Hidden SME Champions

The Aomori Ai Industry Cooperative

Finding solutions for society with Japanese “Ai” Indigo

A traditional craft turned thriving business

Aomori Prefecture, located on the northern tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu, is best known for its rich natural resources such as the Shirakami Mountains, a UNESCO World Hertitage site, and the Oirase Mountain Stream. It is also host to Japan's most popular summer festival, "Aomori Nebuta,” and attracts around 35 million tourists from home and abroad each year.

One of Nebuta lanterns carried around at the festival

Aomori is also known as a major agricultural producer and is Japan’s largest producer of apples and garlic. However, Japan’s declining population and government-initiated acreage reduction policy has led to an increase in abandoned farmland and idle fields. To cope with such changes, local industry leaders have been working to energize the local economy by cultivating organic, pesticide-free indigo, or “ai” as it is known in Japan, in these abandoned fields and developing a wide range of diverse products ranging from clothing to food.

Indigo is regarded primarily as a coloring dye but it also contains anti-bacterial and deodorizing properties. Focusing on these properties, the Aomori Ai Industry Cooperative, a group of local businesses tasked with promoting Aomori indigo, uses patented technology to extract the active ingredients from indigo for use not only in dyes, but also in foods, cosmetics and healthcare products. It is also eyeing future application in medical and agricultural products.

Leading Aomori Ai’s product development is the 76-year old Hisayuki Yoshida, representative director of the Aomori Ai Industry Cooperative. His involvement with indigo started 15 years ago, when he participated in a research project with Hirosaki University, in hope that indigo would provide a new way to promote local businesses.

“When I first saw ai flowers in bloom, the sheer beauty of them left a lasting impression on me,” said Yoshida. “I remember thinking how beautiful it would be if we could fill abandoned farmland with ai flowers,”he said, looking back at the time.

Indigo dyeing, or ai-zome, was quite popular in the castle city of Hirosaki during the Edo Period (1603-1867) but has since declined along with the times. The Hirosaki University research project looked into ways to revive the craft by creating a more colorfast dye that would withstand multiple washings. The project succeeded when, instead of fermenting indigo in the traditional fashion, researchers were able to create a dye by adding a certain food additive to dried and powdered indigo leaves. The newly discovered process greatly reduced the dyeing time to around one-twentieth of the traditional method. Seeing this, Yoshida sensed new business potential and decided to create the Aomori Ai Industry Cooperative together with four other firms.

Developing pesticide-free organic indigo

To start growing indigo, Yoshida enlisted the help of Hideo Fukushi, an agricultural professional with vast knowledge of organic pesticide-free farming and of leveraging abandoned fields. Organic indigo cultivation was a must for Aomori Ai, as its products were created with food additives and its aim was to be known as an “edible” dye.

Fukushi’s secret to successful non-chemical farming was to use extensively purified soil. When components in soil are completely broken down, the soil naturally repels pests and bugs. Fukushi spent years creating the perfect soil, which could be used to cultivate fully-organic indigo. He is now in charge of assisting others on pesticide-free indigo cultivation as a member of Aomori Ai. His efforts have been paying off as Aomori now ranks 4th in Japan in terms of indigo acreage, despite the fact that the prefecture takes on the additional burden of growing indigo organically.

Mr. Yoshida (left) and Mr. Fukushi (right) in front of their organic indigo field

Collaboration in space

Yoshida, who was the head of a local garment company when he started Aomori Ai, drew on his own business knowledge and experience in developing new products. By compiling data on the various different shades of blue achieved by different dyeing times, Yoshida was able to achieve and maintain consistency in the finished color. Until then, coloring had been left solely in the hands of seasoned craftsmen, who depended on their own individual dyeing experience and skills as a guide. With the reduced dyeing time and process standardization, mass production of indigo products became possible.

It was during this time that Yoshida heard from a contact in Tokyo that the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was holding a competition for garments to be worn by its astronauts on board its spacecraft.

