Learning Sustainable Management From a Japanese 400 Year-old Company – Yanagiya Honten

Yanagiya Honten, is a cosmetics company founded in the early Edo period. We look into the secrets of how the company survived the turbulent times.

Yanagiya Honten, a cosmetics company known for such products as “Yanagiya Pomade” and “Yanagiya Hair Cream,” was founded in 1615, at the beginning of the Edo period, in what is now Nihonbashi, Tokyo. However, the more than 400 years leading up to the present day have not been smooth sailing. What is the source of the company’s sustainability that has enabled it to survive through numerous business crises?

One of the answers to this question is a shrewd management policy that can navigate the waves of the times and trends. This can be glimpsed in the transition of Yanagiya’s main products.

The founder of Yanagiya Honten was Lu Ikkan, a Chinese herbalist from Ming Dynasty. Lu was a Chinese herbalist who was a “personal attendant” of Tokugawa Ieyasu, and when Ieyasu entered Edo in 1590, he received land in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, the site of the company’s founding, and moved his base to Edo. In Nihonbashi, Lu and his colleagues first began using their skills to manufacture women’s cosmetics such as rouge and white powder. The first thing they did was to market their products to the ladies’ chambers of the Edo Shogunate. They believed that if their products became the official products of the Edo shogunate, they would naturally gain a reputation and spread to the townspeople of Edo. His plan was successful, and he built the foundation of his business.

Ryuseiko, a hair oil sold in the late Edo period (1800s) for tying topknots (mage), was also a big hit, especially among merchants. It is the originator of hair oil products that continue to this day. By this time, Yanagiya Honten products had become a staple of Edo and Nihonbashi souvenirs. Later, as the Meiji era progressed and men stopped wearing topknots due to the decree to cut their hair, the company faced what is considered the biggest business crisis of its time. However, Yanagiya’s tradition is to be resilient in the face of adversity. The company developed a men’s hairdressing product that matched Western-style clothing. This was “Yanagiya Pomade,” which was made by melting wood wax into castor oil. This was the start of a revival.

Yanagi Seika -  pomade oil
“Yanagi Seika” pomade oil became a hit product in the 1800s. In the Edo period, pomade oil was a daily necessity for both men and women.

In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed the company’s store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, and in 1929, the Great Depression triggered an unprecedented recession. In 1929, the Great Depression brought an unprecedented depression, and the business situation worsened as the country entered the war. In the spring of 1945, just before the end of the war, the store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, and the factory in Waseda were destroyed in an air raid.

However, Yanagiya Honten still survived. The company resumed production of “Yanagiya Pomade” immediately after the end of the war, and demand grew due to the regent boom, and in the 1950s, Yanagiya introduced a series of hit products that continue to this day, such as “Yanagiya Hair Tonic” and “Yanagiya Hair Cream. Later, in response to fashion trends, the company began developing non-oil hairdressing products, and also continued to develop traditional hair oil-related products, producing products that support the company today, such as “Yanagiya J Ultra Hard Gel” launched in 2001 and “Yanagiya Apricot Oil” launched in 2008.

By introducing products that meet the needs of the times, the company has continued its history since the Edo period. Although the company has been in business for more than 400 years, it has not been bound by tradition in a positive sense, but has developed products based on free thinking. This is the source of its robustness.

On the other hand, there is one thing that has not changed. That is our attitude toward manufacturing. While utilizing the hair oil technology that has been handed down from generation to generation, the company has been diligently developing products so as not to lose credibility and trust at any time. Even as society has become more affluent, the company has not converted to a glamorous cosmetics brand, but has continued to focus on daily cosmetics and hair products that have been around since the company’s founding. The honest product packaging of Yanagiya’s main store is an indication of this. Although the main products have changed over the years, the DNA of the company, which has been dealing with the common people of the city since its establishment, is still alive.

The company’s flexibility in changing its core products has enabled it to weather the stormy seas of the times for more than 400 years, while its approach to manufacturing has remained unchanged over the ages. The way to achieve sustainability is not only to create a system that does not change.

Yanagiya Honten
Founded in 1615 in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. The company is a cosmetics manufacturer that mainly deals with hair oil and other hair styling products. The origin of the company name is a prayer for business prosperity by always keeping one’s head low like a willow tree and never being frustrated by difficulties.

May 2022 coverage

Text: Shinji Nii (Eight Works)