—— Can you tell us about your current work?
I run a food company named Mutual Trading Co, Inc., which deals with food imported from Japan and related sundries. We currently have more than 250 employees and deal with 7,000 food products and 9,000 sundry items. In addition to the importing and exporting of Japanese food, we locally produce sake, miso, nori seaweed, udon, etc. I am Mutual Trading’s third president and started serving in 1964.
—— When did you become interested in the importing and exporting food?
While attending junior high school (currently Kitazono Senior High School in Tokyo), I started thinking about my future. In those days, it was common for Japanese companies to go overseas. So, I decided that in the future I wanted to become an international trader. My father also influenced me and encouraged me to pursue a career in international trade. To become an international trader, I thought I should study economics at the Tokyo College of Commerce (currently Hitotsubashi University), so that’s where I started.
However, while I was in college, I was drafted for World War II. So, I learned accounting in Singapore and then received an assignment in Burma. On the battlefield in Burma, I was responsible for accounting, handling of cash, food supply and procurement, as well as, the supply and management of clothing. For three years on the battlefield, I was involved in military logistics. That means I was responsible for finding solutions for our food supply needs, including how to get food, where to cook it, and how to provide the meals for the soldiers.
After the war, I got involved in making roof tiles, building materials, and the parts for diesel vehicles. Whenever I thought about starting an international trading business, I said to myself, “I don’t want to work for a trading company, but want to start my own trading business. What should I do?” I didn’t know what to do, so I talk to my father and he referred me to Mr. Chuhei Ishii, who had recently come back to Japan after living in the US for thirty years. Mrs. Ishii was a classmate of my mother’s at Gunma Women’s Teachers’ College.
I definitely thought I should do business with American companies, so I visited Mr. Ishii for advice. He had experience in running a grocery store in the US and said, “There are many Japanese living in the US. They are dying for Japanese food, so I am preparing a business to export Japanese food to the US.” So, I decided to start a trading company with Mr. Ishii. We founded Tokyo Mutual Trading Co., which dealt with Japanese food, with a starting capital of one million yen—six hundred thousand from Mr. Ishii, four hundred thousand was from me.
Because of my food supply work in the military, I had knowledge of food products. During the war, I learned how to cook over 500 different dishes and to calculate each meal’s calories. I had also been engaged in the transport of food. All my previous skills proved useful for me in running a food trading company.
—— Can you tell us about your childhood?
During my childhood and youth, Japan was going to war. In those days, high schools and colleges under the old education system required us to take two hours of “Kyoren” classes a week. In “Kyoren” classes, we would pretend to be soldiers. We were trained in the basics of military service through running and crawling drills. Later on, the law was changed and students trained through “Kyoren” classes were sent to the battlefield. Despite my nearsightedness, I was also called up.
In a way, my war experience was useful because I learned how to run a business overseas while on the battlefield; in other ways, I lost trust in people. Right before the end of the war, we were ordered to defend our country ‘til the death, but all of our superiors, Japanese commanders who had given the orders, left us on the battlefield and got different assignments or withdrew. Although they ran away, they ordered us to fight and die. Witnessing such a thing, I no longer trusted authorities anymore. At that time, I was an innocent 20-year old and that experience came as a big shock to me.
After the war, I was barely able to survive and withdrew from Rangoon (currently Yangon), the capital of Burma. I was a P.O.W. for over a year. When I was finally able to come home and see my parents, my mother cried so hard because she thought I had been killed in action. I was extremely glad that the war was over and I escaped with my life. I went back to my university, although I didn’t like the idea of work for a company after graduation. I had been forced to see the truth of authorities in the military, you know. So, I thought it was ridiculous to work under the system and the establishment. I thought I should live according to my will and knack. I had lost everything in the war, including friends. I wanted to rethink my life.
—— How and why did you come to the US?
When I was president of Tokyo Mutual Trading Co. exporting Japanese food to the US, Mr. Ishii, who was the president of Mutual Trading Co. in the US, passed away, so I went to Los Angeles to fill his position. I came to the US because of Mr. Ishii’s death, but I think I would have done it anyway, sooner or later. I didn’t hate the US just because it had defeated Japan in the war; I was rather interested in the US, desiring to make Japanese food popular in the States. It was in 1964 that I moved and settled in Los Angeles with my wife, son, and daughter. To start a business in a foreign country, you must go to that country and think there. You won’t be successful unless you are determined to settle there for the rest of your life. Having such determination in my heart, I came to the US when I was forty-one and am still active now at the age of eighty-two.
—— How did you make Japanese food popular in the US?
Early on, we mainly exported Japanese canned foods to the US. It was so-called “nostalgia- for-homeland food” for the Japanese expats living in the US. I wanted to change that situation, so we started handling various other Japanese products. Because grocery stores targeting Japanese customers here were small-scaled, I thought we should make Japanese food popular among Americans. After I pondered what to sell to Americans, I first noticed the harvest cookies and thin rice crackers. At first, they sold very well and generated huge profits, but after three years or so American look-alikes messed up the market. Our next idea was to export American household utensils, such as can openers and steak knives to Japan. They sold well, too.
Meanwhile, I met Harry Wolff, a Jewish American, and hired him. When he tried to sell himself, he said something unique: “If you want to be successful in business in the US, get good lawyers and good doctors, as well as a Jewish friend. Please hire me.” I did and in fact he became an excellent consultant and worked as my right-hand man.
