Japan finds a place in the suburbs: North London is facing the culture shock of a retail village for Japanese expatriates. Tom Stevenson reports (CORRECTED)

Click to follow
The Independent Online

BACK home, Japanese consumers may be increasingly reluctant to spend as recession takes hold. But one of Japan's biggest supermarket groups is hoping that the country's expatriates still have money to go shopping.

Yaohan, capitalised at more than pounds 1bn on the Tokyo market, is investing pounds 50m in a giant Oriental shopping centre in north London as the first step in an ambitious European expansion plan.

The idea of a Japanese retail village in English suburbia is an act of faith, as the company freely admits. No one knows for sure if Colindale, at the tip of the London Underground's Northern line, is ready for 141,000 square feet of Japanese retailing and restaurants sheltering under a Japanese-style roof.

In terms of scale, it can only be compared with dropping a giant Sainsbury's, plus assorted pubs, chip shops and Laura Ashley boutiques, into the outskirts of Tokyo. The planned site, which includes a traditional Japanese roof and landscaping, and parking space for 800 cars, should open for business in September.

Yaohan has tried the formula before, operating highly successful stores in New York and Chicago. In total it runs more than 100 shops worldwide, mainly in Asia. The New York Yaohan is the model for Colindale, which suggests a heavy dose of culture shock is in store for the quiet suburb.

Entering the New Jersey mall, overlooking the towers of Manhattan, is like flying to Japan without the time to adjust. Within spitting distance of the verandas of suburban America you can buy a kimono, slurp Japanese noodles or add to your computer games collection.

When Yaohan Plaza opens in London in September, it promises to offer an even bigger oriental cornucopia. The focus of the centre will be the Yaohan supermarket with seasonal fruit, such as pears, flown in from Japan. There will be Japanese cooking instruments and a hundred different brands of sake to choose from.

In small shops surrounding the supermarket, Korean, Japanese and Chinese restaurants are being signed up.

There are plans for bookshops, travel agencies and a London-Tokyo property company.

Few of these attractions will impinge on the local people of Colindale, although their children will doubtless flock to to the giant computer game arcade, the UK's biggest, being opened by Sega.

Yaohan is coy about its expectations for turnover in its first year but pounds 40m, including pounds 19m from the concessions, is mentioned as a realistic target. It is an ambitious European entrance.

Like Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer, Yaohan has grown from humble beginnings. Founded in 1930 as a small greengrocer in the hot-spring resort of Atami, near Tokyo, it has grown to be one of the biggest food chains in the world. New sites in Paris and Dusseldorf are planned for the next couple of years.

As well as being a highly successful commercial organisation, the group sees itself as having a mission to spread Japanese culture around the world.

A portentous company statement says: 'By studying and practising the truth of life's philosophies, Yaohan strives to render better service to people all over the world.'

Putting the Yaohan Plaza in Colindale is no accident. Nearly 30,000 Japanese live in London - about half the total number resident in Britain - and the vast majority of them live within four miles of Yaohan Plaza.

Then there are the 500,000 Japanese tourists who come to Britain every year, although whether will abandon more familiar haunts in the West End remains to be seen.

Even more crucial to the success of the venture, however, will be the extent to which the conservative British take to the Japanese food and culture on offer.

There are already over 100 Japanese restaurants in London, which suggests that demand exists. But persuading the Brits to grapple with exotic ingredients and start eating Japanese at home could be Yaohan's biggest challenge yet.

(Photograph omitted)