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executive impact

Bringing the best of world trends to Japan

By Alexandra Hongo

For a man juggling over 40 restaurant and cafe brands in between producing hotels, shared office spaces, residences and even a karate gym, Transit General Office CEO Sadahiro Nakamura laughs and chats a lot.

"My work is my hobby. The more I get involved, the more interesting it gets," he says, making it difficult to imagine that once he was a man who would easily abandon every new challenge. "My weakness of dispersing my attention to various things became my biggest strength and my business model," he recalls.

Born in 1971 in Tokyo, Nakamura - the man behind bills, Max Brenner, Guzman Y Gomes, Ice Monster and a number of other foreign brands’ promotion in Japan - started his career at Japan's famous department store Isetan, which like many things he was involved with in his youth, didn't last very long.

But when he was asked to organize a get-together project for the customers, he began realizing that his passion in life is mingling with people and bringing them together in a cheerful and creative environment.

Fifteen years ago, at the age of 30, he quit the store and founded Transit General Office, a company now credited as a key player behind Japan’s cafe and international dining trend boom. Be it pancakes, shaved ice, chocolate, burritos or the latest on the company’s agenda - a casual Greek dining in Ginza, Nakamura has established his name as the man behind the hottest new trends in Japan. “We have a vision of promoting Tokyo as an international city on par with other fashion capitals,” Nakamura says, his eyes sparkling with restlessness.

Japan Today visits Nakamura at his office in Omotesando to learn more about where his passion comes from, the process of promoting foreign brands in Japan, and what is the next hot trend on his list.

We heard that you used to get bored with things quite easily in the past. Yet, here you are 15 years into the branding business, going stronger than ever. What kept you on the job?

It's true. I would never continue on a new endeavor for very long and I used to dislike this about myself. But I came to a point when I realized that I enjoy knowing “more” rather than knowing “well.” If people's maximum output is, say 100, which is usually achieved by maximizing a single potential by 100, my way was to collect 100 different values and maximize their potential by one. This was the most comfortable and stress-free business model for me. So I quit my job at Isetan and decided to focus on what I could do well — provide a creative platform for people to gather and enjoy. I started by opening Sign, calling it a “rendezvous cafe.” This was the beginning in our business of producing and branding creative spaces.

The better I got in doing it, the more it led to new projects and it kept becoming more and more interesting, so I never had room for getting bored. There's always something new coming up.

How do you get ideas and inspiration for the brands you produce?

People seem to find this strange, but I have a thing about "tachiyomi" (stand up reading). On most weekends I would drop by at a bookstore and spend hours reading magazines. You can find tons of good information there and funnily, this is one of my main sources of inspiration.

What are your strategies when marketing a foreign brand to a Japanese audience?

We always start by thinking how the brand will be introduced in the media. Our first step is to decide on a catchphrase — for example, “world’s best breakfast” as we did for bills, or "a restaurant that makes even New Yorkers wait in line," for Dominique Ansel. The more catchphrases we create, the easier it is for the Japanese media to pick up on it. Next, we develop a very detailed concept list for each restaurant element: logo, design, uniforms, staff, BGM, and another approximately 50 more.

The next step is to create keywords for each element, say, "good-looking” for staff or "pet corner" as part of the interior design. The more of these we have, the easier it is to reach out to different media channels. Last year for example, the strongest keywords were “first in Japan,” “sweets” and “Omotesando” and many of our brands were introduced in a series of magazines’ special features, because they fit in those keywords.

What is the biggest difference in marketing for a Japanese and a foreign audience?

We are very familiar with Japanese audience-geared publicity. We know the right people to promote to, the right magazines, the right media channels who can influence customers to visit our stores. However, to be honest, we are still at the stage of learning about foreign media and customers’ needs. One thing we came to know, however, is that the foreign community in Japan is very united. We know that if we promote something that's really good, it will spread through the word of mouth. In a sense, it's probably easier than promoting to a Japanese audience. But foreigners seem to be more difficult to impress than the Japanese - just because something is trendy, it doesn’t mean that it will be used or liked, which is somewhat the opposite of how we think in Japan.

Many of your brands come from Australia. Do you have a special relationship with that country?

No, not really. It all started with bills, the first brand we imported from Australia, through which we met many people and developed good ties. We feel secure working with Australian brands and it is perhaps true for them as well, because they are familiar with our success with bills. I also personally feel that Australian people are kind to us Japanese, so it’s a pleasure to work with them.

In March you opened The Apollo, finding a niche to introduce Greek food to Japan. Was this a challenge?

