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Sunday, March 7, 2010
'Mr. Shiseido' blends beauty and business
Yoshiharu Fukuhara not only headed the iconic company his grandfather started, but there's his orchids and cameras — and a museum to run, too
By EDAN CORKILL
In July 1942, seven months after the attack on Pearl Harbor that started the Pacific War, Tokyo hosted one of the most ambitious exhibitions of art the world had ever seen. "Leonardo da Vinci," staged in an exhibition hall in the central district of Ueno, featured 600 exhibits by and related to the Italian master whose life, from 1452 to 1519, and works in both the arts and sciences, place him at the very pinnacle of the European Renaissance.
Among the many thousands of visitors who crammed in for some wartime distraction was an 11-year-old boy named Yoshiharu Fukuhara. Gazing at da Vinci's paintings, drawings and designs for such machines as helicopters and water pumps, the young Fukuhara was astonished that a single person could embody such diverse interests and expertise.
It's not surprising that da Vinci struck a chord with Fukuhara. His own family boasted several modern-day Renaissance men. The pattern for their lives was to combine artistic activities with careers at the business that Fukuhara's grandfather, Arinobu, had founded in 1872: the cosmetics and toiletries-maker Shiseido. As Fukuhara explained recently to The Japan Times, it was a pattern he followed himself.
By the time Fukuhara was born, in 1931, Shiseido — whose name derives from a passage in the "I Ching" calling for "the virtues of the Earth" to be praised — had established a thousands-strong network of stores throughout Japan, where it profitably sold its toothpaste, perfumes, facial powders, vanishing creams and soaps.
The company was then under the leadership of Fukuhara's uncle, Shinzo, a multitalented man who had not only steered the business through expansion and incorporation, in 1927, but had also established himself as one of Japan's leading art photographers. In 1919, he was also responsible for creating what is now Japan's oldest existing art gallery, the Shiseido Gallery in Tokyo.
Fukuhara's father, Nobuyoshi, also shared his brother Shinzo's twin interests of business and photography. When he wasn't keeping tabs on the Shiseido books as the firm's accountant, he was snapping flowers in his carefully kept garden.
The young Fukuhara followed his forebears into Shiseido in 1953 — a move he puts down to a series of coincidences rather than familial grooming. Nevertheless, his commitment to the company, and the respect he was accorded within it, led to him being named the president of its then-new U.S. subsidiary, Shiseido Cosmetics America, in 1966. Just over two decades later, in 1987, he took over the presidency of the entire operation.
Fukuhara oversaw massive expansion of the Japanese brand, playing a direct role in its metamorphosis into an international, or, as he says, a "stateless" icon. Shiseido now has annual net sales of over ¥690 billion, with more than a third coming from abroad. Top products such as its Tsubaki shampoos and the Shiseido makeup line have seen it become a household name not just in Japan but in Asia and elsewhere around the world.
Nevertheless, Fukuhara never forgot the lesson he learned from da Vinci and his own family members, and the horizons of his interests have always extended far beyond the Shiseido domain. His two greatest passions are orchid cultivation and photography, both of which he has pursued since his student days.
But he has done more than that. For the last two decades, in particular, Fukuhara, now 78, has become a self-made champion of the arts, lobbying high-flyers in the public and private sectors to improve their support for the arts.
His reputation was such that 10 years ago he was handed the reins of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, in Ebisu. Tasked by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara to turn the then-ailing institution around, his decade-long tenure as director has been a stunning success, with visitor numbers doubling.
Fukuhara still retains the title of Honorary Chairman at Shiseido, and it was in the company's headquarters in central Ginza — just blocks from where his grandfather founded the business 138 years ago — that he sat down to talk with The Japan Times.
Your grandfather was Arinobu Fukuhara, the founder of Shiseido, and your father, Nobuyoshi, worked at the company. Were you conscious from a young age of having been born into the "Shiseido family"?
Yes, from the very beginning. My father wasn't involved in the management of the company, but he worked there for years as the company accountant.
Back then there was no concept of a weekend, so on Saturdays my mother would take me from our home in Chojamaru (Meguro Ward) to Ginza on the tram. Shiseido was located in Ginza, and we'd meet my dad there and he'd buy us dinner. We'd go to places like the Shiseido Parlour (a Western-style restaurant operated by the company). My father also liked photography, and there was a Shiseido pharmacy, which had a film-developing service where we used to take his films.
What was your life at home like?
You mentioned that my father was the son of Arinobu, the founder of the company. That's true, but he was the fifth son, the youngest son. In Japan, the youngest son doesn't really count. The system at the time was that the eldest son took over the family and inherited everything.
My dad would often call himself heyazumi, which means he was like a boarder who rents a room. People would mention to my father that he was the son of the founder of Shiseido, and he would just say, "No, no, I'm just a heyazumi." He had a bit of a complex about it.
His eldest brother, your uncle Shinzo, became the first president of Shiseido when the company was incorporated in 1927. Shinzo was also a well-known photographer. Was your father on good terms with his brothers?
Yes, he was. Only two of his brothers were alive — Shinzo and Nobutatsu, who was also a photographer. So my father went around with them all the time, learning things from them, copying them.
You were 10 years old when Japan launched the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Were you aware of the war and what it meant?
I wasn't able to read the proper newspapers, but we had what was called the Shogakusei Shimbun (primary school student newspaper), and I read that. Gradually I noticed that relations with America and other places were deteriorating. I could sense something was going to happen. It put everyone in a gloomy mood. I remember when my English teacher came to class one day and told us that he was going to war — that was in 1937, and he was being sent to Shanghai.
Did you worry that you might end up going to war, too?
No. My uncles and father always said that there's no way such a war would continue for long. Of course, we weren't thinking that Japan would lose. We didn't really think it would win, either, but we just thought it couldn't last. Everyone was saying that.
In your 2007 autobiography, "Boku no Fukusen Jinsei" ("My Twin-track Life"), you wrote that you had a transformative experience in 1942, when you saw an exhibition of work by Leonardo da Vinci in Ueno. How did it affect you, and why was such an important show held during the war?
Tokyo was supposed to have the Olympics in 1940, but they were canceled because of the war and I believe the Japanese government decided that in order to keep the public in good spirits they would hold that exhibition. I imagine they arranged it with the Italian and German governments. It was held at a place called the Ikenohata Sangyokan in Ueno — it doesn't exist now. The show included paintings, but also da Vinci's designs for ladders and contraptions to scale castle walls, designs for a helicopter, a water pump and so on.
I just remember thinking it was amazing that he did so many things. I never thought that I wanted to become Leonardo da Vinci, but I think seeing that exhibition opened my eyes to the possibility of having diverse interests and working in diverse fields.
Later in your career you took on a wide range of work, but first, in 1953, you entered Shiseido. How did that come about?