Compiling data on organic indigo extract

Given the anti-bacterial properties of indigo, “Aomori Ai may have a shot at this,” thought Yoshida. To participate in the competition, he created a prototype in a record time of just one month. The anti-bacterial and deodorizing properties of indigo-dyed clothing received high marks and Aomori Ai’s product won the competition. In 2010, Aomori Ai took flight into space on the Discovery space shuttle.

The space shuttle coup paved the way for increased attention from both Japan and abroad. Japan’s major department stores approached Aomori Ai for developing products in collaboration with major Japanese and foreign brands to place on their shelves, and to take part in an exhibition in New York. Eventually, Aomori Ai partnered with around 40 firms in the span of just one year.

The anti-bacterial and deodorizing properties of Aomori Ai’s indigo, combined with the variation of shades, the color-fastness and the safety of the organically grown ingredients made Aomori Ai products a hit with consumers. In 2014, Aomori Ai received support from SME SUPPORT JAPAN to spend two weeks in France and Italy to study potential tie-ups with top European brands.

Even as Yoshida continues to look for opportunities to market Aomori Ai products abroad, he never loses sight of the fact that the project was initiated with the aim of revitalizing local businesses. He has continued to build strong ties with local partners.

When Aomori Ai was first created, the members of the cooperative were all newcomers to indigo dyeing. However, that actually worked in Aomori Ai’s favor, as, unburdened by tradition, it was able to come up with a host of new and innovative ideas. Aomori Ai spread indigo dyeing to leather and wood products, as well as to wallets and household items such as lamps. The lamps, along with indigo-dyed bed linen, are currently being used in Japanese luxury resort operator Hoshino Resort’s Aomoriya Hotel. A member of the cooperative, Nikaido Eatfun, a local patisserie, has created financier pastries, chocolate and bread using indigo powder, which is also rich in polyphenol. The financier pastries are sold through Japan Airlines’ mail order catalog “JAL Shop.” By teaming up with many different partners, Yoshida has been able to turn out a host of unique and innovative products.

Applying the benefits of Ai

Yoshida’s current focus is on developing products focusing on the anti-bacterial properties of indigo. Using research conducted by Professor Kenro Sasaki of the Tohoku Medical and Pharmaceutical University, Aomori Ai succeeded in greatly increasing the strength of the anti-bacterial properties and extracting a substance called Tryptanthrine, which it uses in a new anti-bacterial deodorizer released in 2016. The completely organic deodorizer has been highly regarded by users with allergies or sensitive skin.

Aomori Ai is also eyeing development of similar anti-bacterial products which include sheets that help keep food fresh, cosmetics and bath salts. It is also working with Hirosaki University in applying indigo’s anti-bacterial properties to medicine to help fight viral infections such as ulcerative colitis, norovirus and influenza, and to fight agricultural diseases. Recent research has revealed that indigo can also help facilitate growth in plants, and Aomori Ai is working with the University of Tokyo and the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research to develop agricultural fodder that can help increase product growth without the use of pesticides.

Yoshida says that he strongly believes that product development should be conducted to solve problems and not to chase ongoing trends. By always questioning who would benefit most from Aomori Ai’s technology and products, and who Aomori Ai should be targeting, Yoshida has continued to work flexibly to form collaborative relationships with various partners in diverse fields.

The Aomori prefectural and city governments, local industry groups and local financial institutions such as Aomori Bank, currently all support Aomori Ai in its quest to make indigo a long-standing local Industry. Hiroshi Furukawa of Aomori’s SME association, which has supported Aomori Ai since its inception, said with relish, “Aomori Ai has helped realize the dreams of everyone involved.”

Mr. Yoshida (center) with his staff and Mr. Furukawa of Aomori’s SME association (left)

The Aomori Ai Industry Cooperative

Tel. 017-763-5420 / Fax. 017-763-5423
Website. http://aomoriai.com

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