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Kokichi Mikimoto
Mikimoto is perhaps the most well-known name in the cultured pearl industry. He is regarded as a famous historical figure in Japan, and his legacy is taught in schools.

Born January 25, 1858 in Toba, his actual first name is “Kichimatsu”, which, broken down, mean “happiness” and “pine”, a symbol of wealth. He was the oldest son of a noodle maker, which placed the family in the Shonin class, the lowest class. When Mikimoto was only 11 years old, his father fell sick, and Mikimoto became the primary provider for the family, caring for his siblings and continuing his father’s business, selling vegetables and noodles. He was a charismatic boy, well-liked by the farmers who saved the best for him. For a period, Mikimoto was able to attend a private school where he was taught by an old Samurai. Later in life, Mikimoto would attribute some of his success to prinicples he learned during his time there.

In 1875, Mikimoto had his first encounter with foreigners. A British ship anchored in Toba, and Mikimoto caught the crew’s attention with his talent for juggling. He went on to earn enough money selling food to the ship to finance his first trip to Tokyo. To this day, his travel journal remains with the Mikimoto family. While in Tokyo, Mikimoto spent most of his time in the harbor town of Yokohama, fascinated by the shops of the pearl dealers.

A chance encounter on his journey back from Tokyo unexpectedly catapulted Mikimoto into the public eye. He helped to save the life of an elderly stranger, and the story quickly spread into national newspapers. He was elected to the city council at the age of 20, and is credited with the construction of a new harbor that caused the economy to flourish. It was with this new standing that he was able to choose a wife from a Samurai family, something that would have been unheard of a few years previously, before the collapse of class barriers.

Mikimoto had not given up his father’s business, but also began to do business in pearls and marine products. He took his place at the head of the family upon his father’s death in 1883.

Beginning in 1850, overfishing began to shrink the natural pearl banks. The first association to improve the life of marine mollusks was founded, and chose Mikimoto as its first chair. The Shima Marine Products Improvement Association was the first to attempt re-population.

Mikimoto achieved further notoriety in 1887, when the Dowager Empress purchased pearls from him. Additionally, he won second prize at the National Exhibition of Marine Products, catching the attention of the Japan Marine Products Association. His fame garnered their support to form a Fisheries Cooperation, their first cultivation project placing its first mollusks in Ago Bay in 1888. The results of his cooperative farm won him the grand prize at the 1890 National Industrial Exhibition. Through this victory, Mikimoto met and consulted with several Japanese zoologists as he formed plans to produce cultured blister pearls.

His first few experiments were disastrous. The first harvest yielded no pearls, forcing Mikimoto to take loans to pay for expenses. He tried using different nuclei for the next few batches, but was continually faced with obstacles, culminating in the loss of 1,000 mollusks to the Red Flood. Mikimoto traveled to Hokkaido in hopes of finding a new source of income in the seaweed business, receiving word from his wife to stay away or face the creditors that awaited him back at home.

About a year later, in the summer of 1893, Mikimoto’s efforts were finally rewarded when he returned to their coop farm in Nishiki. A successful harvest revitalized Mikimoto and he was able to patent his technique and lease a small uninhabited island. Using only mother-of-pearl beads as nuclei, Mikimoto’s farm continued to grow successfully, operating on one million mollusks per year by 1902. Unfortunately in 1896, Mikimoto lost his wife Ume to appendicitis. Before she passed, she told him never to give up and that she believed he would accomplish his dream of producing cultured round pearls.

Mikimoto employed around 300 “Amas” or female pearl divers. The role of the pearl diver is one that has been passed down for centuries, though it is an unusual one. The amas earn a living wage, while the husbands maintain the household and raise the children. Able to withstand the cold temperatures and hold their breath for 2-3 minutes, these “seadaughters”used washtubs as both buoys and baskets, dropping the mollusks into the washtubs while their husbands kept fires burning on the boats so they could warm in between dives.

The 1898 harvest was well publicized, and Mikimoto used the opportunity to declare its dedication to the Emperor. It was the beginning of Mikimoto as a brand, “Mikimoto Pearls” were now being sold in his new shop in Tokyo. Prince Komatsu, cousin to the Emperor, took “Mikimoto Pearls” to the coronation of King Edward VII, and the pearls immediately caught the notice of the papers. Mikimoto also published the first jewelry catalogue, which has become a valuable historic window into jewelry fashion of that time period.

Mikimoto continued to make his mark internationally, winning awards and presenting at exhibitions in Paris and Russia, and finally America. A detailed article in the New York Herald provided a look into Japanese pearl culture, something that had never really been made known to the American public. The article stated the difficulty of the process and its inability to be mass -produced in any large quantities.

January of 1905 once again brought the red flood, killing all but a fifth of the implanted mollusks in the Tatokushima farm. It was immediately after this incident that Mikimoto opened some dead trial mollusks to find five round pearls, a goal he had not abandoned. He immediately patented the trial method of implanting the nuclei directly into the living mantle tissue.

Soon after, Mikimoto was presented to Emperor Meiji as an important citizen. His audience lasted 17 minutes, and afterwards, he went immediately to the grave of his wife. He also attributed his success to the pearl mollusks themselves, later building a shrine honoring the souls of the dead mollusks.

Others began to enter the pearl industry, also basing their operations off Chinese methods. None could match Mikimoto’s success, however, by 1908 he had opened a second large farm and was operating on 10 million mollusks and employing over 1,000 people. He eventually opened stores not only in Japan, but also in China, France, England, America, and India.

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