To be honest, it was a bit of a gamble for us. We received an offer from Tokyu Plaza to bid for the opening of a new restaurant in their Ginza store. Just by chance, at the time we were proceeding our negotiations with The Apollo and I thought it would be a good fit for Ginza. My goal was to introduce a new international culture in the area. But Greek food is still not popular in Japan and there were times when I thought we could fail at it. I invested a lot of time to promote it and many media channels took up to it. I was constantly giving interviews and the expectations were very high. I felt that if I fail with this project, everything we've done until now would be jeopardized. But seeing its success now, I’m reassured that we made the perfect choice.

Which of your brands is your favorite?

It’s a tough choice, but I like bills, mainly because I prefer scheduling business meetings in the mornings over breakfast or brunch. But recently I also like The Apollo very much.

How do you usually spend your days off? Any hobbies?

Work is pleasure for me, so everyday feels like a day off. My wife thinks I'm just enjoying every day. But I'm constantly thinking of expanding my business. I guess I’m a positive workaholic. And I love "tachiyomi" and spending time with my son.

Pancakes, popcorn, burgers and even cotton candy have trended in Tokyo in recent years...what’s the next foreign food to gain popularity?

International food. Spanish, Thai, Vietnamese food, but with a slightly different approach from what we have so far. We're also looking into healthy food, for example, a salad restaurant.

Speaking of hot trends, what’s your take on the inbound marketing as a new business opportunity?

We don't particularly plan anything ahead of the Olympics in terms of inbound-geared business, but we want to look a step further. For example, the government is promoting Cool Japan, but I feel that promoting "otaku" and "takumi" (traditional crafts) is not our strength. I want to promote Japan to the world, starting by heating up Tokyo. If the capital is doing well, other cities will follow too. So I came up with the concept “Hot Tokyo Project.” We want to make Tokyo trendy for everyone and in parallel with other global cities, where people from various nationalities can easily mix and enjoy being together. So what we do now is all connected to this vision. On a smaller scale, we are currently working on promoting American-style backpackers and boutique hotels in Tokyo. That may be suitable for inbound travelers.

You seem quite close with your staff and definitely not a typical Japanese CEO. What type of leader are you striving to be?

All these folks here think I’m their friend, often forgetting I’m actually their boss (laughs). I think that it’s very important to build a staff that you can rely on 100% and inspire them to work to the best of their potential. Our company has over 2,000 employees, including part-timers. I always try to see things from their perspective and put myself in their shoes, creating a good working environment. We have internal futsal teams, golf competitions and other events. I think communication within the company is very important. If I can use myself as an example for others to follow and manage to train, say, three others to work in my steps, then we produce three times more of what we are doing now.

What advice would you give someone thinking of following your steps or starting their own business?

Work as a team. If you can't do something by yourself, find a person who has the ability to back you up and turn your weakness to strength. Don’t lose time on trying to perfect yourself. Find a person who does well what you can’t and work together.

There are three most important concepts in business: luck, connection and sense. You have to work hard to turn these three concepts into a good luck, good connections and good sense. If you already have an established connection, work hard to make it better. Pay respect to the people you are involved with. Take extra time to write them a letter, for example. Work hard on improving your sense, too. Research what's good in your field. Go to fashionable places, countries, cities. Speed is also very important. If you have an idea, work for it right away. Last but not least, be passionate about what you're doing.

© Japan Today

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One thing we came to know, however, is that the foreign community in Japan is very united.

Sounds fishy to me. The largest foreign "community" in Japan is made up of Chinese nationals followed by Koreans, Filipinos, Brazilians, etc. Both Vietnamese and Nepalese outnumber North Americans and Europeans combined.

Nakamura may know how to market foreign brands to Japanese yuppies and trendies, but I suspect he does not know much about the characteristics of the "foreign communities" in Japan.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

It could be that the "foreign community" doesn't consider popcorn, pancakes and burritos to be exotic trends?

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This guy sounds like a gem. His staff relations alone are a sign of class. Both feet firmly planted in the modern world. Wonderful.

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Is this company actually "bringing" the various businesses to Japan? It sounds like they are merely doing promotion for them as an outsourcer.

Call me naive, but I think its sad that everything has to be branded. I think it's sad that a restaurant has to get a bunch of presenters or celebs in on some boring tv show or has to have ready-made buzzwords and catchphrases they can insert into magazines. In my perfect world, restaurants would serve good food at decent prices and that would be enough to succeed. Gimmicky words and taglines would not be required. I like good beer and good bread, it doesn't have to be "craft beer" or made by an "artisan" baker. I believe restaurants serving good food will outlast any trend.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

He may not be very familiar with the foreign market right now, but this guy clearly knows his game and will learn fast. I'd rather have him running things than some expat who knows the "foreign community" but lacks the hustle, smarts and humility.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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