A Venerable Family Business Built on Tea and PaperEconomy
An Old Family Business in a Historic Town
Odawara in Kanagawa Prefecture is a 90-minute train ride from the heart of Tokyo. The city is a popular destination for Japanese and foreign tourists wishing to visit Odawara Castle and its environs. This castle town was the prosperous stronghold of the powerful Hōjō warrior clan during the Warring States period (1467–1568). About a five-minute walk from Odawara Station, in the heart of the city, is the old merchant building that houses Ejima—a store dealing in Japanese paper and tea.
When we stepped inside the premises of Ejima, the store’s seventeenth owner, 50-year-old Ejima Ken was there to great us with a smile and show us around.
The building was completed in 1928. Ejima told us a redevelopment plan was drawn up in the late 1980s, when Japan’s bubble economy was at its peak. The idea was to tear the building down and use the site to build a condo building and parking lot. But after the store was moved to a temporary location in preparation for the construction, the bubble burst and the plan was called off. The historical building was preserved for future generations to enjoy and Ejima ended up returning to continue its retail operations.
The history of the business can be traced back to 1661. Its first owner, Ejima Gonbei, who was an official in the town of Hakone, moved east to Odawara, a post station on the Tōkaidō route that connected Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto, and there he set up his store.
“At first Gonbei ran a salt-production operation on the coast of Odawara,” Ejima Ken explained. “In becoming a merchant he was much like those today who give up the life of the salaried employee to try some other profession. It was around the eighteenth century that our family began to produce paper used in screen doors and sliding panels, and after that we started to deal in tea and tea-related products as well. It was thanks to those endeavors that our family business began to prosper.”
According to Ejima Ken, the family began to sell tea products after one of its merchants encountered an exceptional tea product when conducting paper business in present-day Shizuoka Prefecture. After that encounter, the family achieved great success selling tea. At first it might seem that Japanese paper and tea are completely unrelated, but the family showed foresight in quickly recognizing the value of Shizuoka tea, which is now widely considered the best in all of Japan. Thanks to that sound judgement the Ejima business was able to carve out its history as a leading dealer in both tea and paper—a position it still holds today.
Great Kanto Earthquake Rattles Ejima Business
In 1923, the family business faced a dire crisis in the wake of the Great Kantō Earthquake that struck that year, resulting in over 100,000 missing or dead in the Tokyo and Kanagawa area. The earthquake was centered in Odawara, which was severely damaged as a result. The Ejima store was among the buildings destroyed by the disaster.
“I heard that the fire after the earthquake was what destroyed part of the building,” Ejima Ken noted. “Our storehouse and many of the records and other materials from the Edo period [1603–1868] were also lost. For a while, the store had to be housed in a nearby makeshift building.”
Despite this awful setback, the fifteenth owner of the store, Ejima Taisuke, threw himself into the task of rebuilding the business. Within five years the family store was rebuilt in its present location, using strong, earthquake-resistant building materials from various places. The two-story wooden merchant building is 195 square meters in size, and characterized by its protruding lean-to roof (hisashi). At the time it was constructed most homes cost around ¥3,000 to build, but Ejima store cost ¥21,000.
During World War II, the building was fortunate to escape the aerial bombardment of Odawara unscathed. It also survived intact when many old buildings were torn down in the booming 1980s. And so the “Ejima” placard has continued to be displayed to this day. In 2003, the building was recognized by the city of Odawara as a “street corner museum”—a designation created for local stores and factories that are important landmarks for cultural or industrial history.
One portion of the Ejima family’s long history can be seen in a display of historical materials at the store. There are items on display from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including old ledger books and coins, tea implements, and photographs of the store over the years, as well as the special coats worn by the seven men who engaged in the plasterwork, carpentry, and landscaping for the store’s construction. These objects are carefully displayed in a glass showcase.
After the end of World War II, the Ejima family business faced a major turning point. It was then that Ejima Taisuke was urged by other members of the family to launch a new propane gas business.
“At the time, the main fuel was still charcoal, but soon after the end of the war the use of propane gas began in Japan,” Ejima Ken said. “My grandfather took the lead in selling this fuel in Odawara.”
The propane business grew rapidly, against the backdrop of the fuel shortages of the time, The Ejima family drew on its proactive approach to date of selling a variety of items, as seen in its initial move into the paper goods in the Edo period, after first dealing in salt, as well as the subsequent branching out into sales of tea. Today the propane gas sales are handled under the family’s affiliate company Marue (also based in Odawara), and the Ejima store is run as a division of that company. Ejima Ken, who took over the family business 25 years ago, when his father, Yasushi, the sixteenth owner, passed away, has the title of Director of Marue as well as Ejima Business Division Manager.
Globalization Brings New Opportunities
Tea-related products account for around 70% of all sales at the centuries-old store, while Japanese paper represents the remaining 30%. Yearly sales are approximately ¥2 billion, which is a 20% decline compared to the level 10 years ago. However, much of the drop was caused by the slump that followed the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan, when the store had an annual turnover of only around ¥1.5 billion. Sales have been recovering over the past few years.
The store’s main tea-related products are the upscale green tea that is produced in the city of Kakegawa in Shizuoka Prefecture. Along with the store’s sales of sencha, hōjicha, genmaicha, and other types of Japanese tea packaged under the Ejima-en brand, the store sells various tea implements. Customers who visit the store can see porcelain urns or wooden boxes used to store tea, as well as old-fashioned scales to measure the tea. Ejima Ken also emphasizes that the store has been striving to come up with innovative sales ideas to counter the recent trend of consumers away from green tea.
“In July of this year, we began sales of a new tea-bag product for green tea, much like those used for black tea,” Ejima Ken explained. “It was developed over the period of a year in collaboration with a manufacturer based in Shizuoka. So far the sales have been very good. The convenience appeals to younger people in particular, who do not tend to make tea using a teapot. This is one way that we are striving to keep up with the times.”
Ejima Ken’s 44-year-old wife, Sumiko is at the heart of the Japanese paper business, overlooking the sales of paper products obtained from manufacturers across Japan. The brightly colored luxury papers used for paper art and wrapping gifts, such as the Yuzen paper that originated in Kyoto, have been particularly popular in recent years.
Looking to the future, Ejima Ken sees the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which Odawara will be a training site for, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as offering exciting opportunities.
“These past few years we have had a noticeable influx of tourists from China, Europe, and North America. We plan to respond to this development by creating English and Chinese labels for our products, and we also plan to negotiate with the local tax authorities for our store to be granted duty-free status I am eager for people overseas to become more familiar with green tea, as an integral part of the healthy Japanese diet that promotes longevity, and for them to also learn more about the tradition of Japanese paper.
The business plans to draw on the Internet to strengthen mail-order sales, and to even open a shop in Hawaii to promote overseas sales of its popular “cold green tea.” At the same time, the company aims to open an Ejima shop in Tokyo, where it had a presence around three decades ago. These are some of the ways that the owner of Ejima is seeking to strengthen local brand value while also looking to new growth opportunities.(Originally written in Japanese. Photos by Kikuchi Masanori.Banner photo: Some of the tea implements sold at the historic Ejima store in the castle town of Odawara.)