Den Fujita

Founder of McDonald's Japan

Den Fujita, businessman: born Osaka, Japan 1926; chief executive, McDonald's Japan 1971-2003; died Tokyo 21 April 2004.

As founder of McDonald's Japan, Den Fujita was the original American-style business tycoon in post-war Japan.

Born in 1926, he was from Osaka. The Japanese say that "Kyoto people spend all their money on clothes; Osaka people spend all their money on food." Certainly Osaka men in particular are traditionally thought to be very money-conscious and shrewd bargainers. Their practical and very materialistic nature is well known. Den Fujita was business acumen personified.

He studied in the prestigious law department of Tokyo University, where he at once put his financial instincts to work. While still a student, he astounded everyone by opening in 1950 a speciality shop selling imported high-quality sundry goods. It was a big success, because in those early post-war years foreign goods were scarce and attractively exotic.

There were still few foreign businesses in Tokyo at that time. But Fujita's ambition was unbounded, and his English was fairly fluent. He sensed that foreign firms might be seeking for an opening in Japanese markets, and enterprisingly approached one of the biggest names - McDonald's Hamburgers. In 1971, he finally negotiated with the company to open its first Japanese outlet, Japan/McDonald Co Ltd.

He boldly chose the expensive, high-class Ginza district of Tokyo, with its elegant Mitsukoshi department store, as the site for his first Japanese "Golden Arches". Within 10 years, he had raised his hamburger shops to first place among all foreign and Japanese food distribution industries. By then, every Japanese shopping centre had its McDonald's. Fujita-san had fulfilled his ambition to woo the rice-loving Japanese away to burger buns.

He became the Japanese equivalent of the American "charismatic" manager. His sayings almost became national mottoes: "It's money that wins in the end" and "Success is given equally to all, if you work at it for 24 hours a day as I do".

However, there was a flip side to Fujita. I was surprised to come across his name in an excellent book I was reviewing for The Times Literary Supplement entitled The Jews and the Japanese: the successful outsiders (1991), by Professor Ben-Ami Shillony. Shillony describes how these two peoples, both rich in cultural heritage and historical developments, interacted with the Christian West. He reviews their outstanding achievements and their immense tragedies, as well as their many attempts to integrate with the West, and the West's repeated rejections of their advances.

I came across the name of Den Fujita in one of the final chapters, entitled "A New Wave of Japanese Anti-Semitism?" The Jews had always been something of a mystery or an intriguing puzzle to the Japanese, uneasy about their own wartime association with Nazi Germany and its anti-Semitic "ideology". The Holocaust enlightened the Japanese, who had had no knowledge of it until the war was over. But, wrote Shillony,

the old stereotypes of the Jews did not vanish in Japan. In 1972, Fujita Den, a leading businessman and president of McDonald's in Japan, published Udaya no Shoho ("Jewish Trade Practices") in which he urged Japanese businessmen to be more aggressive. "The Japanese," he wrote, "must abandon their shyness and self-restraint and learn from the Jews how to be shrewd and unscrupulous."

When taken up on these points, Fujita denied that he was anti-Semitic, claiming that he himself was "a Jew of the Ginza".

However, the Japanese business community held Fujita up as a model of innovative entrepreneurship and a genius of marketing astuteness. He became a sort of national hero when he urged Japanese businessmen to introduce Western-style (i.e. American-style) business methods, which were then considered revolutionary by the ultra-orthodox Japanese company heads.

Fujita adopted the American "hands-on" management techniques, often paying surprise visits to McDonald's joints in person, charming staff and customers with his vivacious patter. He would be photographed flourishing a hamburger - but we never saw him actually eating one. Sporting a wide grin, he would pose next to a staff member dressed as Ronald McDonald: it became hard to tell which was the real clown.

But, with the gradual economic slump, the hamburger craze began to wane. Fashion-conscious young Japanese found their favourite food fattening, and older ones were worried about its effects on the heart. Then came the "mad cow" epidemic, and Fujita adopted the market strategy of cutting his prices. But even the offer of "gourmet coffee" in china cups instead of cardboard beakers failed to reverse the trend.

Nothing daunted, Fujita turned to another American business success, the toyshops called Toys R Us. Eventually, in 2003 he resigned from his position at McDonald's, which brought in a new All-American staff, and business began to pick up.

Towards the close of his turbulent existence, this first great modern Japanese tycoon made a very Oriental wish: "I should like to fall gently, as the petals of the cherry blossoms fall." As always he got his wish.

James Kirkup

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
football
News
Hillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Sport
wimbledonScot will face Ivo Karlovic next
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test