PRODUCER SPOTLIGHT: “Think Locally, Act Locally" - Exclusive Interview with Japan Energy Food
Motivated by the link he saw between agriculture and environmental issues, Kazuhiro Aizawa founded Japan Energy Food. To him, eating means consuming foods grown in a natural and sustainable way, because environmental issues are also human health problems.
With this in mind, Japan Energy Food makes their energy bars using responsibly grown ingredients inspired by the traditional Japanese diet.
We had the chance to speak with Kazuhiro Aizawa, CEO of Japan Energy Food, to learn about his motivation for starting Japan Energy Food and the link he sees between the environment and human health.
Kokoro: Mr. Aizawa, how did you started your business and what's your personal history?
Aizawa-san: I first became aware of environmental issues as an elementary school student after a field trip to a water treatment plant. I then went to a high school that awarded points for knowledge about environmental problems on their entrance exam. As a university student, I chose to study environmental sociology.
Environmental issues have always been close to my heart. I started working at Seikatsu Club Co-op to approach social concerns from the perspective of food. After that, I thought that it would be a good idea to get involved in promotional work for regional development. I started helping a venture that used local resources to make aromatic oils and wooden toys in Minamiaizu, Fukushima prefecture.
I then decided that I wanted to develop a food product and the idea of Brown Rice x Miso was born! Within a year, I went from creating my idea for an energy bar to having a prototype ready. We launched in April of 2019.
Kokoro: Could you tell us more about how you came into the idea of food and environmental issues?
Aizawa-san: Because I had been grappling with environmental problems since high school, I had gathered a lot of data. However, my number one lingering sense of unease was caused by doubts that I couldn’t erase. I kept saying to myself, “The data is accurate, right?”
“Think Globally, Act Locally”
These words are thrown around a lot these days, yet I still feel that lingering unease. I’d like to propose a new mantra which appeared in a column by Kada Yukiko. She said, “Think Locally, Act Locally.” In order to take action, we must first consider how food and farms are closely tied together.
Environmental issues, in short, are also issues of human health and safety. Food is something external which we must intake every day, it has a huge impact on our bodies. All things considered, environmental issues and their absolute intertwining with food and farms is a very human problem.
Kokoro: Given how things are with food these days, what issues are on your mind? What concerns are you grappling with individually and in terms of your company?
Aizawa-san: I’ve long since been concerned with food because of stomach issues, as well as being a bit small and frail (despite being born at a fairly large 3.6kg!).
As a student, when I became a union member at Seikatsu Club Co-op, I got a lot of my news from reading newsletters and bulletins. I became aware of how much was thrown in with our food, like additives, post-harvest agrochemicals, genetic modification, and so much more. Of course, almost all of this is caused by capitalism and mass production in the food service industry.
The main motive behind our business is to work on behalf of everyone who's involved in the process - those who grow the food, those who make it, those who deliver it, and those who eat it.
Kokoro: What was the motivation behind your energy bars? Were there any difficulties during that came up during the creation process?
Aizawa-san: I was thinking that there aren't many high quality Japanese foods that are convenient to eat. Onigiri (rice balls) and miso soup may spring to mind, but neither of these is really what I would consider food for when you’re on the go. After all, onigiri is prone to falling apart. So, I took some dried rice, something similar to puffed cereal and thought, “Well, I could harden this and add miso flavor, right?” The inspiration for this idea came to me because it can be delicious, without being overly sweet, and can also be reminiscent of a lot of high class Japanese foods. The idea alone seemed so splendid. The actual excuse to make it came after telling my friend so many times, “Hey, let’s try making this!”. Now that friend works with me as an executive in the company.
The development process yielded so many recipes that were either too difficult to properly harden or had too complex a taste. We did test runs, creating many different varieties with the goal of making something simple. At a certain point, my friend said of one that we were able to make, “This is great!” The next difficulty was in finding a place where we could manufacture them. I searched online, made a ton of phone calls, made appointments, and went to some companies to try to get a manufacturing test run. After so many places turned me down or said that they were unable to do it at their locations, I finally found the factory we use now. Then there were new difficulties in the creation process. Because the ingredients burned and stuck to the inside of the pots, we had to throw them out. I spent a whole day walking through Kappabashi Utensil Street in Tokyo to find the perfect pots that wouldn’t get anything stuck to them.
Kokoro: How do your customers enjoy your energy bars? I would love to hear their feelings.
Aizawa-san: Many people seem to have them as a between-meal snack or as a breakfast replacement. Our energy bars are also popular with people too busy to eat lunch, since they're very filling. Because they're not sweet, people don’t feel guilty about eating them. People who do yoga often post pictures of themselves crunching down on our energy bars in their Instagram Stories!
I also hear a lot of positive stories from people who aren’t able to eat much. Eating our energy bars gives a great feeling of satisfaction to people when they’re on a diet. They're also popular among people who love climbing mountains. People who don’t like sweet foods but also want something they can eat on the go are on the lookout for them as well. The fact that they're so light and can be carried around anywhere is wonderful!
Kokoro: What plans do you have for the future of your business?
Aizawa-san: To make good food and supply them to everyone.
To set up a lab to research Japanese foods from olden times. This would be a place for sales, food and drink, research, seminars, and even a source for sharing ideas online.
To buy a regional food production factory through m&a. I want a large facility with better equipment and great interpersonal exchange.
I also want to foster trust with famers so they can do their work with peace of mind.
Rather than a business goal, my personal dream is to help people truly understand the meaning of farm work. I want to create a university where people can study the systematic process of organic farming. If we make it so hundreds of people could come per year, Japan’s rate of agricultural self-sufficiency could rise above 100%.
Kokoro: Do you have a short message for your company’s foreign customers?
Aizawa-san: I want to thank you for trying our Brown Rice X Miso Energy Bars! You might be surprised to find that these bars aren’t sweet. They're something you can really sink your teeth into. I think you will enjoy the deliciousness of the dried bonito (skipjack tuna), the aroma of the miso, and all the bounty to be had in the complexity of Japanese food. For those who are from Japan, I think this will certainly give you a strong feeling of nostalgia. If more people living abroad get a taste for Japanese food, Japanese agricultural products will be that much more invigorated. I’ll happily cheer you on as we do our best to build a bridge between our cultures with food!
Learn more about Japan Energy Food at https://japanenergyfood.com/
Translation courtesy of Kenneth Valencich