Kiyoshi Yoneguchi - a portrait sketch

米口清 Kiyoshi Yoneguchi - a Portrait

A second generation pearl farmer, he was trained by his father, Takasuke Yoneguchi, who graduated from Tokyo Fisheries University (merged 2003 with the Merchant Marine University to form the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology) at the top of his class.

Takasuke operated a fish processing business near Kasumi-ga-Ura, but fishermen stopped delivering fish because it was more profitable to collect Ikechougai (Hieryopsis schlegeli) mussels for sale to pearl farmers. Since no fish were available, he bought mussels and took them to Lake Biwa to sell to pearl farmers. There he met Tetsuya Toyama, a fellow Tokyo Fisheries University valedictorian, and a foremost expert of non nucleated pearl production.

At Toyama's suggestion, they formed a partnership and operated farms both on Lake Biwa and Kasumi-ga-Ura. The latter began in 1963, and employed 8 people. Kiyoshi, a graduate of Nihon University, College of Humanities and Sciences, quit his job and apprenticed pearling with his father. He became expert in IBN (in-body bead nucleation), producing Oodama (big pearls).

In 1974, a team consisting of Kazuhisa Yanase, Shouichi Kitao (like Yanase, formerly employed by Seiichirou Uda), the Yoneguchi 's (father and son) and Sakae Sakurai achieved success in artificial breeding of Hieryopsis schlegeli mussels. The five men founded a company for supplying mussels to pearl farmers. Jubilant at first, figuring that at ¥500- apiece, 200,000- would fetch yen 100,000,000- yen. The company disbanded after 3 years, and members bred mussels independently.

Kiyoshi abandoned keshi (non-nucleated) pearls in 1984, when a Lake Biwa company began a joint venture with Chinese farmers and sharing technical know-how. In the face of massive amounts of Chinese keshi being imported and (exported from !) Japan, it no longer made sense to expend any of the mussels' nacre producing power to non-nucleated pearl production.

The question of who is responsible for the timely miracle of the resistant hybrid, slightly smaller than the schlegeli but with similar nacre characteristics, is widely know among freshwater pearl farmers, but I am not at liberty to answer it here. It is highly unlikely that mussels from distant areas can interbreed, but has been known very rarely to occur, if the are of the same genus and under ideal conditions. Chinese Hieryopsis cumingii and Japanese schlegeli probably produced this hybrid.  Many more are thought to exist in China.

The modest breeder supplied hybrid spat to all of his fellow pearl farmers, and the company in Biwa who provided mussels to farmers there, as well as to China. This hybrid alone has made possible the cultivation of freshwater pearls in Japan since 1985.

Blights, pollution, earthquake and storms hindered the three men cultivating for pearls for 3 decades in the Kasumi-ga-Ura area. The worst was the burgeoning mortality rate of mussels for which no explanation could be found. In Kiyoshi's words: I thought the same story was unfolding that exterminated the Ikechogai (pure bred Hieryopsis schlegeli). But I kept on operating, enduring patiently, until gradually more survived.

And now, unless equally intrepid individuals accepting the vagaries of Nature and Marketplace alike come forward, Kiyoshi Yoneguchi is the last man standing.