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The man who delivered pizza to Japan

Earnest Higa credits his bicultural nature for Domino's phenomenally successful integration

by Minoru Matsutani

Earnest Higa’s life is all about being bicultural in Japan and the United States. He has used this aspect of his character in his career, spending the past 24 years making sure U.S.-based Domino Pizza fits in Japan.

“I was lucky to have both cultural backgrounds,” the 56-year-old Hawaiian, who has spent three-quarters of his life in Japan, said in the Tokyo office of his company, Higa Industries.

Born in Honolulu to second-generation Japanese immigrants, Higa moved to Geneva at the age of 7 and two years later came to Tokyo, where he lived for nine years and attended the American School in Japan in Chofu.

“I played at the Tokyo American Club, and all my friends were American. So I was in a very insulated ‘gaijin’ (foreigner) society as a student,” said Higa, who looks very Japanese. “The unfortunate thing is that I didn’t really study language and didn’t get into Japanese culture during that period of time. I was in a gaijin bubble.”

Then he studied at undergraduate and graduate schools in the U.S. and returned to Japan in 1976 at age 24.

“When I came back in 1976, I realize that in order to succeed in business here, I have to as much as possible try to learn Japanese culture and language. I regret I didn’t do that earlier,” he said. “It was totally urgent to learn Japanese.”

He chose a path of entrepreneurship rather than working for a large company like the typical Japanese man. Despite his language handicap, Higa thrived in various kinds of businesses as he took advantage of his ethnic background and appearance.

“There were not many Asians (in Japan) then, so people thought I could speak Japanese because I look Japanese. Back then if you were a gaijin, you were a Caucasian. I was in a unique position. I was neither Japanese or American.

“In my business I was able to leverage that because I wasn’t 6 feet tall, didn’t have blue eyes and Japanese felt very comfortable with me. But because I wasn’t a Japanese, they gave me a lot of exceptions, no traditional rules,” he said.

As an example he cites major home builder Misawa Homes Co., which used him as a supplier when he was running a lumber import business in his late 20s.

“If I had been completely Japanese, they would not have listened to me,” he said. “In business, they pigeonhole you for how old you are, what college you went to, what company you work for and so on. Depending on those, they can screen you out, so you cannot see presidents of other companies,” he said.

He launched Domino Pizza in Japan in 1985, the first pizza delivery business in the nation. He says Domino would not have been the success it is now without his understanding of both Japanese and American culture.

“If I had brought the Domino Pizza concept straight from the U.S. to Japan, I would have failed. It was very important to adapt the concept and products for the Japanese marketplace,” he said.

“For example, we sell traditional pizzas with pepperoni and sausage, but we also sell pizzas with squid, seafood, mayonnaise and unique toppings that would be considered terrible in the U.S. But in Japan, those are preferred toppings.”

Also, he said, “Japanese eat with their eyes. So, presentation, how you put on the toppings, the color of the toppings, is important.” Accordingly, he came up with toppings that would look nice in pictures on menu fliers.

Convincing Domino’s U.S. executives wasn’t an easy task, and that’s where his bicultural nature came in handy.

“They were so successful in the U.S. They had a formula that led them to success, so they didn’t want to change it,” he said. “I had to spend a lot of time convincing them” to allow him to localize the toppings. He could convince the U.S. executives to go along with his plan because they realized he understands the Japanese market, he added.

Meanwhile, he copied some U.S. practices, including delivering pizza within 30 minutes.

Also, he made sure the menus weren’t too complicated because they have to be easy to understand for the firm’s 4,000 part-time workers.

In giving advice to foreign residents in business and personal life, Higa said, “It is important to recognize Japan is different. An attempt to learn Japanese is important. You should also try to understand the Japanese mentality.”

He also thinks Americans have an advantage in business because it is his belief that about 80 percent of globalization is Americanization.

“When you talk about international language, it’s English. When you talk about business itself, mentality, method of doing business, presentation skills, and so on, most of it is basically the American style,” he said.

He is married to a Japanese who had lived in New York for a few years before he met her. They have a son, 17, and two daughters, 13 and 11. All go to the American School in Japan like their father.

“I was brought up between Japan and America, so I needed a Japanese woman who understands the U.S. culture or an American woman who understands Japanese culture,” he said, adding that his wife is a perfect fit.

He wants his children not to worry about their national identities but to have a sensitivity for different cultures.

“When I grew up, it was very important to have my own identity. I had an identity crisis when I was in Geneva. I didn’t know who I was. Nowadays, it’s not important to have a national identity. So, for my children, they have no issue with identity. What’s more important is to have sensitivity and exposure to different cultures.”

He uses English when he talks with his children and his wife speaks to them in Japanese. The children’s Japanese is not as good as their English, but he is not overly worried because he thinks English is more important.

On weekends, besides spending time with his children, he likes to hang out with friends.

“I have gaijin friends, Japanese friends and ‘champon’ friends,” by which he means friends with whom he converses in mixed language, he said.

Overall, he is thankful for his bicultural nature, which led him to where he is. “There is big gap between Japanese mentality and U.S. mentality in business. You can get an interpreter in language, but you cannot get an interpreter in cultural difference.”