In the last 30 years, two-thirds of the tofu producers in Japan have gone out of business. Seven years ago Shingo ‘Johnny’ Ito started Otokomae Tofu, moved to Kyoto to take over a bankrupt tofu factory and now has a total of 3 production facilities in Japan. Otokomae Tofu is surely the best known national tofu brand in Japan. Otokomae Tofu is ‘dripping’ with personality and having fun at work is central to the founder’s business philosophy and the company’s success.
Recently I had an opportunity to interview founder Shingo ‘Johnny’ Ito at his office in Yagi, a small town in rural Kyoto prefecture. Though Otokomae Tofu is based in Kyoto, it isn’t really a ‘Kyoto’ company. It is very ‘Tokyo’, or ‘Osaka’, for me that has its downsides but I think the company breaths some new life into often stuffy old Kyoto. I affectionately think of Shingo ‘Johnny’ Ito as a kind of shock therapist for Kyoto.
Michael: Why ‘Johnny’ (for product name)?
Johnny: For tofu product names there had been names like Minosuke and Shigezo (typical Japanese male names), all Japanese names, so I thought that Johnny would be great for a new tofu because it sounds extremely new and is unforgettable. Since we started selling Johnny, 6 or 7 years have passed.
Michael: Why did you think to develop this tofu?
Johnny: I wanted to make a tofu that had a taste different from the tofu that had been available previously. It is still tofu, but ours is quite sweet. Of course we don’t use sugar, we draw out the natural sweetness of high quality soybeans. I researched and developed the production method. I came up with a very interesting and delicious taste. So, for such a special tofu it would be a pity to give it a boring name!
Since we started selling this tofu, 6 years or so have passed and there are some people that think ‘Johnny’ instead of ‘tofu’! (laughter.. When people hear ‘Johnny’ they wonder what it is. There had never been any food or product called Johnny.
Michael: So, was Johnny your first product?
Johnny: No. Otokomae was first. After developing Otomokae, I made Johnny.
Michael: Ah, Otokomae Tofu (product name) was first? I see. What is the characteristic quality of Otokomae?
Johnny: Well, there is a Japanese proverb; mizu mo shitataru ii otoko (水もしたたるいい男). For a really great guy, you say this.
explanatory note: The meaning of the proverb is a bit difficult to convey in natural English. Here goes. The literal meaning is ‘even water is dripping from (this) man’ (could be a woman too — or tofu). The metaphor of water is of being fresh, sexy, healthy, active — just too good!
I developed the container for this tofu first. The tofu is wrapped with a paper-like sheet and the container has a trap at the bottom to collect water. It has a double function to remove water from the tofu. This was the first tofu in-which water is slowly and thoroughly removed from the tofu while still in the package.
This is mizu mo shitataru tofu. (A word play on the above proverb.) And from that, I made the name of the company: Otokomae Dofu-ten (lit. handsome guy tofu shop)
There hadn’t been this kind of tofu available and people were surprised by the name of the company and the rich flavor of the tofu produced by the unique package I developed.
When I first started out I would be waiting in line at the bank and when the clerk said Otokomae Dofu-ten (handsome guy tofu-san) all the other customers waiting would look around see me … laughter
So, that was our start and next I made Johnny.
Johnny: Next came Otoko Sanren-chan (three guys in a row).
Michael: What is the unique characteristic of this product?
Johnny: This is a product packaged in three small portions so that it can be eaten little by little. The three faces on the package are of the guys who are in charge of the product line and actually make this tofu. The names are actual too; Ryokuichi, Tetsuo and Masahiro.
And then we have these three varieties available in single larger packages for people who want to eat more of one.
(looking at the package)
Michael: I never noticed this! What is this barcode?
Johnny: Yeah, that is a barcode. It is called ‘Design Barcode’ You see here on Johnny the barcode is in the shape of a wave and there is a surfer riding the top of the wave.
Michael: So is Design Barcode from Japan?
Johnny: Yes. I first saw it reported on Yahoo! News. I mailed the guys who invented it right away and told them I was making a tofu product called Johnny in the shape of a surfboard and I want to have a surfing image barcode. It became popular very quickly!
Michael: Are you into surfing?
Johnny: No, I don’t know very much about it!
Michael: But, humor and personality in business is extremely in this era.
Johnny: Well, in Kyoto there are many stores and companies with decades, even centuries of history. We have only been around for a little more than 5 years, so we can’t really compete with them on history, we have to do something new!
But, one important point. Some people might think that our tofu is much easier to make that that of the very old tofu shops in Kyoto. That is not true at all though. Otokomae Tofu is very troublesome to make. Our production process requires a lot of labor.
Michael: And why is that?
Johnny: Our tofu is very thick and creamy. I am really maniacal about how we simmer soybeans and soymilk and research and develop the recipe for each product.
Michael: So you do research for your recipes?
Johnny: Oh yes, of course.
Even though we don’t have such a long history, our tofu can’t be beaten in taste and quality by the old shops. However, if we take such a serious tone in our marketing, supermarket shoppers won’t notice our products.
We sell our tofu like they used to sell albums and CDs, by the jacket. People don’t know what is inside, but they see the label and think that is would be worth trying. Then they realize the quality of Otokomae Tofu!
They think; Johnny, otokomae. Umai! (lit. Johnny, handsome. Tasty!) They can’t forget it!
Michael: How would you describe the difference between your tofu and that of other makers?
Johnny: Our tofu is extremely thick and creamy. Of course, how we make each product is a trade secret, not to mention a great deal of work. Our tofu is very thick and rich. However, some people don’t like that kind of tofu, they like tofu that is more plain and light in flavor. So the market is really divided into those two types of tofu lovers.
Michael: I am definitely drawn to big flavors, maybe because I am American! So, I like your tofu very much and often eat it at home. So, maybe Otokomae Tofu would appeal to Western people particularly well?
Johnny: Where in America are you from?
Johnny: Oh, you grow excellent organic soybeans there! I have been to Minnesota to purchase soybeans. Also, Minneapolis, that is where Prince is from.
Michael: What is your favorite Otokomae Tofu? What do you eat at home?
Johnny: Recently I am enjoying Shingo. Shingo is my name. This has a bottle opener on the package because it goes very well with beer on hot summer evenings. Just some soy sauce and scallions on cold tofu makes the dish called hiyayakko. It goes great with beer and I like beer! Shingo is also good in the winter cooked in nabe.
Actually this is made with imported soybeans, from Canada. This product, among our lineup is the lightest in flavor. Previously I only ate Johnny at home and didn’t really think that we could make tofu that I would like with imported soybeans. I researched and developed the recipes and techniques for these imported soybeans and I like the tofu we have now very much!
If we can make great tofu with imported soybeans, from Canada and America, then we should also be able to make great tofu there in those countries. Someday I think that we could have a tofu shop in New York or Los Angeles.
Also, water is very important for tofu. I am researching about how to present tofu for American consumers now. If we could make delicious tofu in America with American soybeans and local water, that would be great, wouldn’t it!
Next I got a peek at a few new products under development and took a few very interesting photos of founder and CEO Shingo Ito.