Sake + Spirits

Every May, we celebrate the women who are in the center of our industry, whether that's for drinks, design, or Japan. We take every opportunity to highlight the people who are making a difference in their professions – and with Mother's Day around the corner, it's a good time to champion the ladies. We are a women-owned business, afterall.


We've interviewed sake makers, a kitchenware designer, and several bartenders on our series Women in the Industry, and today, we introduce Emiko Kaji, Manager of International Business Development at Nikka Whisky. 


In March, we first met Kaji at a special event hosted by Nikka in San Francisco. We had just put Nikka whiskies on our shelves and wanted to hear firsthand from the company about the various bottlings. Turned out that Kaji was the perfect person to talk to, as a veteran of Nikka for nearly 30 years. She is an elegant woman with a relaxed energy and cutting sense of humor. She's hilarious! We wanted to learn more about her, her limitless business travels, and her experiences working tirelessly to build a worldwide liquor brand.



What first attracted you to the liquor industry?


I used to work part-time for a liquor shop for about two years when I was a university student. While handling various liquor products, I was especially attracted to wines and started trying them. Luckily, I benefitted from discounted rates for employees. Fruity German white wines and semi-sweet rosés such as white Zinfandel were my favorite at that time. I was just an amateur but really enjoying new experiences.



Can you give us a brief history of your background and how you got started at Nikka? Did you have a mentor?


Born in Osaka and raised mostly in Nara, I studied at a university in Kyoto, majoring in English.


When I enrolled in university, my goal was to be a tour guide, so I could travel around the world. However, I came up with another idea to work for a liquor company. After job hunting, I passed the recruitment exam for Nikka. I was familiar with Nikka since I actually sold a lot of their products during my part time job at the liquor shop. I moved to Tokyo and started my career as a sales rep in 1990. After experiencing various jobs within the company, I took over the current position in 2010 to handle international business. I had no particular mentor but I met many people with various backgrounds and learned a lot from them.



You travel a lot for work. What is your favorite city? Which city most inspires you?


If I have to choose one, Paris is my favorite city. I visit three or four times a year. I feel at home as I know where to drink, eat, what to buy and how to explore. When it comes to an inspiring city, visiting a new place is always inspiring and exciting. Recently I went to Athens for the first time. It was very impressive.


How do you relax after a tough day's work?


I go to massage or reflexology when I return home and even during a business trip if I can squeeze time. Indeed I have a few favorite places abroad. 


Umami Mart started out as a drink and food blog, so we love to ask people about their favorite foods. What do you like to cook the most in your kitchen? 


I purchase seasonal organic vegetables from an ex-Nikka colleague who became a farmer after leaving the company. I cook pasta, simple Japanese dishes, Chinese, Korean, curry, various soups using those vegetables. Thanks to my job, I have many opportunities to enjoy local cuisine when I travel abroad, and sometimes try to recreate them at home. One of my favorite things to do during my travels is to buy local seasonings at supermarkets. Actually, I bought olive oil and mustard when I visited Napa in March. And gumbo mix is always a must-buy in New Orleans.


Where do you love to go to eat and drink in Tokyo?


I sometimes go out for drinks with my colleagues in Asakusa, where my office is located. There are many izakayas with a wide variety of foods at reasonable prices. And when it comes to bars, Bar Trench in Ebisu and Bar Ben Fiddich in Shinjuku are my favorites. During the weekend, I enjoy lunch-hopping in Nihombashi area, where I live.


How do you start your day in the morning?


When I’m in Tokyo, I normally get up at 6:30am, arrange a simple breakfast, leave home before 8am and arrive at my office around at 8:30am. If it is not raining, I sometimes leave home earlier and enjoy walking 50 minutes to the office.


How do you end your day in the evening? 


That depends. When I get home early, I cook simple dishes for dinner, take a long bath and relax by watching TV or videos. This is an ideal night. While traveling abroad, I normally have a gorgeous dinner with our business partners followed by bar-hopping into the night. That is an important part of my job but a bit exhausting.


How many people do you manage? What do you think is the best trait to lead a team? How do you inspire them?


I have just one direct report. It is surprising, isn’t it? When I took over this job in 2010, I was alone to handle the entire international business for our company. Four years later, a young guy joined me to be my right hand. We cover 40 countries, just the two of us. As the business grows, I’m trying to get my company (Asahi, the parent company of Nikka) to understand the potential of this business and to hire more people. However, with or without subordinates, I have been working together with many people. It is a kind of cross-sectional team. I believe that the key for success is to present a long-term vision to share a brighter future. If everyone believes in this future, he or she can overcome all the difficulties.


Who is a role model you have who is also a female (they can be a relative, someone famous, someone from a different industry)? Why?


Well, I do not have any particular role model. In the Japanese liquor industry, women in my generation (I’m now 50) are front runners to advance their career. And there are quite a few women who really lead in international business or marketing to build a brand. I can simply be myself but have to figure out my style.



How do you think women are making a difference in the liquor industry?


Basically I do not think that the gender matters in the end. However, I feel that women tend to be good at executing multiple tasks and listening to people. Women can make a difference as a better communicator and satisfy people with unexpected solutions from different viewpoints.


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We met up with Kaji in Tokyo last week where she took us to her fave Bar Trench. Yoko and I thought the drinks were the best we've had at a cocktail bar in Japan – we highly recommend it. Go exactly when it opens or you will not get a seat!


Then, Kaji took us on her usual "course" in Ebisu – that's Bar Trench, then a bowl of ramen at Afuri, specializing in a light, yuzu-salt broth. Here we are after our meal. Thank you Kaji-san for your hospitality and thoughtful interview!