Japan In Britain: Sushi and saki set give way to a new generation

The Yaohan Plaza, the huge Japanese shopping centre in north London, is to be sold. Business problems in Japan and staff difficulties have all hit the complex. But Tim Large says it also shows that the face of the Japanese community in London is changing.

When Europe's first Japanese shopping centre threw open its doors for business in Colindale, north London, four years ago, the Evening Standard predicted that Yaohan Plaza would turn the region into "a mecca for the young, the trendy and the culturally-inquisitive."

Judging by Yaohan's world-wide success in the 1980s, the British initiative promised to take London by storm. Behind the exotic allure of sushi, kimonos and daruma dolls lay the hard-boiled pragmatism of a family business that had expanded into 15 countries with over 450 stores. Then there were the much-publicised company slogans, chanted ritually each morning by employees, British and Japanese alike. "Yaohan will be the number one store in Europe!" they cried in unison, punching the air.

"It all sounds a bit hollow now," admitted a source last week. Yaohan met its nemesis in September when its Japanese affiliate, Yaohan Japan, went insolvent with pounds 816m of debts. Yaohan UK has been independently negotiating a sell-out, though with a price tag of less than pounds 15m, the company will recoup under a third of its initial outlay of pounds 55m in 1993. Debts from the London mall are said to have contributed to Yaohan Japan's spectacular fall.

What went wrong was not just that Yaohan's mission to bring the East to the West failed to entice the non-Japanese community, in spite of the growing fascination with Japanese culture and cuisine, especially in London's West End.

The company seems also to have misjudged the spending power - and the aspirations - of the capital's increasingly youthful and cosmopolitan Japanese community, fewer and fewer of whom, it seems, wanted to shop in the kind of stores that were linked in their minds with their parents' generation.

About 55,000 Japanese currently live in the United Kingdom, a huge leap from the 6,000 or so who lived in Britain in 1976, according to the Japanese Embassy. Almost 25,000 reside in the capital. The traditional enclaves included Ealing, Edgware, Finchley, Golders Green and Camden - though more and more expatriates are starting to move out of traditional communities.

There are now over 1,250 Japanese-owned businesses in the UK, including some 50 banks and over 200 manufacturers. Throughout the 1970s there were hardly 20. Last year 595,000 Japanese spent pounds 448m throughout the country, compared to 211,000 spending pounds 94m in 1985.

The first Japanese restaurants set up shop in London in the late Sixties. Now there are more than 150. Noodle barshave sprung up all over London, while sushi has become something of an institution.

The same is true of other Japanese exports - from karaoke to manga to tamagotchi. Popular music, too, has made its mark, both in the clubs and on the radio. And just in case you've forgotten, the London-based pop group Shonen Knife did girl power long before the Spice Girls.

And it is not just the size of the community which has changed. London's Japanese are getting younger. The number of students, researchers and teachers has been growing steadily. In 1996 they comprised 43 per cent of the Japanese population in the UK, up almost 9 per cent from 1995.

For many of London's Japanese, the Yaohan mall was an expensive anachronism. "I went to Yaohan once or twice at the start," says Kazuo Udagawa, a Japanese teacher at the MOA Foundation in Piccadilly, "but it's just too far away and too expensive."

Others complained about the range of imported goods available, and the quality. "When I buy food in the supermarket, it's often past its use- by date," says Keiko Yoshizawa, an architecture student in Colindale.

So poor was the Japanese response that in 1995 the mall changed its name to the Oriental Plaza, opening its floor space to restaurants and stalls representing London's other Asian communities. Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Malaysian stands now jostle for space among the sushi bars and okonomiyaki counters of the once exclusively-Japanese food court. The Chinese community now represents Yaohan's main customer base.

"The spirit went out the window after the first year," commented a source who preferred to remain anonymous, blaming low morale for many of the company's woes. "It's sad when a place like this, with a certain mystique and attraction for English people, disintegrates from within."

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