A century ago, in 1919, Calpis, a popular Japanese lactic acid beverage, came into this world on July 7, the day to celebrate the traditional “Tanabata” celestial romance and wish-making festival.

The milk-based drink with a unique flavor was invented by Kaiun Mishima (1878-1974), a Japanese businessman who led an incredibly stormy, checkered life.

Born into a family that ran a Buddhist temple in Osaka Prefecture, Mishima moved to China just before the Russo-Japanese War flared in 1904. He bought military horses in what is now the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and established a flourishing business selling Japanese guns. He also developed a good business rearing sheep. But he lost his shirt as his businesses were all confiscated by the Qing dynasty.

After returning to Japan, Mishima started working on an idea about a new beverage inspired by a traditional cultured milk product he had become familiar with in Inner Mongolia. After a few years of trial and error, he finally created a new tasty beverage. It was made by fermenting skimmed milk with lactic acid bacterium and named Calpis, a portmanteau constructed by combining “cal” from calcium and a Sanskrit word meaning “good taste.”

A large-scale marketing campaign for the new drink was launched with the romantic advertising phrase “A glass of Calpis tastes like the first love.”

This ad copy was a little controversial in the morally conservative society of Japan at that time. The authorities regarded the phrase about love as immoral and ordered Mishima to stop using it in posters and signboards for the product. But Mishima refused.

“He was a man who immersed himself in conceiving new products and businesses and testing them,” recalls Hiroshi Imazeki, head of the Mishima Kaiun Memorial Foundation. Imazeki, 80, worked for the founder of Calpis as a young employee for eight years.

Mishima told his employees to test many business ideas, including a rye-based confectionery and cultivation of “ayu” sweetfish, according to Imazeki.

In his autobiography, titled “Hatsukoi 50 nen” (50 years of the first love) and published to celebrate his 88th birthday, Mishima describes a life with so many dramatic ups and downs that it reads like a movie script or a novel.

His company’s factory burned down in an air raid during World War II, which threw the business into serious financial trouble and led to his ousting from the company presidency.

Despite all these setbacks, Mishima refused to lose heart and continued pursing new business ideas well into his 90s. He was an indomitable, natural-born entrepreneur.

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 7

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.