Completing the CircleOn a crisp April day in 1996, a white-robed Shinto priest walked to a small altar draped with blue and white curtains, clapped his hands twice, and slowly intoned the Japanese words used to activate a Shinto purification ceremony. The location of this ancient ritual was not a shrine somewhere in Japan, but inside a large seven-sided tent in the town of Hoogezand-Sappemeer, the Netherlands.More than 300 years after Dutch traders carried the first ceramic canisters of Japanese-made shoyu (soy sauce) to Europe, Japan’s oldest and largest shoyu maker had come to the Netherlands to break ground for its first European factory, which was up and running in the autumn of 1997. As it had done 23 years earlier when it opened its first plant in the United States, the Kikkoman Corporation had engaged a Shinto priest to make sure the gods were happy with the site. Kikkoman was leaving nothing to chance. While the decision to locate in the northern Dutch city of Hoogezand-Sappemeer was not some sentimental gesture to chronological symmetry, its historical significance nevertheless was not lost on the scores of guests who crowded into the tent. Neither was the fact that the Shinto priest was a Dutchman named Paul de Leeuw from the Netherlands's Yamakage Shinto Shrine.In a way, it was as if the Dutch and the Japanese were completing a circle begun 328 years earlier. In the Dutch language archives of The Hague are records showing that between 1668 and 1699 a group of 16 Japanese merchants shipped large quantities of soy sauce from Japan to the Coromandel Coast in south-east India, Ceylon, Vietnam, and the Netherlands. One surviving ship manifest reveals that 12 barrels of "Japanischzoya' were shipped from Dejima in Nagasaki harbor in 1688 and "thence to Rotterdam." From the Netherlands, soy sauce apparently made its way into many of Europe's royal kitchens.Surviving anecdotal material says that King Louis XIV, who ruled France from 1661 to 1715, considered Japanese shoyu his favorite seasoning in the royal kitchens. We may never know just how accurate that material is, but one thing is sure: Demand for soy sauce in the common kitchens of twentieth-century Europe is growing.Which brings us back to Hoogezand-Sappemeer and an obscure Shinto ceremony under way inside a tent.'Shubatsu-no-gi," chanted the Shinto priest, signalling the first of nine steps of the "Ji Chin Sai" meant to purify the grounds and make them ready for construction. That was followed by the "Koshin-no-gi" (descent of the deity), the 'Kensen-no-gi" (offering presentation), and the 'Oharai- no-gi" (the purification of the site). Finally, the priest turned and intoned: 'Tamagushi Hoten,' which signaled the beginning of the sacred sprig offering-the most meaningful moment in the ceremony.Kikkoman President and Chief Executive Officer Yuzaburo Mogi stood and walked to the saidan, or altar. After arriving, he bowed once, extended his right hand with the palm face down, and accepted a short sprig from the priest. With his left hand raised slightly above the right one, Mogi held the leafy end of the sprig, faced the altar, and raised the sprig to cheek level. As he faced the altar, he bowed once more, pulled his right hand with palm upward toward his body, and extended his left hand. Then he pulled his left hand toward his right hand until he could switch the leafy end of the sprig from his left to his right palm. Holding the bare end of the sprig with his left hand, he slowly turned it clockwise and then placed it gently on the altar. Mogi bowed twice, clapped his hands twice, and bowed deeply once again. He then stepped backward until he passed under a rope made of rice plants, bowed once more, and returned to his seat.The mostly Dutch audience, which included the mayor of Hoogezand-Sappemeer and a handful of other special guests, was entranced by the ceremony.'I have never seen a ritual so precise and yet so unpretentious,' one of the guests whispered. "It seems so earthy.'The Dutch guest was very observant. The essence of the Ji Chin Sai, like all Shinto ceremonies, lies in the reverence paid to all things in nature. Japan's 2000-year-old indigenous religion, which literally means "the way of the gods," teaches that all things, both animate and inanimate, have their own kami, or spirits-even the ground upon which the new Kikkoman plant would be constructed.Mogi's participation had taken all of 3 minutes, but the symbolism of the ceremony spanned centuries of Japanese history and culture. By purifying the ground upon which the plant would be built, Mogi and Kikkoman were appeasing whatever god or gods resided in the area, thus ensuring that no spiritual ill will or mischief would befall the project. After Mogi had returned to his seat, the Shinto priest removed the offerings from the altar and ended the 20-minute religious ceremony by sipping sake from a small porcelain cup.Later, Mogi and Mrs. Anneke van Dok-van Weele, the Dutch minister of foreign trade, broke ground for the plant that will have an initial capacity of 4000 kL per year-the equivalent of 30 million small bottles of soy sauce. Eventually, the plant will turn out 30,000 kL - enough to supply every market in Europe. For Yuzaburo Mogi, the ceremony represented the culmination of a vision that he has long fostered for the Kikkoman Corporation.
About the AuthorRonald E. Yates is an award-winning journalist, writer, and lecturer who worked more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, national correspondent, and financial writer for the Chicago Tribune. He is currently a professor of journalism and head of the Department of Journalism at The University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign. Yates' innate understanding and fascination with Japanese society and culture come from ten years of living in Japan, where he served twice as the Tokyo Bureau Chief for the Tribune. He is a nationally recognized authority on the global economy, American corporate competitiveness, international trade, and U.S. foreign relations.