Den Fujita: How McDonald’s Japan Became a Reality

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Written By David Jay
A future med student, I write to learn.
Den Fujita wearing his signature safety helmet, 1986

McDonald’s is one of the largest fast-food chains in the world due to its sheer size, significance, and popularity. Its success as a global brand and an economic powerhouse stemmed from its commercial success over half a century ago. After 1940, when the McDonald brothers formed the company, the franchise began its steady growth with its Speedee Service System, opening outlets across the United States.

Ray Kroc bought out the Mcdonald brothers in 1961 — with a cool $1 million dollars for each brother. As CEO of McDonald’s between 1967 and 1973, his policies expanded the business internationally due to its economic opportunities and growing publicity. After the first venue opened in Canada in June 1967, McDonald’s began its rapid growth through franchising with an insightful partner local to the country.

Japan opened its first McDonald’s location, which is the first Asia outlet, on July 21st, 1971 by none other than Den Fujita (藤田 田), a prominent Osakan businessman.

Den Fujita was responsible for the founding of McDonald’s Japan, Fujita & Company Ltd., SoftBank, and Toy “R” Us Japan.

Because of his contribution to the company, McDonald’s became a household name in Japan, generating approximately $2.8 billion today.

How Fujita was Fujita

Faculty of Law, University of Tokyo

On the 3rd of March, 1926, Den Fujita was born to an affluent family in Osaka. He had a father, an engineer at a British company, who taught him English, his second language. During the bombing raids of WWII, one-third of Osaka was destroyed. The Fujita home was destroyed — Den Fujita’s father and his two sisters perished.

As a devout Methodist, Den Fujita’s path out of despair was in building a church, something her church had never had. After the end of the war, she succeeded in her quest and inspired Fujita to never give in to despair. Heeding her advice, Fujita became an outstanding student in his year and managed to be accepted into the Faculty of Law at the most prestigious university in Japan, the University of Tokyo.

During his university years, he discovered that one of the highest-paying occupations was working as an English translator for American soldiers stationed in Japan. As a bilingual, Fujita climbed the ranks until he was positioned in General MacArthur’s headquarters, otherwise known as GHQ, in downtown Tokyo.

Den Fujita completed his education at the University of Tokyo’s law school in 1951.

Fujita & Company

When the United States occupied Japan for democratization, almost every commodity was rationed to citizens, and imports were highly regulated, resulting in massive demands for luxury goods and little competition. Noticing opportunity in the midst of regulation, Fujita began selling his wares to American soldiers and established Fujita & Company, an independent trading company, in 1950 (even before graduating from UTokyo).

Unlike his classmates, who mostly became bureaucrats or businessmen, Fujita became a full-time entrepreneur at his own company upon graduation. He believed that postwar Japan’s culture and products were obsolete compared to western countries such as America.

As a result, Fujita & Company was focused on imported luxury goods, especially women’s clothing and accessories.

Fujita & Company became a pioneering importer and wholesaler of nonessential products for the entire island nation of Japan. The company was the sole importer of Dior handbags and the biggest client in Dior’s history. In 1960, Fujita & Company reached ¥40 million, which is roughly $1.53 million today — with only 15 employees.

From a Small Fry to Big Fries

When Fujita was visiting the United States for a business meeting in 1967, he tried McDonald’s for the first time and loved it; he was amazed by the cleanliness and speediness of the service. When Fujita heard about McDonald’s expansion in Japan in 1970, he wanted in, so he began building connections with the company.

Steven Barnes, a chairman of McDonald’s International, was traveling around Japan to interview candidates for the partnership for the company’s joint venture. With many competitors, composed of minor and major trading companies and magnates, it had seemed that Fujita’s chances were slim.

Against all odds, Fujita was chosen by Barnes to be a partner. Barnes explained that Fujita’s sheer dedication and approachable personality were what made him the perfect associate, unlike other candidates who only saw the expansion as a business opportunity.

In May of 1971, McDonald’s had invested $150,000 ($1.1 million in 2022) and Den Fujita contributed with a fresh Japanese bakery valued at $35,000.

McDonald’s: the Square Peg in a Round Hole

Starting the franchise in Japan was difficult due to the country’s massive cultural differences. Furthermore, no other international fast-food companies had ever opened in Japan or Asia for that matter, so Fujita had to start without a blueprint.

The first order of business was to make McDonald’s appear to be Japanese to attract local customers. Fujita changed the name of the franchise — McDonald’s — to “Makudonarudo” to fit the Japanese dialect. Ronald McDonald, the company mascot became Donald McDonald.

