• Japan In Focus

Locals Protecting Tradition of Charcoal Making in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An employee of Yachiringyo Co. packs a box with charcoal for export in Kuji, Iwate Prefecture, on Dec. 19.

KUJI, Iwate — Yachiringyo Co., a charcoal manufacturer, is stepping up its efforts to export charcoal overseas.

In June last year, the company, based in Kuji, Iwate Prefecture, became the first private firm in the prefecture to export charcoal overseas. With robust exports of its Kurosumi (black charcoal) product to European nations, Yachiringyo hopes to further expand its sales channels.

The company’s production method is in line with the charcoal making traditions in the prefecture dating back to the Heian period (794-late 12th century). Young oak trees — about 25 years old — are cut into 90-centimeter-long pieces and lined up into 12 kilns. They are then burnt at a high temperature of around 800 C for about two weeks to produce highly pure charcoal.

The percentage of carbon in the charcoal is more than 85%, meaning that the charcoal contains few impurities and ignites faster than products from other areas.

“I have been in the charcoal making business for 20 years, but I still find it very difficult to maintain their uniform quality. The number of days required for production depends on the temperature and the wood’s moisture content,” said Tsukasa Yachi, 49, the manager of the kiln. Tsukasa won the prime minister’s award in the forestry category at the 2018 Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Festival. The national festival is organized to deepen people’s awareness of agriculture, forestry, fisheries and food, and to motivate relevant businesses to improve their techniques and further develop their operations.

Tsukasa devotes himself to producing the highest quality charcoal while mentoring younger workers.

The company has been in the charcoal making business since its founding in 1916. Yachiringyo President Yuzuru Yachi, 50, decided to expand overseas as he felt a sense of crisis for the declining industry he believes will effectively cease to exist if no action is taken.

The economic environment for the industry is harsh. Demand for charcoal as a fuel declined because of changes in lifestyles after the spread of electricity and gas in the postwar period. In recent years, charcoal production continued to decline in line with the aging of the workforce in the industry: domestic charcoal production dropped from 82,000 tons in 1995 to 12,000 tons in 2022.

Currently, charcoal is used mainly for cooking at restaurants and outdoor activities such as camping. But domestic charcoal production has been struggling against competition from inexpensive charcoal produced in Southeast Asia and other regions. Nowadays, more than 80% of charcoal distributed in the domestic market is believed to have been imported.

Yuzuru began considering exporting charcoal in 2019, and an opportunity presented itself in 2021. At the request of a Swiss company that imports small traditional charcoal stoves called shichirin, among other things, from Japan, a group of producers in the northern part of the prefecture, including Yachiringyo, shipped about 500 kilograms of charcoal by air on a trial basis.

In 2023, the company concluded an independent deal with a French firm and satisfied the needs of local Japanese restaurants and other establishments in the country.

“We make products from local forests, a treasure of the region, and sell them at appropriate prices. By creating a profitable and sustainable business, we are able to earn a living. The most important thing is to keep the community running,” Yuzuru said.

He is determined to further develop in overseas markets to keep the light of the local charcoal making tradition burning brightly.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yachiringyo Co. President Yuzuru Yachi, center, shows how to light charcoal at a restaurant in Paris on Jan. 11.