A Visionary Mayor Loses an Election
Hey, I’m Casey. Welcome to our weekly newsletter sharing the startup journey of Kamui Whisky. Each week Rusty or I will share a story as we set up a craft whisky distillery on a remote, volcanic island in the most northern part of Japan.
Believing in you is one of the most special gifts someone can give.
I’ve been in Japan for 20+ years and I would only need to use single digits to count the number of Japanese people that have truly, meaningfully believed in me. The life-altering occurrences of belief would only need a couple of fingers to tally.
It may be that anyone’s life, anywhere, would only have a few moments of belief, but it feels like Japan, with its closed culture, being an island nation that was closed off from the world for centuries, wary of foreigners since, is particularly hard to have a Japanese person let you all the way behind that metaphorical kimono.
Hono-san, the mayor or Rishiri-cho, gave me this gift.
Rishiri is a remote island, within an island nation, suggesting that the people there would be doubly closed off to outsiders, especially to a foreigner.
Yet, on this remote island, I encountered one of those life-changing moments of belief. Hono-san gave me this special gift. He didn’t need to. Now, sadly, in an unexpected turn, he will no longer be mayor from May 25th, and I guiltily feel like I had something to do with it.
Hono-san had served two terms as mayor going in to the election on April 25th.
We were fully expecting that he would easily win re-election.
The results were unexpected. A shock.
Why would I feel guilty? I can’t vote, we are a private company, and as a rule foreigners aren’t supposed to be involved in politics in Japan. But here I was agonizing that I, we, here at Kamui Whisky, had somehow contributed to the result.
Hono-san had publicly endorsed us. He mentioned us in his New Year speech of 2020, and again in 2021. These are kind of like Rishiri’s State of the Union. We had posters made to build local excitement about the distillery, saying that ground-breaking was upcoming, expected this March.
But, there were obstacles, and the groundbreaking was delayed until July. Had this delay, this lack of visible proof that something was being built, influenced some voters thinking? Did they wonder if Hono-san had misplaced his trust in some foreigner? As you can see from the vote count, it doesn’t take many votes to change the result. Did some people think that Kamui Whisky would be a burden and a distraction?
Probably I will never fully know.
The new, incoming mayor, ran on a fiscally conservative platform.
We’ll have to see what this means for us at Kamui Whisky. We don’t receive money from the local government, but as storied in previous posts Rishiri is not the easiest place for an outsider to set up a new business. It’s better to be able to be able to turn to the local government office for help if we need.
What moments build trust?
Our original idea was to buy land and just build the distillery at our own pace. We didn’t think to build a close relationship with the yakuba (Japanese for local govt office). But, as there was no land openly for sale to an outsider we needed to go through the yakuba.
First, Sato-san and Kosaka-san believed in our project. Soon affter we met with the vice-mayor, and finally, two subsequent trips later, we met the mayor.
He liked our vision, liked our reasoning, and gave Kamui Whisky his encouragement. Things then just progressed. Step-by-step layers of relationships in the yakuba were built. Supported by Sato-san and Kosaka-san’s enthusiasm, and the mayor’s encouragement, we changed our approach to being very much about community building. We wanted to do this together with the yakuba team, with the local community. This change was influenced by Hono-san. He saw the vision. It was in focus for him.
Then he called us out of the blue one day, wanting to come meet Miku and I at our house in Tokyo. He was in town and wanted to give aisatsu. He came the next morning. We talked about the project, and rather than serve tea, I served us all a small glass of Whisky. It was 9am. Maybe this was one of the moments that the sinews of trust were strengthened.
After that we were regularly in touch with Hono-san. He was always excited about the project and wanted to know our progress. The tide had shifted from us trying to get the yakuba to believe in our project so that we could buy land and get the license, to we were being encouraged, even pushed. In the nicest of ways. My stance with Hono-san became on of trying to set expectations - that while we were making progress, it was steady, and would overall be slow. This was a lifetime project for us.
Calls for media interviews started to come in. I declined most of them, but agreed to do one with the Hokkaido Shimbun. Rather than do it alone, I asked if we could set it up and do a joint interview with the mayor, as he in the yakuba team had become such a propeller of the project. The reporter came over to the island, and we did the interview together in his office. That seemed to be another inflection point. Hono-san later mentioned it several times, that he appreciated the community building approach to the media, rather than to grab all the attention for Kamui Whisky.
Then there were several dinners. Almost each time we were in town we would share a nice meal with Hono-san and the yakuba team, treated as guests of honor. We’d share a couple of beers.
Our kids would fell love with him. Usually our two youngest were reticent with strangers, but they would sit on Hono-san’s lap from the start. He quickly became "Rishiri Grandpa” to them. They would snuggle and play with him. Kids often indicate the kindness in someone’s heart, and Hono-san seem to have a special aura that had them trusting so quickly.
It was one of the last dinners we had with Hono-san when he gave me the gift of belief. It was there before, if you were looking and paying attention, how he was supporting the project, taking his busy time to meet us, even going out of his way when in Tokyo traveling out of the center of politics in Kasumigaseki to visit our house.
Into the second beer I asked him why he supported us so much. He gave one of the kindest speeches I’ve ever received. He told me it didn’t matter that I was a foreigner, that I didn’t live in Rishiri, but that it was the quality of character that he could feel, that I was a man of my word, and he trusted and believed in me, and us, to do the right thing for Rishiri. That was why he was so publicly supporting us, even at a crucial moment in his political life.
Now, I wish I had more of a reporters instincts, and written down his words right after. Instead it is a strong feeling of trust received, belief, that dominate the memory, with the particular words vague. But I know they were meaningful.
That belief has deepened my motivation to make Kamui Whisky a success.
The way forward
We are a couple of months away from breaking ground for the construction of the distillery. We will have a groundbreaking ceremony, with a Shinto priest, and all the razzamatazz, on July 4th. But it saddens me Hono-san will not be there in official capacity as mayor to preside over the ceremony, to take the first shovel of dirt with me. Hopefully, it will still happen, but its become a bit more complicated. Small town politics.
We will have to see how the relationship with the yakuba develops under the new administration. We are an independent business, and it will likely be that we have a relationship with them typical of any independent business. It will be different than the special feeling that we had, of building something special together, with Hono-san and his team. He took a political risk on us, prioritizing a belief in people, me, a non-Japanese, rather than what might have been more expedient. Politicians don’t have the best image, but Hono-san is everything you hope for in our civic leaders - a man of vision, a man with humanity, fully committed to making his community better.
Kamui Whisky will be a part of Hono-san’s legacy as mayor. In the years to come, as we win awards, become globally recognized, and build recognition for Rishiri Whisky, it will have been Hono-san’s belief that cleared our path for success. To ensure that legacy becomes real, and last, drives me to not fail.