During Fujita’s meeting with McDonald’s executives at the company headquarters in Illinois, an argument broke out about the location of the first location. The executives proposed the US pattern, which is building stores in suburban areas as drive-thru services staked financial statements at the end of the fiscal year. However, Fujita reasoned that building outlets in dense areas would attract young pedestrians who were open to new concepts. Additionally, the outskirts of Tokyo would not be ideal as they were mostly populated by wealthy Japanese — the Japanese population who owned and drove cars in 1970s Japan.

Fujita was interested in Ginza, a fancy shopping district and tourist attraction, as it was in Tokyo. He was able to partner with Mitsukoshi, one of Japan’s oldest department store franchises, because of their past relations with Fujita & Company; Fujita was given 500 square feet of space on the ground floor of their department store in Ginza, but he was given only 39 hours to build his restaurant. Fujita immediately got to work. Executives and Kroc visited the first Japanese Mcdonald’s, only to be greeted by construction.

“We’re in big trouble. We’re opening in two days and nothing is there.”

Ray Kroc

By working ’round the clock, Fujita managed to open Japan’s first McDonald’s store on July 20th, 1971 — on time. Lines formed outside of the restaurant, even though the only method of advertising had been handing out leaflets.

The locals loved it.

Within a month, the international daily sales record was broken by the Tokyo-Ginza location, shocking everyone, including Kroc with its sales.

Makudonarudo: the Round Peg in the Round Hole

Teriyaki Chicken Filet-O Set, exclusive to Japan

After the success of the first outlet, Fujita contributed to the rapid expansion throughout Tokyo, then the entirety of Japan. The second store, sitting nearby the ever-busy Shinjuku station, had opened three days after the first one, and another restaurant was ready a day later after the second opening. Prior to all of the openings in 1971, Fujia had established Hamburger University, a school that teaches staff managers and owner-operators to manage their restaurants.

Later on in his career, Fujita planned new menus which incorporated local favorites into the meals, notably the rice dishes, and experimented with many menus to find the next Big Mac of Japan, for example, hot dogs, shrimp burgers, or fried chicken. He also decorated the stores to adopt an Americana design motif. In one instance, the new CEO, Fred Turner, was left baffled by how Fujita fashioned a location to look like a motorcycle gang hangout. Fujita realized that he didn’t have to change the whole Mcdonald’s model to be successful in Japan — he just had to alter the scene and adapt to Asian taste buds.

When in Japan, Do as the Jewish Do

Den Fujita brought American hamburgers and french fries to people who supposedly prefer rice. He brought large-scale discounting to people who were supposed to prefer high-priced neighborhood shops. When Japan’s exports were their bread and butter, Fujita was importing Dior, bringing luxury products to the hands of almost every upper-middle-class Japanese woman.

During his employment as an interpreter in General Macarthur’s Headquarters, Den Fujita had interacted with a wide range of Jewish-American soldiers. Furthermore, decades prior in Osaka, the Jewish community had already established itself in local businesses. For Fujita, the Jewish community represented exceedingly talented entrepreneurs and the biggest players in international finance.

With growing control in any market share, comes jealousy. Historic prejudice against Jews influenced Fujita to identify with the bias that some of the Jewish community had historically experienced. In Fujita’s case, regional discrimination between Osakans and Tokyoites existed in 1970s Japan. Fujita was regularly discriminated against for his Osakan accent. To boot, Fujita came from a wartorn household in a society where coming from an established family is incredibly important. To succeed, Fujita had hoped to integrate what he saw as the Jewish community’s successful working philosophies into his own business principles.

Fujita wrote his first business autobiography book titled The Jewish Way of Doing Business in 1972. In its first month, more than 200,000 copies were sold, and its publisher had to reprint the book 63 times. Over its lifespan, The Jewish Way of Doing Business has been purchased over one million times.

Later on, in his writing career, Fujita published seven more works, such as Stupid People Lose Money, How to Become Number One at Business, or How to Blow a Rich Man’s Bugle like the Jews Do.

Later on, Fujita faced allegations about antisemitism tones (e.g. stereotyping Jews as business experts) in his writings, and he responded:

“Please don’t misunderstand, I’m trying to do something good for the Jewish people. Most Jewish people speak two or three different languages. They’re good at mathematics. The Japanese should learn from that.”

Den Fujita

Behind the Face of McDonald’s Japan

Den Fujita in his 60s

Fujita was a unique CEO, relentlessly promoting McDonald’s on television by using unusual ways to convince watchers to eat at his restaurants. His advertisements were purposefully ridiculous and comedic to attract everyone’s attention.

“The reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is that they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for two thousand years…if we eat McDonald’s hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years we will become taller, our skin become white, and our hair blonde.”