When Wolff and I went to Japan on business, I took him to a sushi restaurant in Kanda. He exclaimed, “We don’t have this in America. Let’s go for sushi next time!“ At that time, one of Kyu Sakamoto’s songs, “Ue wo muite aruko,” had been a big hit as “Sukiyaki” in the US. So, there were a few Japanese restaurants that mainly served sukiyaki, teriyaki, and tempura. However, there were almost no sushi restaurants in Los Angeles that served authentic Edo-style nigiri sushi. So I believed Wolff’s idea was novel and would be highly successful. We immediately air-shipped sushi ingredients (sashimi) from Japan to the US and opened an authentic sushi bar, inviting sushi masters, at “Kawafuku,” one of the best Japanese restaurants in Little Tokyo at that time. We also set up sushi counters at “Eikiku Café” and “Tokyo Kaikan.” Mr. Ichiro Mashita, a sushi master at “Tokyo Kaikan,” invented the “California” roll while he was working there.
—— What have you learned while living in the US?
For about ten years, before I settled in the US, I often went back and forth between Japan and the US on business. I first arrived in Los Angeles in November of 1956, by a propeller airplane. Everything I saw there surprised me. A wave of cars going at high speeds; Japanese cars of the time paled in comparison. Public restrooms had flush toilets as well as paper towels; washrooms had plenty of hot water. The streets Downtown were thoroughly swept and always clean. Next to a mailbox, there was a package along with money for shipping and a tip for the mail carrier. “This is such a rich country,” I thought.
Also, the person sitting next to me on the plane had invited me to his home and to a meal. In addition, he drove me to Mutual Trading Company’s office. I was very impressed by his kindness, saying, “There are kind people in America.” While in this country, I’ve learned that it is important to be kind to others and to relax mentally. I sensed that this attitude is the reason for America’s richness. I realized in a flash of intuition that this was what Japan lacked.
—— Can you tell us about the hardships you’ve experienced?
After the war, while being a student, I started a roof tile manufacturing business, which was on the right track for a while. However, because of my inexperience as a businessman, I couldn’t collect many of the accounts receivable and ended up incurring a debt of 1,800,000 yen (approximately a billon yen today). I was depressed because I didn’t think I could ever repay the debt. As it turns out, I was able to pay off my debt in two and a half years. Still, I won’t forget that hardship for as long as I live. I even thought of killing myself.
Another harsh reality I faced when I just came to the US was that even though I was full of confidence, because I spoke English and had knowledge about food products, many Japanese Americans living in Los Angeles insisted that the market for Japanese food was too small because Japanese Americans did not eat much Japanese food.
—— Have you had any memorable meetings in your life?
When I was handling the military food supply in Burma, I met a Chinese man. I remember him very well. Because of a Japanese government order, we had to cut down the rubber trees that had been growing there for thirty years. The Japanese Army planned to replace the rubber trees with tapioca trees in order to feed their soldiers. “It’s too bad that we have to cut down these trees that are still growing,” I said to the Chinese man. To my surprise, he responded calmly, “Well, the Japanese government ordered it. We can do nothing about it. But, the war won’t last long. When the war is over, we can plant rubber trees again.” “But, the new rubber trees won’t grow big enough while you are still alive,” I said. “My descendants will be able to run a business using these rubber trees,” he replied. He looked at the future, placing his hope in later generations. I was impressed by his forward-looking vision.
I also thought those who lived overseas were something because they were determined to settle there for the rest of their lives. Going overseas with business ideas, I believed, was a way of living one’s life positively. Whatever happens to you, even disasters like war, it is important not to go against your fate and to calmly respond to things. I learned that from the Chinese man. What I learned from him has helped me in my life here in the US.
Moreover, on the topic of influential people in my life, I must mention my father, Jyurohei. He died at the age of seventy-four, but when he was alive, he’d give me crucial advice on important occasions in my life. He used to say, “Do what you can do.” Needless to say, my business partner, Mr. Ishii, and my strategist, Wolff, have also had a strong influence on me.
—— What’s your motto?
“Return to the starting point.” I’ve faced many obstacles because I’ve used my own approach in promoting and expanding my overseas businesses based on my own beliefs. In other words, I’ve learned through trial and error. This means I often encounter unexpected problems. That’s when I return to the starting line.
For example, when you borrow money, “repaying the debt” is the starting point. You have to think about how to pay off the debt completely. This means you deal with things realistically. By focusing on “eliminating the debt and starting over,” you can step forward. When I failed in the harvest cookie sales, I returned to the starting point. I decided to go for Japanese food culture. We would have had no future if we had tried to sell American-like products that would appeal only to Americans. Because I returned to the starting point, I was able to make a decision to promote sushi that Americans would not be able to reproduce.
—— When do you feel happy?
I am always happy. I guess it’s because I don’t criticize or blame others and I am thankful for everything. I am sure that I am this way because of my war experience. The other day, I gave a speech in Los Angeles on “Memorable Trips.” Ironically, the most memorable trip for me was going to the war. When I heard that the war was over, I shook hands with friends. That was my happiest moment. My life was saved—the joy of survival spread all over my body. I believe my personality completely changed at that time. I became grateful for everything in the world. I came to be truly thankful that I was alive.
—— What are your new dreams?
One of my unrealized plans is to import delicious fish from Japan into the US. I’d like to bring Japanese fish, such as sanma (Pacific saury), aji (saurel), and katsuo (bonito), fresh to the American dinner table. It is possible to import such fish by freezing them at minus 65 degrees Celsius. This temperature is most appropriate to keep their freshness and deliciousness. Last November, we finished building a warehouse and an ultra deep freezer that operates at minus 65 degrees Celsius. By using our new facilities, we’ll import a lot of fish that Japanese households enjoy on a daily basis. We’ll make this dream come true in the near future.