A plant with an unappetizing English name caught the attention of a company known for its beauty products, leading to a major transformation of Japan’s westernmost island.
Production of the wild dropwort species, resembling a large honewort plant, on Yonagunijima island has now approached the level of sugar cane, long the island’s most important crop.
The plant has a more appealing name in Japanese, “chomeiso” (long life plant).
Major cosmetics maker Shiseido Co. adopted chomeiso as an ingredient for its health food and now its cosmetic products, prompting many farmers to grow the plant on Yonagunijima, 2,000 kilometers from Tokyo.
Chomeiso now covers the farmland owned by Kazunobu Sugimoto, president of the Yonaguni Yakusoen farm.
“Chomeiso stores many nutrients inside to protect itself from sea breezes and ultraviolet rays,” Sugimoto said. “Legend says that a person can live a day longer if he or she eats a chomeiso.”
Sugimoto, one of the first islanders to grow chomeiso, was trying to cash in on the “aojiru” vegetable drink that made waves in the 2000s.
“I thought young people did not feel like returning to the island because there were few industries here,” Sugimoto said.
The turning point came in 2006, when a Shiseido employee visited the island after hearing about the reputation of chomeiso grown there.
“We were looking for a special ingredient to develop Shiseido’s distinctive aojiru,” said Toshiko Maeda, a Shiseido official in charge of chomeiso-based products. “The plant’s name also sounds good.”
Chomeiso turned out to be rich in polyphenol, calcium, vitamin, iron and other nutrients.
Shiseido mixed chomeiso and fruit juice into a single drink and also produced a chomeiso-based dietary supplement. Both were marketed nationwide in 2008 for consumers seeking quick nutritional fixes.
Only nine farmers grew chomeiso in 2004 on Yonagunijima, which has a population of 1,700. The number of producers has since increased to 60, and production has risen twentyfold over the last 10 years.
The chomeiso industry has increased local job opportunities. Around 10 people currently work at a plant on the island to wash chomeiso.
“I did not expect the industry would grow so much,” Yonaguni Mayor Shukichi Hokama said. “I want to urge more farmers to grow both chomeiso and sugar cane simultaneously.”
Shiseido plans to release its Hydro Genius beauty serum under the Benefique cosmetics brand in September. It will be the company’s first cosmetic product using chomeiso as an ingredient, and it will carry a price tag of 10,000 yen (US$98.90), excluding consumption tax.
“Chomeiso extract makes and keeps the skin moist,” a Shiseido official said.
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