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Entrepreneur taps his foreign nature

Exercise in success: American exploits his non-Japaneseness in adoptive country

by Minoru Matsutani

Harry Hill, president of TV shopping channel operator Oak Lawn Marketing Inc., received a lot of discouraging comments from Japanese when he thought about selling the “Billy’s Boot Camp” exercise DVDs.

“People say, ‘We Japanese don’t do that.’ It’s amazing. Does everybody in Japan think the same?” Hill, 46, a resident of Nagoya, said near the company’s Tokyo office in Minato Ward. “I’m an entrepreneur who sees opportunity which others see as problems,” he said. “The worst that could happen is I fail.”

That DVD alone earned ¥20 billion for Oak Lawn Marketing in 2007 and many kinds of physical exercise DVDs have since been put on sale as other companies hoped to take a slice of the market pioneered by “Billy’s Boot Camp.”

Having been an entrepreneur for most of his career, he started out as an English teacher — in Gifu Prefecture in 1985.

“I was a celebrity in Gifu. I was in a local TV show. Compared with now, there was tremendous curiosity” among Japanese in remote areas toward foreigners, he said.

Hill must have enjoyed teaching English: He went to more than 200 junior high and high schools in Gifu in 1985 and 1986. That’s almost every existing junior high and high school there, he said.

He was also attending a “shorinji” martial arts dojo then, one of the reasons he became interested in Japan when he was a student at New York’s Cornell University.

In August 1985, just a few months after he came to Japan, he met his future wife, Yumiko, at the dojo. Before marrying her in June 1988, her family refused to see him so he had a hard time finding a “nakoudo,” the matchmaker essential in a traditional Japanese wedding, he said.

After being rejected by many people, the couple’s shorinji teacher finally agreed to fill the role.

“The nakoudo and her father spoke two hours and Yumiko and I never said a word. We were all in the same room, in ‘seiza’ (Japanese formal sitting) position,” Hill said of the meeting between the four in which the nakoudo persuaded her father to let her marry Hill.

“The nakoudo told her father that he (Hill) is a good guy and so on. After the two hours, we drank beer together.”

Shortly after the wedding, Hill and his wife moved to New York and he began working for the now-defunct Yamaichi Securities Co. on Wall Street. But after only two years he quit and returned to Japan.

“After working for Yamaichi, I learned that I cannot work for a company. It would be too long for me to get power and responsibility” in a company, he said.

In explaining why he returned to Japan, he said: “I know how to bring the U.S. to Japan. I thought that skill set would be better used in Japan.”

Hill chose Nagoya because it is the largest city near Gifu. Upon arriving in Nagoya in 1990, he set up a company organizing sports events and inviting foreign athletes. He already had some concrete business plans because Gifu prefectural officials had contacted him about project ideas when he was with Yamaichi.

“I knew there was a business chance in people exchanges between Japan and foreign countries. I built connections with many people in Gifu for the business,” he said.

Many of his projects were successful partly because “it was a bubble economy,” he said.

One that he particularly remembers is arranging a baseball dream team game in which legendary players, including Sadaharu Oh, Shigeo Nagashima and Shoichi Kaneda, took on foreigners who used to play in Japan, including Randy Bass and Bob Horner. Bass played with the Hanshin Tigers in the 1980s and Horner with the Yakult Swallows.

Hill recalls he was supposed to serve as an interpreter for Bass during a scheduled appearance on TV Asahi’s popular “News Station” program, the predecessor of today’s “Hodo Station.” But Bass failed to show up, and host Hiroshi Kume got really angry with Hill, he said.

Still, the baseball game was a success — both for his business and personally. He was happy to get a ball autographed by Oh, Nagashima, Kaneda, Bass and Horner. A Yomiuri Shimbun employee told him it is probably the only one of its kind, he said.

Hill ran his company until 1997 and then moved to the U.S. again because he “got tired of Japan.”

But he returned to Japan in 1999 to join Oak Lawn Marketing, founded in 1993 by an old friend, Robert Roche. After helping expand the business, he became its president in June 2006.

As a longtime resident of Japan, Hill advises foreigners to look for opportunities that arise from being a foreigner, instead of feeling disadvantaged.

“You have to look (at) what opportunity you have because you are foreigner. I have opportunity because I speak Japanese and I understand Japanese culture. I have opportunity because I am very creative, I have opportunity (sometimes) because being a foreigner . . . means there are less barriers,” he said.

“Sometimes, when foreigners are in Japan, they actually don’t take advantage of that,” he said. “They think about ‘how can I be more like Japanese.’ That is (the) wrong way to look at (the situation).”

Hill and his wife have two sons and three daughters, aged 18, 16, 15, 12 and 10. All engage actively in sports, as Hill hoped.

“I feel that athletics is important in development,” he said. All three girls play basketball, the 18-year-old son plays baseball and kick boxes, and the 10- year-old son plays soccer.