Harry Kosato on the Reputation of Places, Country-of-Origin Brands and How He Is Bringing Japan to India

How can you use a country’s unique attributes as inspiration for a place brand, or a business idea? In this interview, Harry Kosato, Managing Director of La Ditta Limited, shares his experience of how to make one country’s citizens curious about another one – through food and interactive events.

He also highlights how having studied at Oxford University has become a real door opener and how his multicultural background has helped him come up with unique ideas. Plus: trends which place leaders should bear in mind in this new decade.

Harry, Nancy Snow in an article for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan journal referred to you as “Mr. World”. How does it feel to be a man of many cultures?

Nancy is nice, too nice. Borders, in my opinion, are “in the mind”. There used to be no borders. I heard that modern passports only started in 1414. Mr. World? Truly, I am privileged. I consider myself a human first. Of course, culture has a lot to do with your identity, but the ability to transcend borders easily and to interact with so many different people is a real treat.

I love the World. I am so lucky. And I think the more you travel, the more open you become, and the fewer stereotypes you tend to hold. That I think is more and more important.

However, governments, when the economy is down or to win votes, may want to look inwards and build borders, but that does not bode well. More globalization, more openness is better, I think.

My Mr. World phrase comes from an international, open, and great education and so many experiences. I really appreciate that. First and foremost, I owe my parents and family and many friends and colleagues and people who I’ve worked with, like Richard Branson and James Dyson. These people are the people who have made me who I am, and I am eternally grateful to all.

You are widely known as “Mr. Harry of Oxford”. What role does the university play in your life?

Actually, it is an interesting question. When I was just graduating from Oxford, a British gentleman once said to me “You don’t know it yet, but you, an Oxford graduate, will have an unfair advantage in life.” I laughed it off, I could not understand what he meant then. But by around my late 20s and early 30s, I came to understand that Oxford opened so many doors. So many experiences and so many people I have met through the “Oxford connection”. There are few people in the world who do not know Oxford as a name (such is its success at branding, the oldest University in the English language) and it is a good conversation starter (really!).

In fact, I used to not mention I was from Oxford until I was around 36 years old, but started to as my Oxford alumni senior said to me, you have to use all your resources in order to be successful, and since you did go to Oxford, you should let those around you know of that fact. It has opened so many doors, and it has given me access to so many things I could not have possibly imagined, because of the Oxford name, connection.

I made so many friends at University, and even now, both current students and alumni, and even aspiring students to Oxford, like our daughter Riko, the Oxford name resonates. This Oxford lineage, is I must say, has given me an unfair advantage in many respects, which I appreciate. And also importantly, I feel responsibility to do more, contribute more, and be able to make real impact in our World.

Even the most mobile nomads like to come back to places where they feel at home. Where do you call home?

I believe you have to live in a place for a few years for you to call it home. For me, I have multiple homes. Japan, India, Singapore, and England, may I say, are my homes – where I feel comfortable coming back.

Of course, Kobe in Japan is where I was born, so that holds a special place in my heart: comfort food, familiar roads, restaurants where I have been going for over 30 years..!

As organizer of the annual Cool Japan Festival in India, you have managed to attract large crowds. What message do you hope for the Indian audience to take away from the event?

It was my dream to bring Japan and many things Japan to India. I never thought 150,000 people would come. The Government of Japan, through the Cool Japan initiative, initially supported with funds and then we were on our own. Kudos and many thanks to our many sponsors over the years.

But I must admit I sank our own funds to continue the event for years. I must mention that it was people like Narendra Kumar – India’s top designer and Amazon India Creative Director, and Miss World Japan, Chika Nakagawa, and our amazing team headed by Anuj Jodhani, who helped take the event to its success.

Message-wise we want to say to all, do come and visit Japan, enjoy her food, come and find amazing incredible things: be it music, calligraphy, culture, anime, cosplay, the new and old, traditional and modern, Japan has so much to offer!

We want to continue it but we need supporters and sponsors! Call me.

With ‘Sushi and More’ you’ve done the seemingly impossible: making sushi and other Japanese culinary treats popular in India: how?

