Discover Nikkei

https://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2024/4/29/fujimoto-ai/

Ai Fujimoto moved to the United States in 2011 with the goal of "bringing miso to the everyday American dining table."

Passion for fermentation

Ai Fujimoto, who switched from being an interpreter to making miso.

I met Ai Fujimoto, who runs a handmade miso business in downtown Los Angeles, through a mutual acquaintance. When we first met, I rudely asked her if she had received any investment from a Japanese food trading company. She replied, "No, no, I haven't received any investment from anywhere. I've been managing my finances by allocating part of my monthly salary (as an in-house interpreter) to the miso business. Also, a few years ago, after getting a flu shot, I was unable to lift one of my arms, and I received some money from a compensation program. I'm embarrassed to say, but that was also a great help (laughs)."

A Japanese woman who started a business to promote the miso she made in the foreign land of America, independent of any other company. Ai, who used to work as an interpreter and translator, said, "Are you a returnee?" But when I asked her, this was also an irrelevant question. She replied, "No, I have traveled abroad before, but I learned English on my own."

Ai came to the US in 2011 and began living in Marina del Rey, near Los Angeles, with her American ex-husband, whom she met in Japan. "At the time, I had a contract with an Italian steel company as an interpreter, so I would make regular business trips from Los Angeles to Italy."

The next turning point came while touring breweries.

"When I was working in Torrance, I often went to breweries. After moving to Downtown Los Angeles, I also started visiting the breweries in the area, and that's how I became interested in fermentation. I wanted to brew something myself, so I started making soy sauce and miso in my apartment while watching YouTube videos. I ended up taking a different path from my ex-husband, and we ended up getting divorced. That was the trigger for me to want to do something other than interpreting in the United States, and my passion for fermentation accelerated."

As her interest in fermentation grew, Ai visited a miso brewery in Fukui Prefecture, and also worked in the koji room of a miso brewery in Niigata Prefecture with local part-time workers. "Through these experiences, I realized how different miso is from region to region, and how deeply rooted it is in the Japanese diet, and I became more and more fascinated with the world of miso."


Handcrafted in Los Angeles

By experiencing the differences in miso depending on the region, Ai felt that "if I try making Los Angeles miso fermented in the Los Angeles air, it could be an interesting project that sets it apart from other miso products." As a result, she started OMISO LLC in 2018 based in a commercial kitchen in downtown.

Six years have passed since the company was founded, including the pandemic. Ai is still working to popularize "miso made in Los Angeles" by wholesaling the miso she developed to restaurants in Los Angeles and selling it at the Farmer's Market in Hollywood, but what is her goal?

"To think big, I would like to get to the point where average Americans can buy our miso in an ordinary, not high-end, grocery store in a town in the Midwest that is not a big city, and use it to make miso soup. By 'average American' I mean people who don't have a particular interest in Japan. It may seem like a grand dream, but it is not impossible if we can get our product on the sales network system in this country. We are currently researching this, and I am confident that the day will come when we will be able to deliver miso all over the United States. However, there are several phases to get there, and I think there are many hurdles to overcome."

What are the barriers to spreading miso across the US? "There's not enough education. Many Americans don't really understand what miso is. Some people have the wrong idea, asking, 'What's miso? Is it a powder?' Others think it's miso ramen. When I sell it at the farmers' market, some customers ask me, 'Do you have matcha?' There's still a lot of confusion."

He sells miso at the Hollywood Farmers Market.


My spirit of adventure is inherited from my great-grandmother

Ai says that in the future, in addition to being delicious, she would like to focus on spreading awareness about how good miso is for your health. "I don't think it would have been accepted in America in the past. But now, many people are looking for things that are good for their health. So I started posting on YouTube to promote the health benefits of miso." Her co-star on the show is a Japanese woman who used to work at the RIKEN Institute and is now researching Alzheimer's disease in Toronto, Canada.

So, what changes has happened to her in the 13 years since she moved to America? "I have developed a spirit of adventure. I have always been the type to take on new challenges, but in Japan I was hesitant to stand out too much, because I thought it was not good to stand out too much. In fact, my great-grandmother was very enterprising, and had a pioneering spirit that made her want to try anything. When I was in elementary school, I learned the Roman alphabet from my great-aunt, who was born in the Meiji era. I feel that I have definitely inherited that spirit."

She added, "In Japan, I don't think anyone would start a miso company unless they were born into a miso shop, and it may be disrespectful to miso breweries to learn how to make miso on YouTube and turn it into a business like me. But America is a country where you are free to try anything you want, and if your enthusiasm is conveyed, people around you will support you. Also, I think that if you are going to try something new, it's not about fusion, but rather you need to understand the core of tradition and then add a twist to suit the subject."

Finally, when asked about his vision for the future, she shared his dreams that go beyond just miso: "I would like to have bases in both Japan and the United States and help connect Japanese producers who want to expand their business overseas with the American market."

 

https://www.omiso.co

 

 

 

 

© 2024 Keiko Fukuda

Ai Fujimoto business California downtown LA economics food generations immigrants immigration Issei Japan Japanese food Los Angeles management migration miso OMISO LLC postwar Shin-Issei United States World War II
About the Author

Keiko Fukuda was born in Oita, Japan. After graduating from International Christian University, she worked for a publishing company. Fukuda moved to the United States in 1992 where she became the chief editor of a Japanese community magazine. In 2003, Fukuda started working as a freelance writer. She currently writes articles for both Japanese and U.S. magazines with a focus on interviews. Fukuda is the co-author of Nihon ni umarete (“Born in Japan”) published by Hankyu Communications. Website: https://angeleno.net 

Updated July 2020

Explore more stories! Learn more about Nikkei around the world by searching our vast archive. Explore the Journal
We’re looking for stories like yours! Submit your article, essay, fiction, or poetry to be included in our archive of global Nikkei stories. Learn More
New Site Design See exciting new changes to Discover Nikkei. Find out what’s new and what’s coming soon! Learn More

Discover Nikkei Updates

NIKKEI CHRONICLES #13
Nikkei Names 2: Grace, Graça, Graciela, Megumi?
What’s in a name? Share the story of your name with our community. Submissions now open!
NIMA VOICES
Episode 16
June 25 (US) | June 26 (Japan)
Featured Nima:
Stan Kirk
Guest Host:
Yoko Murakawa
PROJECT UPDATES
NEW SITE DESIGN
See exciting new changes to Discover Nikkei. Find out what’s new and what’s coming soon!