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Image: Alexandra Homma
japan business spotlight: kanagawa

Iwai Sesame Oil: The taste of one family business 160 years in the making

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By Alexandra Hongo

Its rich amber color, distinctive aroma, and gentle flavor have helped make it an essential component in the Japanese cuisine — from a simple addition to salad dressing to the seasoning of freshly steamed dumplings or the healthier alternative to cooking oil for stir-fried dishes. The same scent — of freshly roasted sesame seeds — surrounds Iwai Sesame Oil’s factory upon our recent visit and we find it to have a pleasant, soothing effect.

We are introduced to the company’s factory and day-to-day business by Tetsutaro Iwai, Iwai Sesame Oil’s president, a soft-spoken man who smiles naturally every time the topic of conversation changes to the company’s over century-old legendary products. We are at the company’s Yokohama-based factory, the most recent home of the family business since 2005. The retro posters on the walls, the deeply infused sesame oil scent and the familial interactions between the employees, remind us that this is a company with over 160 years of history; a company that prides itself in producing one of Japan’s leading sesame oil brands.

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Tetsutaro Iwai, Iwai Sesame Oil's president, holding the company's signature product, the Iwai Pure Sesame Oil. Iwai assumed his post from his father in 2001 after leading a successful career in fashion retail at Isetan Japan. Iwai is the 8th generation CEO at his family company.

Planting the seeds

Founded in 1857 by Toshichi Iwai, Iwai Sesame Oil began as a small family business (under a different name at the time) producing vegetable oil from various natural ingredients, including peanuts. It wasn’t long before it started focusing on sesame oil, however, a product known to be a health booster since as early as in late 19th century Japan. On a global scene, sesame oil’s history is said to have dated back to 5,000 to 3,000 years ago, depending on sources, when sesame was cultivated in the Nile River basin. A popular plant in northern Africa and Mesopotamia, sesame oil was used not only in food, but as a beauty product, too.

“It is said that even Cleopatra used it as a face pack,” Iwai says with a smile, but he is only half joking. Extremely rich in antioxidants and containing the perfect balance of conjugated linoleic acid and oleic acid — both known for their use for weight reduce, obesity, and high blood pressure — sesame oil is commonly used in beauty treatments and as a massaging oil.

Iwai generations’ strong belief that sesame oil would remain beneficent for health and would have a future to grow, kept them focused throughout the years through business’ ups and downs, changes, and rising competition.

Time slip: Iwai Sesame Oil early posters and mementos are displayed at the company's current headquarters in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture. Image: Alexandra Homma

Letting the seeds grow

Manufacturing sesame oil, however, did not come as easily for Iwai Sesame Oil as it sounds.

“Sesame is hardly produced in Japan,” Iwai explains. Japan imports approximately 160,000 tons of sesame annually, a number that accounts for nearly 99.9 percent of its total production of the seeds. Half of this amount is used to produce sesame oil and the rest is used for other food and beauty products. At Iwai Sesame Oil, sesame seeds are predominantly imported from Africa and Myanmar.

Making sesame oil is also an intricate process, which requires a lot of determination, experience, patience, and professionalism. But these are all skills that Iwai Sesame Oil prides itself in.

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President Iwai shows what a dried sesame plant looks like. It all starts from here, he says. Image: Alexandra Homma

While its share on the market is not the largest in Japan (Iwai’s products are slightly more expensive than the mainstream labels), its products’ quality remains unquestionable and customers who know the value always return.

A major contribution to this factor and one of the reasons that sets the company apart from the competition, is that Iwai Sesame Oil uses no preservatives and chemical additives in its products, a common practice among other manufactures for extracting maximum amount of oil in a limited time. Iwai’s sesame oil is made of raw sesame seeds, which are roasted at length before being transferred for oil extraction.

Unlike most mainstream larger manufacturers, Iwai’s oil is extracted naturally by a unique method, known as assaku, which extracts oil by adding extreme pressure on the roasted seeds by using an expeller. This method, known as “the assaku press,” is of the highest quality because it uses no foreign elements whatsoever. By using this method, half of the seeds’ body is turned into oil — and to make a 140g bottle of sesame oil, it takes over 110,000 sesame seeds, which only makes us rejoice all the health benefits packed in such a small container.

“Staying in the business for so long has taught us so much,” Iwai says with a smile as he looks around the factory. “Things have changed but our method of extracting the oil will always be the same because it is the healthiest. Every morning, our employees checks the roasted seeds and can tell — just by the smell, taste and color — how well roasted they are and what sesame oil products they could best turn into,” he says, his eyes sharply set on the roaster.

An extensive lineup

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Iwai Sesame Oil's signature products bear its green and red retro logo.

Today, Iwai Sesame Oil has a line up of nearly 20 key products, each packed in different sizes for private and business use. Among them are the signature Iwai’s Pure Sesame Oil, carrying Iwai’s “retro but new” green and red logo and fit for all cooking purposes, including deep-fry and dressings, the Koikuchi (Dark) Pure Sesame Oil for those preferring stronger tastes, the light Pure Sesame Oil (Shirokuchi), which is so mild that it could replace butter in pastry baking, pasta and dressings, the Pure Sesame Paste fit for hummus and other dips, Iwai’s Sesame Chilli Oil that goes perfectly well with gyoza (dumplings), any spicy dishes and even pizza and pasta. The company also sells supplements that contain carefully-selected high-quality black sesame seeds.

At the end of our interview, I find myself significantly intrigued in sesame oil, which by now, I know I can use as a substitute to regular oil in any possible way I can imagine. I also know it is better for my health compared with regular oil and I can’t help but ask my last question for the day: "Why isn’t sesame oil usage as widespread as it should be?"

It seems to be a pressing question for Iwai Sesame Oil as well.

“Three of the major reasons why sesame oil is not as popular as it should be are as simple as they could be: people just don’t know well about it, don’t know how to use it, and don’t know how beneficial for the health it is,” Iwai explains.

But this no longer has to be the case.

He hands me a sheet of paper with colorful illustrations of sesame oil recipes and he smiles. The paper has everything from an omelette to avocado and cucumber salads — and even vanilla ice cream.

“You doubt it, right?” he challenges me. “Give it a try tonight. You’ll know what I mean.”

Iwai’s products can be purchased online (in Japan only), at department stores, upscale supermarkets and local supermarkets across Japan, such as Tomiz, Seijo Ishii, Queen’s Isetan and more, as well as at Japanese stores overseas. Note that supplements are not sold at supermarkets. For more information on Iwai Sesame Oil, see the company’s official website at www.iwainogomaabura.co.jp

This is the third story in Japan Today’s new Japan Business Spotlight series, which brings the spotlight on Japanese domestic companies, from small-scale family-run businesses to now worldwide corporate giants. In this series, we trace the roots of their foundations, we look at the faces behind their stories and the concepts behind their most recent innovations. Our first series introduces seven businesses based in or operating in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Read more articles from our Japan Business Spotlight: Kanagawa:

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Sesame oil benefits has additionally been regarded for a huge number of years by Mediterranean and cultures known for their life span. The health benefits of Sesame Oil is to such an extent that it helps in treating untimely turning grey of hair, lowers blood pressure, also treats the symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis, fights stress and depression.

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