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Kansai "Gaijin" Makes Miso - a Way of Life

By: Jena Maddalino

Date Posted: 2000-09-15

Tony Flenley is not your typical "gaijin". Although his ability to speak Japanese fluently is truly atypical, his real uniqueness exists in what he has chosen for his profession. Flenley works in a career field that in the past was strictly for Japanese men. By a lucky twist of fate or possibly destiny, he went from being an English teacher to being a maker of one of the most beloved Japanese foods, miso. Making miso is not just a way of life for this outgoing Englishman it is also an art form, mastered from years of experience and love of the traditional craft.

Miso, which is known as soybean paste to most westerners, has been a mainstay of the typical Japanese diet for hundreds of years. Borrowing from the Chinese, Japanese craftsmen, using the powerful enzymes of mold in fermentation, turned soybeans into a nutritious and tasty food, suitably made in almost any climate. From Hokkaido to Okinawa, Miso is used in soup, with vegetables and with meats to form a variety of dishes and is often eaten with every meal.

Almost every region of Japan produces miso and as a result, each region is proud of its own type of miso. There are three types of miso, soybean , rice and bean , and barley and bean. Like a fine Napa Valley or French wine, each region produces a special flavor, color and aura. Additionally, miso is known for it intrinsic health benefits of lowering cholesterol levels and preventing cancer. Presently, there are about 1,600 miso-manufacturing plants in Japan, and they produce about 560,000 tons of miso annually. Most is eaten in Japan and only 3,000 tons are exported each year, according to miso experts.

Tucked away in the metropolis of Osaka, Flenley works as the Production Manager for Osaka Miso Jyozo, a family-run miso company that has been in business for more than ninety years. His association to the family is by marriage; his wife's father has been running the company since World War II. Reaching retirement age, Flenley's father-in-law decided to turn the main operations of business over to his son-in-law. Flenley happily agreed and has been making miso ever since.

"I had been teaching English in Japan for several years and it was becoming more frustrating. I saw taking over the business as an opportunity for a new career," said Flenley. Flenley, like so many foreigners living in Japan, found his way here as an English teacher. In 1977, he graduated from University in England and made the choice to teach in Japan instead of Spain. He met his wife while teaching and returned to England for two years to earn his MA. In 1986, after a two-year stint in Kuwait teaching to employees of an oil company, he tied up with Toyota City and returned to Nagoya to run the companies' English teaching operation for a few years. After Toyota, he took a position as Junior high school teacher and was soon offered a position to teach at a university. Becoming increasingly disillusioned with his chosen profession, the time was right for him to learn the business that had been passed through his wife's family for two generations. And staying true to the family custom of producing miso via the ancient natural process of fermentation became paramount to Flenley.

"Selling miso has changed in recent years, causing many miso companies to modernize their operations. We still make miso the traditional way, thus ensuring high quality and taste."

Making red miso is the most time-consuming as it is aged in fifty-year old wood barrels for two years. Other types of miso take less time, like the famous Kansai sweet white miso, but Flenley never interrupts the natural process that many companies now choose by using temperature-controlled vats to accelerate fermentation.

Making miso has changed Flenley's life as well. Learning from the bottom up, he mastered both the physical and chemical process needed to make the savory food. Flenley was even featured in a NHK feature about foreigners living in Japan. He is happy about his current career and plans to continue as long as the business flourishes. "Selling miso has changed in recent years…there is more price competition as supermarkets continue to grow in Japan. Because we have kept the traditional taste of our miso, we have our own niche market." Regardless of his career choice, it is difficult for Flenley to imagine a life outside of Japan. "Japan is not a complicated country to live in. I enjoy the food, the convenience of the trains and I like studying Japanese. Most of all, l learn something new everyday."

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