The year is 1959. Navy Pier is a global business showcase, with the Chicago International Fair and Exposition attracting the likes of Queen Elizabeth herself. A young man weaves through the crowds handing out samples of Kikkoman soy sauce, a recipe sacred to his family for centuries. Most people try it for the very first time. “They liked it,” recalls Yuzaburo Mogi. “The experience made me think that one day, soy sauce could become the seasoning of the whole world.”
He was onto something. Soon Kikkoman, a name now synonymous with soy sauce, saw a surge in popularity among U.S. consumers, with export volumes — and related costs — rising at an astronomical rate. And so under the guidance of then Managing Director Keizaburo Mogi (Yuzaburo’s father), Kikkoman set up a committee to explore production in the United States.
Which brings us to a tiny town hall in Walworth, Wisconsin, where a spirited debate played out in the early seventies. After a handful of hearings, a meeting is called for the evening of November 7, 1971. The final tally? 54 for, 14 against. It’s settled: America’s first soy sauce plant will open in the heart of Big Foot Prairie. Over time, it will grow from churning out 2.4 million gallons of the condiment in its first year to an estimated 34 million, becoming the most productive plant for the world’s leading soy sauce brand.
The pulling question here is this: Why did the Mogi family bring their centuries-old soy sauce to Wisconsin? For starters, they were drawn by the area’s plentiful agriculture, particularly its soybeans. Although Kikkoman’s aroma is complex — comprising 300+ components — it’s composed of just four simple ingredients: soybeans, wheat, water and salt. Second, Keizaburo was interested in the diligent Midwestern workforce. But that same workforce was worried about a foreign business setting up shop in its midst.
“Some people worried it would be a 100% Japanese operation, with all Japanese workers and Japanese machinery,” Walworth resident Jerry Palzkill, who taught vocational agriculture at Big Foot High School, told the Chicago Tribune. “There were lots of rumors floating around, but Kikkoman did a great job of putting those fears to rest.” During the plant’s opening ceremony in 1973, attended by 10,000 people, Keizaburo eased the worries in Walworth. He assured locals that the facility was not a Kikkoman plant in the United States, but rather an American Kikkoman plant.
And that’s what makes this story a beautiful one. Slowly, the subtleties of making a seemingly simple condiment changed the complexities of an entire town. Which begs the question: Can soy sauce change the way we see the world? You may be delightfully surprised.
In early 1972, Bill Wenger was stationed in Hawaii as a U.S. Marine helicopter pilot. He received a letter from his mother, who lived near Walworth, with a newspaper clipping about the planned soy sauce plant.
“I remember reading my mother’s letter then turning to my wife and asking, ‘What the hell is soy sauce?’” he recalled to the Chicago Tribune. “She went out to a local grocery store and bought a bottle of some horrible local brand. She brought it home and opened it. We looked at each other and said, ‘Good God, this stuff is terrible.’”
But upon returning to Wisconsin, Wenger ended up spending more than 20 years as the plant’s manager, responsible for bottling, warehousing and the like. From the very beginning, the Kikkoman team was determined to localize management. In fact, amid apparent tension between the United States and Japan during the seventies, the company’s management practices were noted as “a rare example of overseas expansion without friction” in a 1974 Harvard Business School case study.
So where did this managerial magic begin? Likely within the wise words of the Kikkoman Creed. For 19 generations, the Mogi family recipe has been handed down along with a set of 16 articles that has successfully guided the company for centuries. To name a few: Ensure progress and family prosperity. Preserve discipline and maintain tradition. Give to society as much as you can.
Kikkoman, in both its heart and its product, is unique. Unlike many other commercial recipes, the brand’s soy sauce is made without chemicals, meticulously brewed with the help of a special fermenting agent called koji mold. Nurtured with love and patience, Kikkoman’s soy sauce is created by working microorganisms — actual living things.
In fact, the sauce sings when it’s ready. The complex fermentation process takes anywhere from six to eight months, and the brew’s persistent bubbling and breathing indicates it’s healthy. “It’s like the health of children,” notes one brewer. “We watch their faces, check their temperatures and listen to their voices. If you don’t take care of them, they will grow up badly.” The Kikkoman Creed comes into play here, too: Approach all living beings with love.
Over time, soy sauce became a Walworth kitchen staple. “The first year I worked at Kikkoman, we never had any soy sauce in our home,” Vince Miller, a one-time production manager who served with the 82nd Airborne during World War II, explained to the Chicago Tribune. “My wife wouldn’t buy it, wouldn’t even allow it in the house. I finally brought home a bottle and put it on some meatloaf. Now we use it on just about everything. I put it on peaches. We even have a local minister who puts it on his ice cream.”
Beyond food, Kikkoman had a way of uniting this small Wisconsin community, stemming from a deep-seated belief that business depends on people (another article in the creed). From the get-go, the Mogi family didn’t want division between their American and Japanese employees, so they encouraged them to live amongst one another in Walworth and surrounding towns like Elkhorn, Lake Geneva and Williams Bay.
“Our biggest goal in Walworth — in addition to producing good soy sauce — was to achieve coexistence and co-prosperity with the people of Wisconsin and the United States,” explains Yuzaburo, who today serves as Kikkoman’s honorary CEO and chairman of the board. “We’ve been doing business in Noda, Japan, for 360 years. We learned a long time ago that to survive, you need to coexist with the surrounding community.”
And so, Walworth became a place for not only coexistence but co-prosperity. American and Japanese families came together for cookouts complete with burgers, bratwursts and, of course, sake. Wives played tennis with one another, and Japanese women gave tutorials on how to wear a kimono. “We learned a lot from the Japanese women,” one Walworth resident explains. “A lot about patience. A lot about diligence. A lot about bravery.”
Making soy sauce is a beautiful, sacred process. And it goes far beyond the fermentation itself. Consider Walworth, Wisconsin. A family recipe brought together two cultures, making them realize we are indeed more alike than we are different. Perhaps, then, soy sauce is a lot like us: complex from afar, but simple at the root.
So can soy sauce change the way we see the world? Why not? It reminds us that most good things in life require humility, grace and some bratwursts washed down with a little sake.