People | 20 QUESTIONS

Japan’s biggest flavors come in small boxes

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

Name: Hank Rao
Age: 27
Nationality: American
Occupation: Entrepreneur, founder of Japan Crate


1. What first drew you to Japan? I was always into Japan as a kid, with gaming, anime, food and all the other pop culture exports that Japan is known for. Then as I got older I started seeing some of the more unique cultural differences.

2. How effective are food and consumer goods at bridging cultural divides? I think food and local products are some of the best ways to experience another culture. They shed a lot of light on what’s popular in a certain culture and why. Especially food, since there’s always so much history behind it.

3. What makes Japan Crate’s subscription-based “mystery box” so popular? People like surprises and presents. A subscription box is like giving yourself a present every month where you get to choose what type or theme. Who can say no to that?

4. Do you try every single item that goes into each monthly crate? When we first launched I would personally try every item in the crate, but now it’s just logistically impossible. A lot of the items we curate are brand-new seasonal drops in Japan, so sometimes I try the item at the same time our subscribers do.

5. Did you learn any valuable lessons as Japan Crate expanded? We grew extremely fast early on, so we hit a lot of hurdles, like shipping delays, logistics and hiring. I learned to make quick decisions, be prepared to change direction and maintain a level head, especially in times of chaos.

6. What’s the most heartwarming testimony you’ve heard from a customer? One story that stuck out was from a parent that got a Japan Crate for their kid. They were growing apart and he wrote in to say that Japan Crate created a monthly bonding experience for their family and ultimately turned their relationship around. I thought that was really special.

7. As an entrepreneur, what is the biggest faux pas a person can make? To copy others’ ideas without innovating. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with copying per se, but you have to innovate in some way or form.

8. What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken? Probably not taking the traditional path of looking for a job after graduating college. Instead I took all the money I had, which wasn’t much, and moved to San Francisco with a couple roommates.

9. Did anything shock you when you first arrived in Japan? The work culture. The first time I arrived was around 9 p.m. and I took the airport bus to my hotel. We passed a ton of offices and almost 80 percent of the lights were on with people working.

10. What’s the best and worst Japanese snack or candy you’ve ever had? My favorite snack is probably any flavor of Calbee chips. They’re so addictive and the crunch is much better than any other chip I’ve had. Worse snack? Nattō (fermented soy beans), bar none.

11. Are there any discontinued Japanese snacks that should be brought back? Shigekix sour gummies. I first had them right when I started Japan Crate and they were amazing. They were these super sour tough gummies that wake you up the moment you bite into them, amazing.

12. What is the most quintessential Japanese flavor? The easy answer would be matcha green tea since it’s everywhere, but I personally think yuzu (citrus). It’s a complex fruit, and it goes great in so many Japanese dishes and drinks.

13. What’s your favorite seasonal Japanese food? I really love oden (hot pot) in the wintertime. The combination of the cold weather and hot homestyle food is unbeatable. Throw in an onsen (Japanese spa) and you’re in paradise.

14. If you were on a long road trip and you could only take one snack, what would it be? If onigiri (rice balls) count as a snack, I would go with that. I could probably survive on tuna onigiri alone.

15. You are on a deserted island, but there is one convenience store. Which one would you want it to be? A Japanese Seven-Eleven. They consistently have the best balance of meals, daily necessities and of course Strong Zero flavors. Sorry FamilyMart/Lawson.

16. What do you think should be included as a new Olympic sport? Single-game elimination dodgeball.

17. You get to decide the next KitKat flavor. What is it? Hot Cheetos collab, where the wafers in KitKats would be replaced with Hot Cheetos flakes, then a sweet chocolate exterior. Perfect blend of sweet and spicy.

18. What would your personal mascot look like? Probably a platypus.

19. What’s your strategy for coping with rush hour in Tokyo? Move closer to work. Seriously, the rush hour train commute is a great Japanese cultural phenomenon best experienced once.

20. Do you have any advice for future entrepreneurs? Make the jump and don’t be afraid of failure. As a matter of fact, you’ll most likely fail at some point in the world of entrepreneurship. What you do after is what’s important.