SAPPORO • Shiroi Koibito (white lover), the popular brand of white chocolate cookies from Hokkaido, is easily among Japan's most popular and iconic souvenirs today.
But the future of its manufacturer Ishiya was thrown into doubt in 2007, when it was at the heart of a major scandal involving the falsification of expiry dates of the signature product.
It has since regrouped and grown from strength to strength under Mr Hajime Ishimizu, 36, whose leadership role at such a young age is unusual for Japan.
He is the third-generation leader of the family business, which began in 1947, and took the helm in 2013 after a six-year interim period when an outsider managed the company, following the scandal.
"I was 31 at the time, and I was still very immature (as a leader) but the staff were all very supportive and I felt that they were rooting for me," he says.
His track record speaks for itself: company sales have nearly doubled since he took over, to 18.7 billion yen (S$227.4 million) last year.
Shiroi Koibito was launched in 1976, four years after the Sapporo Winter Olympics during which a white chocolate product by rival confectionery Rokkatei proved to be a huge hit, Mr Ishimizu says.
It now accounts for about 75 per cent of Ishiya's overall sales, and the company has boosted its popularity with a theme park and factory tour for visitors to see how the cookies are made. (The tour has been suspended until July next year because of renovations.)
Ishiya is also diversifying its operations and, last year, opened its first shop outside Hokkaido in Tokyo's Ginza Six mall, though the store does not carry Shiroi Koibito.
This is why sales suffered only marginally after a magnitude-6.7 earthquake shook Hokkaido on Sept 6. Mr Ishimizu says: "We are not entirely dependent on Hokkaido. Shiroi Koibito can be found at other airports in Japan, while there is our Ginza store as well. This is our form of risk management."
Mr Ishimizu adds that Ishiya enjoys a friendly rivalry with Royce, another Sapporo-based chocolatier, whose president Yasuhiro Yamazaki is of the same generation as his father. He quips: "It's like on one hand you shake hands, but on the other, he is giving you a nice kick or punch in the back."
While Japan Inc has been slow to warm to the idea of a female leader, Mr Ishimizu says the next president of Ishiya will likely be a woman.
He says: "I have three daughters and no sons, and so it might be that one of my daughters will become president. I hope this will become a normal practice for Japan in the coming years."