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Japan's Taichiro Morinaga Turned Candy Into Sweet Sales

Morinaga used his business' wealth to aid earthquake victims and others less fortunate, believing his job of making candy was God-given. Minato City

Morinaga used his business' wealth to aid earthquake victims and others less fortunate, believing his job of making candy was God-given. Minato City View Enlarged Image

Most manufacturers believe their products are pretty unique.

Taichiro Morinaga went a step higher. He believed his products were manna from heaven.

Morinaga (1865-1937) blended a belief in Christianity with notions of helping people and getting more Japanese to try Western-style food.

Result: the founding of Japan's first modern candy company.

Morinaga & Co., the firm he created over a century ago, has morphed into one of Japan's biggest candy makers, with 2008 sales of $1.5 billion and nearly 6,000 employees.

Its candy, chocolate, health food snacks and nutritional drinks are sold from China to America.

Morinaga also runs restaurants, coffee shops, cafeterias and golf courses in Japan.

Its affiliate, Morinaga Milk Industry, sells powdered milk and other dairy products worldwide.

Morinaga's Keys

  • Founded the first Western-style candy and confection maker in Japan over 100 years ago. The company has since expanded into health food snacks and drinks and sells globally.
  • Company motto: "We Offer Good Health With Delight & Taste."

"Morinaga is a global player," Keith Rabin, an Asia-focused business consultant who heads New York-based KWR International, told IBD. "It's a company that's been very successful in Japan on a range of fronts and is now reaching out to the U.S. and emerging economies around the world."

Early Going

In the late 1800s, when Morinaga started to build his business, Western-style sweets were costly imports mainly consumed by the rich.

Morinaga changed that. He produced cheaper, locally made candy that became the delight of Japanese children and their parents.

His firm was the first to produce chocolate in Japan. In the process, he helped open the country to new products and foreign influences.

Morinaga experienced early privation. He was born on Japan's southern island of Kyushu and had no formal education. His father died when he was 7. Estranged from his mother, he bounced around to various relatives and ended up training as a potter's apprentice.

He went to Tokyo in his teens to sell pottery, then became a manager for a wholesaler in nearby Yokohama. Having a soft heart and extending too much credit to customers, he forced his branch to lose money.

With employees personally responsible for such losses, Morinaga searched for a way to repay his boss.

With no prospects in Japan, the 23-year-old emigrated to California. He scraped together some cash and opened a hardware store in San Francisco. That soon failed, no thanks to locals boycotting because of his race, so he hunted for another way to make a living.

Now came two altering events.

The first was his conversion to Christianity. The second was an act of kindness by a stranger.

A nameless American gave him a piece of candy. Having led an impoverished life in Japan, Morinaga had never tasted such a delicious treat.

That convinced him that his future lay in introducing candy to Japan.

This was a risky proposition in the 1880s. A small country with little arable land, Japan raised few sugar-bearing crops. No sugar cane or corn existed for corn syrup and the resulting confections.

Most sweets, based on what Chinese and Portuguese traders brought to Japan centuries earlier, were made from boiled beans or bee honey. Other candy imported from Europe was even more expensive.

He tried to apprentice at factories in San Francisco, but he was turned down because he was Japanese.

He finally took a job as a janitor at a candy factory where he learned to make sweets on the side. By 1899 he felt he knew enough to return home. He opened a shop in a trendy Tokyo district with Hanzaburo Matsuzaki, a fellow Christian.

The small firm soon began to churn out a successful line of candy.

This was partly due to Morinaga's shrewd market research. Before returning to Japan, he queried members of San Francisco's Japanese-American community about what sweets appealed to them.

Their favorite product? Marshmallows, the fluffy confection made from egg whites and other ingredients unobtainable in Japan.

Knowing the sweet would be an instant success, Morinaga sold his marshmallows from a pushcart in the streets of Tokyo. Sales took off.

Morinaga needed a name for his marshmallows. He ended up calling them Angel Food in Japanese — because of their white color and the allusion to Christianity. (He later designed an angel that still serves as the trademark of Morinaga & Co.)

The other candy product that helped Morinaga make his mark with the Japanese was caramel. The locals loved that taste.

But there was a problem. Caramel, as it was made in the West, melted into a gooey mess in Japan's heat.

Morinaga was unfazed. He fiddled with the recipe he had learned in San Francisco. His product now didn't melt, had a less buttery taste and appealed to the Japanese.

The caramel, called Hi-Chew, became one of his flagship products.

New Hurdle: Chocolate

He could get cacao beans from the tropics. But chocolate had to be mixed with milk to make milder candy. With few sources for that, he opened his own dairy in 1917.

The next year, the firm originally called the Morinaga Western Confectionery Shop became the first to make chocolate bars in Japan.

Sales took off through the 1920s as Morinaga's company added more modern plants and developed new products. One of them was a baby biscuit called Morinaga Manna.

In 1923, when an earthquake and fire killed more than 140,000 and leveled much of Tokyo, Morinaga gave away candy to thousands of survivors huddled in parks. And he assisted in rescue efforts.

Upon his death in Tokyo at age 73, thousands attended his funeral.