The Japanese delegation approaches, a body of suits surrounding the man I recognise from prior research as Hirotake Yano. I extend my hand towards him but he shakes his head, points to a colleague and sits down at the table reserved for our interview. A laughing translator takes pity on me.
“He wanted to trick you by pretending that the young man is the company founder,” he says. As we take our seats, he continues with the quiet aside, “Let’s go easy because he’s not good at being serious.”
And that is how I met the founder of Daiso Industries, the multibillion-dollar retail franchise that is Japan’s answer to dollar stores.
The sharply dressed Yano is the antithesis of the sombre Japanese businessman stereotype. For one, never before has an interviewee pulled out colourful toys — a plastic beetle and centipede — from their pocket and thrown them across the table at me. “Icebreaker,” explains our interpreter succinctly. He exchanges a few words with Yano and then looks sheepishly at me again. “I’m sorry, he will need those back later.”
And just in case the ice is not sufficiently thawed, Yano holds up his index finger, pulls yet more paraphernalia out of his pocket à la Doraemon and executes a quick magic trick that leaves us laughing, mostly because he very obviously got a kick out of performing it.
The septuagenarian often has a literal trick up his sleeve, it turns out.
“That’s what makes me, me,” he says. “I love jokes, I am a joke.”
There is nothing funny about the empire he has built, however. Founded in 1977 as a humble discount store selling a multitude of items at a fixed ¥100, Daiso currently boasts over 5,000 outlets in 28 countries with a good third of them based in Japan. Its concept might be far from original, but the privately owned company distinguishes itself through relentless innovation and the surprisingly high quality of its own-brand goods. Daiso is said to create 700 new products a month, spanning categories such as household essentials, stationery, art and craft, electronics, hardware and health and beauty. It even has a dedicated Kawaii category that celebrates Japan’s culture of cuteness, expressed in twee, charming aesthetics.
For the full story, pick up a copy of The Edge Malaysia (June 8, 2020) at your nearest news stand. Save by subscribing to us for your print and/or digital copy.