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Toru Otsuka

by Judit Kawaguchi

Toru Otsuka, 67, is the president of Live Coffee, a coffee importer and roaster known for selling the best beans for the least dough. Otsuka is a treasure hunter: he handpicks only the highest quality from small growers around the globe, and considers his best finds the people who work with him. His blends are as original as the man himself, and his fans and employees think he should be packaged and sold as a model president. That he has opened six coffee shops and sold over 20 franchises in Japan is accidental, as is the fact that world leaders will be sipping Live Coffee’s brews at the G8 Hokkaido Toyako Summit to be held at the lakeside Windsor Hotel Toya in July 2008. Hopefully they will wake up, smell the coffee, and resolve that fair trade and kindness should rule the world, not greed.

Listen to your mother: she knows you the most. Mine used to tell me that I was never gonna make money. She was right.

Profit is not money. A company needs a little profit only, not a lot. The real profit or benefit is giving merit and value to many people. I sell coffee for a quarter of the price department stores charge and 40 percent less than other coffee merchants. I do that so many people can enjoy the great coffee and low price. I don’t need to get rich, I just want to work. My accountant wants to see higher profits but he won’t.

Nobody is perfect so you shouldn’t expect too much from people. When I asked one of our employees to do some sales, he said he disliked that kind of work. That’s OK; nobody should be forced to do something they hate. I don’t mind selling so I do it. Two others frequently smoke outside the shop. It looks terrible but I don’t tell them. I just remind them that cigarettes are bad for their health so they should really quit, but they don’t listen. I accept people as they are. I just hope they polish their good attributes.

Trust is all that matters in life. My employees might not give the best smile or perfect service but all are honest, good people. That is value money can’t buy. On top of that, they really know coffee.

Children should do what they like. My father believed that children should be free to explore anything until age 20. Enjoying life is a kid’s job, he said. Mom disagreed but he never listened to her. He never told me to study at school but encouraged me to go wild, run in the mountains, fish in rivers. He expected me to be an independent man after age 20, making enough money to live alone. I did exactly that.

It’s easy to give advice but so hard to follow it. I know that it is wise not to hire first sons or first daughters, yet over two-thirds of my 30 employees are the first-born children in their families. They tend to be a bit selfish and expect lots of love and attention. I give them both.

Students study when they feel that a teacher sacrifices his or her time for them. I was a terrible student so in fifth grade my mother asked my teacher to tutor me privately. I started going to his house every night. Soon, over 20 kids were regulars at his house. It was like school but more fun. I hear that now it is illegal for teachers to help students after class and to invite them to their homes. How sad.

Timing is everything. Same with coffee: it takes 5 minutes to make a great cup of coffee. After 5 minutes, unwanted tastes come out, so it’s best is to pour the coffee into another container, away from the coffee grounds.

Quality speaks for itself and what it says keeps echoing longer than any promotion ever could. I never promote my company or my coffee — in 43 years this is my first-ever interview. The reason my coffee is so fantastic is thanks to its limited supply, so I can’t handle more orders. A few years ago The Windsor Hotel Toya invited me to Hokkaido because they loved our coffee and wanted to make a deal with us. But I worried about whether I could get enough good coffee to give them — and about the ¥60,000 airline ticket — so I kept refusing. Finally I went up and they have been our loyal customers ever since.

TV has no information we need. I want to know, for example, what is the best height for a ceiling to be so that people feel the most comfortable. I have many inquiries but no media in Japan has the answers. Why? That is the big question.

Birds know where to nest. If you see birdnests on the coffee field, you can bet the coffee will taste good. Big plantations have no birds, just earth flattened by giant bulldozers.

Believe your own taste! If you feel that something is delicious, then it is. Most people have no confidence in their own taste so they need experts telling them what is good. I went to Brazil to test coffee. The experts’explanations didn’t impress me. I bought what I liked and one by one they became hits. I also went to 10 places in Guatemala and sampled 50 or 60 types of coffee at each place. Out of the 600, I picked four or five that I liked. I had no idea at the time but one type was the bean I was already buying back in Tokyo! So simply tasting led me back to my favorite bean. Other buyers tend to follow the advice of cup tasters, but I never do.

Be original! My father did anything that caught his fancy, which was unique in his time. He only studied for 7 years at school but had a thriving business selling silkworm eggs. He also sold mountain vegetables, raised fish and never did the same thing twice. Even when he was tying a ribbon, he always tried a new way. He made sake, soy sauce, miso, even medicine from grapevines. When at a relative’s funeral he noticed that cremation took hours, he designed a chimney that could burn a human in 45 minutes. He never considered patenting it because he wanted many people to use it. He fearlessly challenged anything and always told us to be brave.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “Weekend Japanology.” Learn more at: http://juditfan.blog58.fc2.com/