming assisting Kokichi, numerous statues of deity Ebisu and “Yadate”(Writing tool in Edo era) which have been collected in his hobby as his guardians, letters and memorials relating to his business, and so on. These all seems to indicate his personality, talent, and contribution to the development of pearl industry.
In his later years, the renamof “Aijima” in Toba Bay was changed to Mikimoto’s “Pearl Island” in 1939 , as memorable place where Kokichi had successfully developed cultured pearl first in the world. Kokichi has also energetically devoted to developing whole Ise-Shima region as National Park, along with shaping up Pearl Island as an attractive resort spot showing the way of pearl farming.
As a result, the Island have grown to the noted place where many royal people and celebrities of various countries. For example, it is said that Queen Elizabeth, Queen Grace, and other prominent figures have visited there to appreciate the Japanese pearls’ tradition and its products. This situation is well shown in a collection of photographs which are displayed in numerous places.
So Kokichi is believed to be working hard for tourism development of Ise Shima region until 96 years old. This situation is well depicted in a collection of photographs displayed in the Hall.
♣ Remarks after visit
In the memorial hall, there is a special room called “Shinju-kaku” reproduced where Kokichi had lived in his later year. From this room you can clearly observe the beautiful landscape of Ago Bay and the situation of his fishing farm. It is said that the one of pleasure for Kokichi in his later year was to talk with prominent guests from overseas and domestic at this room while looking over down the beautiful green Ago Bay.
It seems an amazing thing that Kokichi, who was only a poor son of humble noodle shop in the local rural area, challenged to the difficult pearl farming, successfully started pearl business by his own hand, and later even became the world class entrepreneur of pearl jewelry, in addition to contribute a lot to promote international culture exchange and diplomacy of Japan.
And the time went around fast and in the year 2015, the “Ise Wan Summit Meeting” of world leaders was held at “Kashiko-Jima” in Ise-Shima and Ago Bay where Kokichi had struggled with making a cultured pearl for the first time in the world and later developed as a world class marine resort.
I just wondered how Kokichi, if he still alive, would have felt about this international diplomatic event at the place where he had opened the cultured pearl business. The Pearl Island and the Mikimoto Memorial Museum enticed me to conjure such a fancy imagination.
- 御木本幸吉記念館HP: http://www.mikimoto-pearl-museum.co.jp/know/memorial.html
- ミキモト – Wikipedia