There would be no Japan Centre or Shoryu without intrepid entrepreneur Tak Tokumine. Heralding from Fukuoka in southern Japan, he came to the UK in the 1970s for love, but his ambition and passion led him to establishing London’s premier Japanese food hall and more recently, the Michelin recommended and unstoppable Shoryu Ramen. We sat down with Tak over a cup of freshly ground matcha tea to find out more about the man behind Japan Centre.
Where did the Japan Centre vision begin?
It was in February 1993, on a visit to Germany. My existing business established in 1976 and based in Central London was in a state of transition. I encountered a place which was a complex including a Japanese hotel and bookstore but not selling food.
I was inspired by this, but it was important for me to incorporate wider varieties into my Japan Centre concept, such as a department store and foodhall, as these are where my passions lie.
I changed my company name to Japan Centre Group Ltd in March 1993. I still keep this change of name certificate with me. It was a significant step for me.
What do you think people of the UK like best about Japan Centre?
I believe people like the combination of the variety of goods and the authenticity of our presentation. They are also excited by the distinctive nature of our goods. Many people are interested in Japanese culture and therefore are curious about Japanese products. There are unique items in Japan Centre which intrigues our customers.
Tak making mochi at Japan Centre traditional New Year celebrations.
How has this changed over the years?
I believe as tastes for Japanese cuisine grow, people are increasingly seeking greater variety and real, authentic, quality products.
When I began the business in 1976, we were mostly catering to Japanese ex-pats living in the UK. Things have changed a lot though and now the people of the UK are very familiar with Japanese food and products, so are increasingly looking for great variety from all over Japan. We offer this at Japan Centre.
What are 3 or 4 of your favourite things we sell at Japan Centre?
First and foremost, our wonderful range of sake, which is one of the largest in Europe and which I am very proud of. I am also a big fan of our tofu range and the options from our meat counter, which is great for sourcing meat cut in the traditional Japanese method such as thinly sliced for shabu-shabu and our marbled wagyu beef cut perfectly for yakiniku.
What is your funniest or most memorable moment in almost 40 years of Japan Centre?
One day, something was broken at 212 Piccadilly shop, and I called Alan from the construction company we worked with. I waited outside for an assistant when I was approached by a young casually dressed English boy who said “here I am.” I assumed he was Alan and asked him where his tools were, to which he replied “I don’t have any.” I gave him £60 to buy tools and off he went… and never came back.
Then the real Alan turned up to make the repair.
What I mean by this is that I was doing a great deal of this work on my own, so I was so busy that I had no time to think about who this guy was!
Japanese food is becoming ever more popular in the UK. Is this a trend that’s set to grow or dwindle in your opinion?
This trend will certainly grow more and more, for a very simple reason. Nowadays, not only adults, but children are eating Japanese food. This means Japanese food will be supported well by future generations who have developed a taste for it.
Japan Centre is very much a family business. How does this impact proceedings?
Any business starts as a family business and working with family is important to me. Indeed, my daughter Hannah works as the Managing Director of Japan Centre and Shoryu, whilst my niece Mimi is the manager of Shoryu Soho and will soon work at the new Shoryu in Liverpool Street. My son Simon set up Japan Centre Online together with Hannah, which is now an established business offering home delivery of Japanese goods. I have also worked closely with my brother, also a businessman, who flies over once a month from Japan to help with new ideas for Japan Centre.
Eventually, the business will grow into a company and no longer operate as a small family business.
It is imperative to keep up the quality at all times, regardless of any situation, family or not. The business will survive and grow with quality and a personal touch. Therefore, we need to pay attention to details.
It is also important to regard customers as if they are your own family or children. This will lead us to a higher quality of restaurant and business.
Your newest achievement has been bringing Hakata Tonkotsu ramen to Londoners with Shoryu Ramen. Why do you think Shoryu has been so successful?
I have had a dream since I came here in 1976 and it grew into a passion: to bring Tonkotsu Ramen into the UK. I believed I was the only one who could do it since I came from Fukuoka, the area of Japan where Tonkotsu Ramen originated. Rather than doing it just for money which can result in a loss of quality and authenticity, I simply wanted to let the people know and try Tonkotsu Ramen. Whilst others offer soy and miso ramen in the same establishment, our head chef Kanji (also from Hakata) insists that we should not, and I agree with him.
What is your favourite dish at Shoryu?
Simple basic Tonkotsu ramen. Just soup with noodles and spring onions, that is all. Then I can taste the soup flavour and noodle quality.
What is your vision for the future of Japan Centre and Shoryu Ramen? World domination?
My passion is to retain great quality whilst always seeking to raise quality more and more. I do not want to get involved in any business where quality is unsustainable. Growing large is fine but it is only good where quality is retained.
I often think of Richard Branson. When he started Virgin Airlines, many people said it would be a banana company. But his innovative idea to bring new services and improve quality led to his success today, though some of the ‘large boys’ (meaning big companies) tried to squash him to pieces. He fought them and won – we need spirit like him to keep up our company.
I remember I met him and we talked about what he should do next after Virgin airlines and he has delivered it: a very good, reliable and innovative railway company – Virgin Trains.
Without seeking higher and even higher quality, success does not last. All the past efforts will be wasted, and we fail.
Desert Island Discs question – list one book, one record and one luxury that you couldn’t live without on a desert island.
Book: Book of Zen
Record: Susan Boyle, I dreamed a dream
I like an underdog. People like Sue are the people who suffered and waited for a long time. I relate to them because I also suffered and waited a long time. Though you could say I was born with a silver spoon in Japan, I left it all behind when I was 26 to come to the UK to start from scratch.
Luxury: iPad. Although do I get electricity too? No? Let’s negotiate.
Arigatou gozaimasu Tak! 2015 is sure to be a busy year for the Ramen Shogun, with brand new Shoryu Liverpool Street opening in mid-April and exciting plans to open up the largest Japan Centre yet by next spring. One thing’s for sure; Tak Tokumine is one entrepreneur with big visions for the future.