It really is. But that is progress. I think people should remember that the world was flat at some point. And that the Americans won’t ever use Kikkoman soy sauce. But look at what has happened? Growth and fulfillment of potential are based on belief as well as persistence.

We now see kids in Indian families demand sushi once a week. Unthinkable 10 years ago. And so is the human mind, it really cannot fathom what will happen 10 years from now, at least not that well.

But I think we are simply catering to demand. More Indians are travelling and when they do, they come across sushi. It is healthy. It is cool. It is addictively tasty, so that is why Sushi and More exists and we have just opened our 7th outlet. It has taken time, but we believe we will continue to grow.

We serve about 80,000 meals a year through delivery, take-away, catering, parties, weddings, sushi demonstration and cooking classes, etc. And this number is set to grow year on year. That is why we want to do 100 stores, step by step! And I now think it is possible, as India is growing. But back in 2007 no one really believed it was possible!

We frequently hear references to this being the “Asian Century”. Do you think this is justified?

For sure. But that does not mean that Europe or the US or Africa or the Middle East or South America are not important. There are going to be pockets of wealth and development and importance everywhere, but with a focus on Asia.

Another project of yours is ‘Me For The World’: what is it about?

This is a project that has recently been accepted by the Oxford University Innovation Startup Accelerator program and I am working with a bright young intern from King’s College London, Ms. Asha Naradate.

Simply, it is a tool to get young kids to start to think about savings and donations, concurrently, by placing a physical piggy bank box – which we have called the Charity Savings Bank Box – with two slots, one For Me and one For The World. This is placed in the home and it forces kids at an early stage to balance savings and donations. Simple, yet effective, and no one has ever done this.

As a social psychology student, I think this is a powerful reminder to kids to donate and save at the same time, balancing the two actions.

What lessons do you have for place leaders keen to link their brand(ing) to social causes and sustainability?

Leaders, I think have that responsibility of balance. Sustainability is on everyone’s minds, but still, there is much more to be done. I think we have to move mountains and change actions drastically in order to move people, organisations, and nations towards sustainability. But we have to start somewhere.

Take use of chopsticks or cutlery – now I try to carry my own set of cutlery and use it instead of using single-use chopsticks or plastics. But this is just me. And it will need a real educational drive and incentives by the government and all to change habits.

Which main trends do you observe right now which you think will impact the work and success of place branding professionals in the years ahead?

Interesting question. I think truly that you have to have the experience: both bad, challenging, super-challenging, good, great, sad, fantastic, and at all levels.

I remember as a student at the LSE [London School of Economics and Political Science], collecting garbage from 48 student flats at Butler’s Wharf Residence every Sunday. That means going into each of the flats and picking up the garbage and taking it down to the basement.

You learn from the “genba” as the Japanese say, or in other words, the “shop floor”, or “the scene where it all happens, on the ground”. I think you need to really be in tune with the market and the consumer and the staff and the industry – and be up to date on what is happening 360 degrees around you, in order to lead.

As for trends, I would say the three most important are: 1) speed 2) real value and real story 3) amazing experiences. These trends coupled with a move to use data in order to curate the best products and services and solutions for customers.

In your bestseller book with Singapore-based investor Jim Rogers,“Warning to Japan”, you share Jim’s assessments regarding the brand strength and economic competitiveness of Japan. Reflecting on what has been shared in the book, what would you tell foreign investors and talent, currently considering the country for their next (ad)venture?

Considering Japan? Japan is still a very rich country and has a lot of potential. That being said, unfortunately, it has a declining population. That means fewer and fewer people are concerned about better and better quality, perhaps and will be more discerning, and hence it will be a tougher market to crack.

I would maybe take techniques and ideas and technology from Japan and adapt it to the world. I think that is where the money is. That being said, you can still make a lot of money in Japan, but I think the potential lies in leveraging value from Japan to the world.

Something like sushi is now an international movement and has made millions of dollars around the world. But it is a Japanese invention that some smart entrepreneurs have been able to take to the four corners and make a real impact for all.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

Thank you for thinking about me and for inviting me to answer some of your great questions. It is an honor.

Thank you, Harry.

Connect with Harry on LinkedIn.

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