Den Fujita

Behind the scenes, Fujita was considered to be a tranquil family man. He was married to his wife, Etsuko, his high school crush. They had two sons named Gen and Kan, who later on worked in Fujita’s company. Fujita and his family lived peacefully in a small upper-class neighborhood, living simply. Even if he was the Dior baron of Japan, he usually sported a $6 Casio watch. Fujita was known to be very hardworking, toiling 12 hours a day and working from his car. Fujita also had an intense fear of earthquakes, which is the reason he always wore his iconic safety helmet and distributed them to his new employees.

With Fujita’s heavy involvement with McDonald’s, the company blossomed into a fast-food giant in Japan. The first branch in 1971 generated ¥205 million ($4.3 million today). In 1980, the company profited ¥50 billion ($1 billion today). Roughly eleven years after its opening, McDonald’s became the largest fast-food franchise in Japan, surpassing the incumbent leaders, Yoshinoya, KFC, and Lotteria. Between 1971 and 1999, there were more than 3,000 establishments across Japan with two stores opening every week. In 2003, Fujita & Co., LTD reached a net worth of $1 billion.

Side Hustles

Masayoshi Son, founder and CEO of Softbank

Masayoshi Son was a 16-year-old high schooler when Fujita was expanding Mcdonald’s throughout Japan. Masayoshi had called Fujita’s office frequently to schedule meetings with Fujita his requests were frequently denied by Fujita’s secretaries. As long-distance interviews were expensive, Son decided to fly over to Tokyo and walk into Fujita’s office unannounced. Masayoshi said to Fujita that he could continue working but, “I just wanted to see your face for three minutes.”

Oddly enough, Fujita took up the offer. When Masayoshi found himself in Fujita’s office, he asked for advice on how he should pursue his career and what he should study for. Fujita replied:

“Computers! Don’t look at the past, look at the future industries. The computer industry, that’s the one you should focus on.”

Den Fujita’s advice to Masayoshi Son

Inspired by practical advice from his new mentor, Masayoshi Son returned to the United States to complete his high school education within three weeks in Serramonte High, then on to graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, with a BA in economics and “promptly” moved back to Japan. On September 1981, Masayoshi Son established SoftBank Corp., a software distributor startup, which went on to become SoftBank Corp (SFTBY), with a market cap of $76.430 billion today, investing in 331 technical companies, such as NVIDIA, Bytedance, and Uber.

Den Fujita served on the SoftBank board for many years.

SoftBank Corp (SFTBY)
SoftBank’s new headquarters, located at Minato City, Tokyo

Den Fujita and Toys “R” Us

As economic pressure built up between Japan and America, Japan finally opened up its borders to international companies, and Toy “R” Us, was seeking expansion in Japan. During the planning phase in 1981, the company directors were increasingly aware of Fujita’s impact on then-modern Japan. Eventually, Fujita was offered a position as a vice-chairman in 1989 by executives. After two years, the first Toys “R” Us Japanese branch was opened in the outskirts of Japan as a joint venture between Toy “R” Us and McDonald’s Japan, with McDonald’s taking 20% of the company’s profits.

“To be honest with you, we’d followed him and knew about him. He was not only our first choice, but our second, third, fourth, fifth and so on. After our first meeting we felt even more so that he was the right partner. We could see that he was a bit of a maverick. He was not only bilingual, but bicultural. He saw the potential for our business there immediately. He shared our impatience for trying to get it growing.”

Robert Nakasone, Vice Chairman of Toy “R” Us, on Fujita

A Toy “R” Us outlet in Odaiba, Tokyo

Retirement, Death, and Legacy

Fujita retired from McDonald’s Japan on March 23rd, 2003, then passed away at the age of 78 due to heart disease on April 24th, 2004. Den Fujita left a legacy of revolutionary methodologies, changing the business climate of Japan.

In 2022, Fujita & Company Ltd. still stands, generating ¥3.3 billion ($21 million) annually with a total of 29 employees in 2019. Fujita & Company Ltd. has expanded into real estate, other luxury goods, and sports equipment. In 1995, the company has also become an exclusive importer and wholesaler of Tie Rack Inc., the world’s largest necktie company.

A modern McDonald’s restaurant in Japan

Fujita’s biggest achievement, McDonald’s Japan, has become a household name, known almost everywhere across the country. Thus far, the franchise has generated $2.77 billion in 2022.

In December 2021, over 2,300 employees worked at McDonald’s and more than 38,000 outlets were constructed.

As McDonald’s and western influence grew more prominent, Japanese cuisine changed. With more Westerners living in Japan after WWII, ingredients that were not native to Japan were incorporated into Japanese cuisine, fusing Japanese and American cuisine. As Mcdonald’s was the first western fast-food chain to set foot in Japan, eating etiquette changed to be more akin to American customs: using hands instead of chopsticks to eat, sitting on chairs and tables instead of cushions and low tables, and eating in a sit-down restaurant for a quick bite.

Would Mcdonald’s be what it is today without Den Fujita?

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