Sumigen’s Journey: charcoal making industry in Muroto

Eri Fukushima

“Watch out your head”, said Mr. Kuroiwa with a black hat. He is going down with the handmade steep wood stairs. The room under the stairs is dark, smoky, sandy and little bit warmer. Clay, bricks, ash, various size of shovels, and machines; every atmosphere around there makes the room unknown world. Beneath the tin roof, a huge dome, made of bricks and clay, is exhaling smoke from a squared chimney. This is the place where crafts men make charcoal.

“This is the last progress before we take charcoals out of the dome”, said Mr. Kuroiwa, a head of Sumigen. Sumigen is a local company in Kiragawa, Muroto, established about 14 years ago. Making binchotan (the high-quality charcoal), running two izakaya (the Japanese style pub), fish auction, and running an accommodation are Sumigen’s undertaking projects. He established Sumigen because he thought it is necessary to create jobs for those who want to stay in our hometown.

“This is not Muroto thing”, he started to explain his motivation for enterprise. “People have to leave their hometown against their will because they cannot earn enough money to live, so I wanted to support those people.” Muroto is facing depopulation. Therefore, Sumigen is an essential element for the city to make it sustainable.

Kiragawa is a town which used to thrive with binchotan industry in Meiji era (1868-1912). Its townscape is ruin of prosperities, and is certified as tangible cultural prosperities.

“Even this is traditional industry in Muroto, I didn’t know about it until I started looking for jobs to create” Mr. Kuroiwa said. “It was on its knees at that time. Because of cheap and low-quality binchotan from overseas, domestic products were facing difficulties.”

He started thinking about the binchotan, and he found the article saying that China was going to stop export of binchotan to preserve forest, and it also said that 80% of binchotan in Japan was from China. Reading this article, he came to be sure its demand would be back toward domestic. Although people around him were doubtful and worrying saying “Why now?” “Can you really make a living with charcoal?”, he became an apprentice and got into charcoal field.

Charcoals are the carbon lumps made from woods. Moisture and other substances including burnable gas in the woods evaporate by burning the woods with less oxygen condition inside the dome. This process makes them the carbon lumps. If the dome is abundant in oxygen, carbon or burnable gas from the wood and oxygen in the air would be connected each other and gone as CO2 leaving ashes. Charcoal has only carbon, and combustion reaction happens only on its surface. Therefore, charcoal burns slowly and last long, while wood burns out quickly.

As it was abandoned industry, Sumigen had no municipal support at first. Ever since he started, it drew media attention, and have become known better gradually. People started to visit him and became apprentices. Then, municipal began to support the charcoal industry.

Thanks to Sumigen, once desolated industry is thriving again. Kisyu-binchotan, from Wakayama, Tosa-binchotan, from Kochi and Hyuga-binchotan, from Miyazaki are said to be the top 3 binchotan producing district in Japan, and the best is Tosa. Furthermore, 98% of Tosa-binchotan is made in Muroto. Elderly people used to be involved in this industry, but now, it changed completely, and young men are undertaking.

7 people have been independent from him. They have their own charcoal dome now, and earning on their own feet.

“Usual company employ people because they want people, but Sumigen is different.” he proudly said. “We employ people because people need jobs for their living. I would think the way how I can employ them. I’ve never recruited for making charcoal, and I employ everyone who wants to work here because that is what I want to do”.

“To live in the place where they want to live is a based idea for a happy life. To make it come true I’m running Sumigen. The core of Sumigen never change.”

Official site: 炭玄 WEBサイト (muroto-sumigen.com)

4 Comments

  1. I didn’t know that Kochi’s binchotan supplies a large amount of them here in Japan. We, Kochi people should be proud of having such great stuff to support the Japanese industry!

    Like

  2. I found it wonderful to know that this company is also related to measures to deal with the depopulation of the community.

    Like

  3. I think that thriving the abandoned industry took a lot of efforts for Mr. Kuroiwa, so I am proud of him. I hope Tosa-binchotan will prevail not only Japan but even the all over the world.

    Like

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