Den Fujita

Founder of McDonald's Japan
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The Independent Online

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