• TOP
  • Interview with Nicolas Soergel: Connecting Business with Japanese Heritage

Interview with Nicolas Soergel: Connecting Business with Japanese Heritage

By Nicolas Soergel
Founder of Nihon Ichiban
March 17, 2023
Nicolas Soergel is the founder of NIHON ICHIBAN, an e-commerce platform launched in 2012 that sells a wide range of traditional and unique Japanese artisanal products. Through his business, he is striving to help preserve the crafts industry, and with it an essence of Japanese culture. In this interview, he talks about the concept of NIHON ICHIBAN, how it came into existence, and his plans to help give Japanese crafts makers higher visibility in the global market and thereby to help attract a new generation of skilled artisans to continue these important traditions.
Can you tell us about Nihon Ichiban, how it was founded, and its evolution into the successful business that it is today?  
My wife is the fifth generation of Chinriu Honten, maker of pickles and sweets made of ume plum, red shiso and sakura. – established in 1871. When my wife took over as the fifth generation, I was working for a foreign company in Japan but decided to join the family business and help her revitalize the company. Since I don’t have experience in the pickling of Ume plums, I thought about the role I could play in the company.

A plate of umeboshi and a cup of green tea

One area I saw was in helping to market and sell our products in a new way and in 2012, we launched an online store. It was a very simple store at first. We would gradually add our products and the products of people we knew very well. I also started to meet more owners of other traditional companies. They told me that they would love to sell outside of Japan, but that they didn’t have necessary skills such as the language, the knowledge, and how to ship or bill for their products.

Today, we have more than 8,000 products from 150 Japanese artisanal companies, and we are still growing into new areas. Since our brand is Nihon Ichiban “Japan's best to you”, the idea is to secure the best product and vendor within each category.

What are the types of companies that you work with? 
We are one of the few stores that combine food and non-food products. Typically, the companies we work with are family-owned, often multigenerational and can be anywhere from Okinawa to Hokkaido. Japan has the largest number of traditional companies in the world, with around 33,000 companies that are more than 100 years old.

By helping these companies sell outside of Japan, we want to help preserve this culture. In our experience, the most successful companies are those where young successors have taken over with an openness to new ideas and to the Internet.

In your experience, what is the essence of the appeal of handicrafts in general and Japanese handicrafts in particular?  
We are in a world where products are becoming cheaper in relation to peoples’ incomes due to mass production standardisation; the same products and brands can be found all over the world. While this is great because we can afford more, we are losing a little bit of our individuality. I believe that in an age of mass production, and in future through 3D printing, people will cherish certain objects that are unique. Especially in Japan, where the same family does the same thing for generations, we are telling a story and not just selling a product.

What do you think is missing in the Japanese market of traditional crafts compared to Europe?  
One problem is the shrinking population in Japan and traditional companies often have problems with finding successors. Some owners don’t hire young craftsmen and their employees keep getting older. The company can disappear within weeks when a key person suddenly gets sick and cannot work anymore. Each time this happens, a little piece of Japanese culture disappears forever and that really breaks my heart. The Japanese government is helping with finding new global markets, but the real problem in Japan is on the production side.

Another problem in Japan is the inability to promote and market their products properly. In contrast with Japan, France and Italy turn their crafts into global brands. Look at Louis Vuitton, a small suitcase company that then expanded to become a global brand. In Japan, craftspeople typically rely on department stores to sell their products. This prevents them from developing their own strong “sales and marketing muscle”.

In a world where machines and AI are entering almost every aspect of our lives, is the craft business at risk of becoming obsolete?  
I work with many traditional companies and they all work differently than the way they did 100 years ago. Every generation needs to rethink their business, what can be changed and what needs to be preserved. There needs to be an openness to adopt new tools, new technologies and new ways of selling. We sell handmade products using the latest Internet technologies, the question is which aspects do you still definitely need to do by hand and which ones can be helped by technology.

To keep the craft industry alive, businesses have to think of ways to make it easier or to attract young people to work in that environment. When I visit certain companies, I sometimes see employees sitting on a cold floor while they work. I recently made a tour with foreign chefs to a company making traditional handmade miso. For the fermentation process, employees have to carry 20-kilogram sacks of soybeans on their shoulders up to the third floor. We recommended that having an elevator would make things easier without any impact on quality.

How do you see Nihon Ichiban developing in the future and connecting to the next generation?   
We are working on creating a digital sales platform for B2B and B2C which will allow us to put products in front of suitable businesses and consumers all over the world within a very short time and at a lower cost. When we are finished with the platform, in about 2 years from now, we will be able to launch products in 50 countries, multiple languages and a range of different currencies.

Our vision is to create an organization financed by large traditional companies that acquire and revitalize companies without successors, provide educational services to potential successors, and help with matching people interested in becoming artisans with craft companies

We believe that these activities are essential to preserve Japanese traditional companies which are part of Japan’s cultural heritage.

Achieving all this is a big dream and we are still years away from that. But every action we take brings us a little bit closer to our goal.

Read More
Post your comments