People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Tak Tokumine: It’s all about love and noodles

by George Koutsakis

Full of enthusiasm and excitement, Tak Tokumine speaks fondly of the journey that brought him to the U.K. and ultimately led him to establish the Japan Centre and Shoryu Ramen chain, as well as help build Japan’s presence in the UK.

Tokumine grew up in Hiroshima during the 1950s before moving to Fukuoka, the home of Hakata ramen — a tonkotsu (thick pork-broth) based dish — at the age of 12. He recalls the vibrant city of Hakata, and the colorful years he spent growing up there. At the age of 18, Tokumine moved to Tokyo to attend university, and through a friend whose father lived in Singapore, he began learning about life abroad. Singapore, a place he felt was thriving and offered many opportunities, also became the first country in Tokumine’s path. After making the decision to move there, Tokumine delved head-first into studying Mandarin, a language he found quite easy to grasp because of its written similarities to Japanese.

He was taking his first steps toward a new life in Singapore when, as happens with many young romantics with a thirst for adventure, his plans changed. While studying Mandarin in Hong Kong, Tokumine fell in love with a British girl named Susan, and this love took him to the U.K. instead of Singapore. Susan hailed from Derbyshire and he visited her often, before eventually making the move over in 1975. “I was impressed with how forward and fun she was,” Tokumine says about his wife of over 40 years.

The forwardness stuck with Tokumine, and eventually became a trait of the English that he grew to love. Yet, as he hailed from such a different culture, it was also a trait that proved quite difficult to adapt to at first.

“In Japan, you don’t speak up. If you stick out you get hammered in,” he says referring to the Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Initially, Tokumine was used to keeping quiet and not voicing his true thoughts. “I didn’t express my opinions, and many people thought I was very easy to get along with,” he says. “But they misunderstood me. What bothered me most was that I was often ignored, so I knew I had to change that.”

Tokumine laughs, “When I started saying what was on my mind, people began to think I was difficult!”

Through his achievements, it’s clear that the entrepreneur quickly adapted to British culture, and passionately pursued his dreams. But many businesses have humble beginnings, and his came through a comment made by his wife one sunny afternoon — she suggested he find and read a good Japanese book.

Tokumine ventured into London and searched far and wide, looking for books in his native language. He couldn’t find one, and that’s what led him to open a small book store in 1976. That book store would eventually become the Japan Centre, the popular Japanese food hall, grocery and goods store in the heart of London.

At first, only Japanese and language-learning books were sold in the shop, but over time the Japan Centre evolved to provide everything that Japanese living in the U.K. might miss from their homeland. Tokumine’s friends in Japan helped connect him to distributors and wholesalers there, as he slowly built strong channels between Japan and England. The real boom for the company, however, was influenced by a trip to Germany in 1984, when Tokumine discovered a complex of stores featuring different aspects of Japanese culture, aside from food. Inspired, he decided, he says, to make the “Japan Centre grand.”

With financial help from a close friend in the U.K., Tokumine took the Japan Centre to new heights, establishing the current 557-square-meter Japan Centre Food Hall, followed by an online store in 2005. Food, tea, sake, bento boxed lunches, his aim was to make sure that whatever Japanese items were desired, the central London Piccadilly Circus location would be the one-stop to get them.

A huge advocate of Japanese food and with experience in the restaurant industry from past projects, over the years Tokumine also established several eateries dedicated to serving his native dishes. After a few partially successful projects in London, including Toku, which offered everything from sushi to tempura until it closed in 2013, he hit upon what would become a resounding winner: Shoryu Ramen, a restaurant serving one of his favorite dishes, tonkotsu ramen.

Established in 2012, Shoryu has since become a chain, with numerous branches in London, Manchester, Oxford — even back in Japan. It is, Tokumine says, a venture that allowed him to use his years of experience in both countries.

“Food is culture,” says Tokumine. “I feel food can only be genuine when it is bound by identity. Many Japanese restaurants in the U.K. don’t present that identity. So with Shoryu I wanted to deliver true authenticity, the true Japanese culture.”

The staff at Shoryu branches greet customers with the friendly “irashaimase” (“welcome”), while chefs ask staff to deliver orders with the customary “onegaishimasu.” The signature dish uses the same ingredients as the Hakata ramen made in Fukuoka, and the menu features other tonkotsu ramens, as well as Japanese staples, including gyōza (potstickers), katsudon (rice bowl topped with breaded pork cutlet), and yakitori. Shoryu was successful from the get go, quickly becoming one of the most popular places in London for ramen.

Today, Tokumine’s companies combined employ more than 700 people and work closely with many producers and suppliers in Japan. Looking beyond the success of business, though, Tokumine says he simply loves life in the UK.

“The people are kind, I am accepted, and I love the greenery,” he says, speaking from his home, located around 100 kilometers north of London. He loves to visit Japan but feels much more comfortable in the U.K., a sentiment that he says he’s noticed with many Japanese nationals living in Britain.

“Once you get used to the freedom and forward way of doing things here, it’s hard to go back to Japanese culture and fit in,” he explains. “I love going back to see my friends and family, but England is home.”

Now 70 years old, Tokumine has spent more than 40 years in England. As a fortunate adventurer, entrepreneur and family-man, he lights up when talking about family and friends both in the U.K. and in Japan. Success, he believes, can be achieved anywhere, as long as each step is backed by passion. To this day, though, he has held on to his Japanese nationality, never forgetting his roots.


Profile

Name: Tak Tokumine

Profession: Japan Centre founder and restaurateur

Hometown: Hiroshima

Age: 70

Key moments in career:

1975 — Moves to the U.K.

1976 — Opens Japanese book store, which later becomes the Japan Centre

2005 — Launches Japan Centre online store

2012 — Establishes first Shoryu Ramen restaurant in Regent Street, London

Things I miss about Japan: Friendly manners.

Strengths: Accepting all people

Weaknesses: Giving all people too many chances

Words to live by: “There’s no point in envying others or disrespecting yourself.”