Yamaya Communications has grown from home kitchen to business conglomerate

Published on
August 3, 2022
A selection of various mentaiko products by Yamaya Communications inside packaging.

Fukuoka, Japan-based Yamaya Communications, a producer of mentaiko, has advanced from its humble origins to become the largest producer of the product in Japan.

Mentaiko is pollock roe marinated in chili, sake, kelp, and citrus for several hours. Originally a Korean dish, mentaiko was introduced to Japan in the 1950s and became a delicacy in Fukuoka, a city on the island of Kyushu. Today, all of Japan's major producers of the product are located in Fukuoka. 

The company was founded in 1974 by a husband-and-wife team, who experimented on how to make the ideal mentaiko product in their home kitchen. The couple eventually found what they consider to be the best ingredients for the product – sake from Kitaya, Fukuoka; kelp from Rausu, Hokkaido; yuzu citrus from Kyushu; and their own blend of chili peppers. While mentaiko is usually translated to English as “spicy cod roe,” the couple succeeded in developing high-grade mentaiko with a flavor that goes beyond just spicy, according to the company.

Building on their experience in sourcing the best ingredients, Yamaya went on to create a Japanese dashi soup stock based on a Hakata, Kyushu recipe that uses flying fish. Yamaya introduced the new product under the brand name Umadashi, and it quickly became a hit.

Then in 1984, the company wanted to introduce beef offal hotpot, a popular dish in Hakata, so it launched the “Hakata Motsunabe, Yamaya" restaurants.

Since those early days, the company has grown to include several group companies with various functions: two mentaiko-packing companies, a shochu liquor brewery, a marketing company, a company that sells boxed lunches and souvenir packs, and two companies that operate restaurants in South Korea and Taiwan, respectively.

There is also a subsidiary, Yamasa USA, which manages exports of mentaiko, wholesaling of beef, exports to Europe, and operates restaurants. The company’s U.S. operations are based in Torrance, California, where it operates Yamaya Japanese Wagyu and Grill. The upscale yakiniku (grilled beef) restaurant offers both imported Japanese beef from Kyushu and beef from a mixed wagyu-angus cross raised by contract feeder Lindsay Ranch in the U.S. state of Oregon. Another subsidiary, Japan Premium Beef, wholesales and retails meat products in the U.S. state of New York.

Yamaya was featuring “shio-kara,” a salty-spicy mixture of raw squid slices and mentaiko, vacuum-packed for business-to-business sales, at the 14th annual Hotel-Restaurant Show and Foodex Japan in Kansai, which took place 27 to 29 July, 2022. At the show Kenta Sakuma, of Yamaya’s B-to-B Central Japan Team, told SeafoodSource the value of the company’s sales of mentaiko is roughly JPY 200 million (USD 1.5 million, EUR 1.46 million), and 40 percent of the product is sold through motsunabe shops, 20 percent to other restaurants, 20 percent to discount shops, and 20 percent to supermarkets.

The company imports containerloads of pollock roe directly from Russia to its plant in Fukuoka, and then a portion of this is shipped to its production facility in Los Angeles, California where it is made into mentaiko for the North American market.

Sakuma said the price of the pollock roe that the company imports from Russia has risen from around JPY 800 (USD 6.01, EUR 5.88) per kilogram two years ago to about JPY 1,200 (USD 9.01, EUR 8.82) this year for standard-grade roe. Besides grade, the price varies by time of year. The roe is harvested from January to May, but is at its peak, and in the best condition, in February and March, so the price paid for roe harvested at these times is the highest.

Like most food processors in Japan, Yamaya has a hard time passing increased material costs onward to the country's price-conscious consumers, and instead have absorbed a part of the costs, which has dented the company’s profits.

Though Yamaya sells its products throughout Japan, Sakuma said there are regional differences in how pollock roe is eaten. In East Japan, and especially in the north where pollock is caught, “tarako,” or salted roe, is more popular. In West Japan, which includes Fukuoka and Osaka, mentaiko is dominant.

Photo by Chris Loew/SeafoodSource

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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