“salmon sushi was not a Japanese invention — it was actually a concept imported from Norway”

The noble viking

Keita Koido, president of Leroy Japan

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Kageaki Smith

As a philosophy student at the University of Edinburgh, Keita Koido was deeply impressed by the writings of British philosopher Peter Winch. In his essay “Understanding a primitive society”, Winch observes that if you want to understand another culture, you can’t approach it through your own values and pre-established standards of judgement. And this idea has influenced how Koido works and communicates with others.

“It applies to international business,” explains Koido, president of Leroy Japan KK. “I always tell my staff that it’s important they learn to speak to others on their wavelength, and to consider how they can communicate their message clearly.”

As a Japanese man who spent his formative years in Ireland, earned a Master’s degree in Scotland, and is now working for a Norwegian firm, Koido has spent his life learning how to communicate effectively with people from other cultures, and cultivating an understanding and appreciation of perspectives different from his own.

The Leroy Seafood Group, headquartered in Norway, established operations in Japan more than 25 years ago. In 2008, when he was 32 years old, Koido was brought in to incorporate the business. He has been president of Leroy Japan ever since, and the company has seen immense growth.

“I was new to the seafood industry back then but my academic background in philosophy helped me to think critically, and to come up with creative solutions to overcome many difficult challenges in business,” Koido says. “As a result, we have increased our sales and profits fivefold over the last eight years. And we are now a company with an annual turnover of ¥20 billion.”

Leroy was one of the first to charter flights from Norway to Japan to deliver fresh Atlantic salmon, helping to promote the fish at a time when eating raw salmon was still unpopular in the Japanese market.

“Much to everyone’s surprise, salmon sushi was not a Japanese invention — it was actually a concept imported from Norway,” notes Koido. “Leroy contributed a lot to popularising this concept of fresh salmon as a sushi item in Japan.”

Norway has a small population, so its businesses have always put an emphasis on exports. Koido relates that this can be traced back to one of the most well-known periods in the nation’s history.

“It was natural during the Viking years for people to look outside the country for new markets,” Koido shares. “The Vikings are misunderstood. They weren’t simply vicious warlords going around conquering the world; they were actually business people, and market-oriented ones.”

In the same spirit, but with improved methods, Koido has helped to promote and to deliver Leroy’s products across Japan. The firm has customers from Hokkaido to Okinawa, selling to large-scale retailers, such as Aeon, supermarkets in every prefecture and, on the premium side, in Isetan department stores and at many high-end sushi restaurants.

Aurora Salmon is Leroy’s signature brand. The fish — which gets its name from the Aurora Borealis, the phenomenon characteristic of the region — is caught off the coast of Tromso city, within the arctic circle, in the north of Norway. The frigid Arctic seawater ensures Aurora Salmon grow more slowly than other species.

“It takes other salmon about two years to reach maturity,” explains Koido. “Aurora Salmon take two and a half to three years. And this slower growth helps to create a distinctive taste. People in Japan say it’s similar to tuna in that it is rich in fat, and it has a sweetness to it, as well. It’s a special salmon.”

The logistics system that Leroy has set up to get Aurora Salmon from the ocean to the plate is fast and efficient — a point of pride for the firm. Fish are caught early every morning, processed, packaged, and then transported to Helsinki by truck. On the second day, they are flown to all the major airports in Japan. And on day three, they arrive ready for sushi restaurants to serve.

Some of Leroy’s other products include their brand, Fjord Trout, as well as mackerel, whitefish and smoked salmon.

“We are lucky to have Norway as the origin of our seafood,” says Koido. “Norway has a very good brand image in Japan for both salmon and mackerel.”

There is a long tradition of dry salting and smoking fish in Norway, but Japan’s 10.5% tariff on Norwegian smoked salmon products is holding the company back from expanding its business in this area as much as it could. Koido would like to see this change, as some other countries exporting salmon to Japan, such as Chile, do not have tariffs on their smoked salmon and trout products because of their free trade agreements with Japan.

“I think Norway should really start pushing for this tariff on smoked products to be lowered,” Koido insists. “Salmon is now a major global business.”

Another challenge the company is facing is that salmon prices are going up. Nowadays, four to five kilograms of the fish is more expensive than one barrel of oil. The Norwegian government is committed to ensuring that salmon farming is environmentally sustainable, so they are trying not to expand too quickly. However, this is affecting prices.

“The country has some of the toughest regulations on salmon farming operations,” notes Koido. “But there is also a growing global demand for salmon. So, we are trying to work out how we can meet the demand as we did in the past.”

For the last four years, Koido has been president of the Norwegian Chamber of Commerce in Japan (NCCJ). The fact that he is not Norwegian was not a concern for him or the other members.

“I suppose I’m not a traditional Japanese, so heading up the NCCJ seemed like a natural thing to do,” Koido says. “We have seen good, steady growth every year; and I am blessed with a team that is committed to building the chamber.”

Additionally, Koido is a member of the Keizai Doyukai — the Japan Association of Corporate Executives — and is actively involved in developing Norway–Japan business connections.

Whether working with those at Leroy’s office in Norway, his staff in Japan, or Norwegian business owners, Koido stresses the importance of “we” in business.

“There shouldn’t be ‘you’ and ‘me’ in these relationships, but ‘we’,” he says. “We are doing this together; we are all in the same boat.” 

“Nowadays, four to five kilograms of [salmon] is more expensive than one barrel of oil”