‘Izakaya’ morale-boosting ritual catches on

by

Twenty-five minutes before the 5 p.m. opening, staff at Teppen, a Japanese-style bar in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, and employees of other businesses gather around the counter for a daily meeting.

But this is nothing like a dull, time-consuming brainstorming session for new ad copy or a corporate meeting to exchange daily information among the staff. It is more like a group of football players huddling before going out on the field.

After a minute of silent meditation, manager Takashi Okamoto, 27, asks some of the 30 participants to give a one-minute speech, this day about their loved ones.

About a dozen hands shoot up, breaking the serene atmosphere with piercing voices in hopes of being called on.

“I want to take over my dad’s company and put his mind at ease,” yelled out Junta Kurihara, a college student who works part time at the Tamasushi sushi restaurant in the Tsukiji district.

Momentum gathers as five others make speeches. The charged atmosphere peaks when participants chant: “Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey!”

It is Teppen’s morale-raising ritual, which has become so popular that more than 800 participants from various industries, even restaurant owners from South Korea and Taiwan, come to the “izakaya” every month to experience it. DVDs and books have been sold explaining the procedure.

“At first, people said it was like some kind of religion,” chuckled Keisuke Ohshima, Teppen’s president. “I started it to raise (the workers’) spirits” before the bar opens.

Ohshima is not just an izakaya owner offering a good time and liquor to his customers. He is also offering knowhow on raising the morale of employees at restaurants, other companies and schools — the task of any business owner.

On Aug. 2, 20 outside participants from sushi restaurants, Korean restaurants and a construction company attended the Teppen meeting.

Kim Young Kee, an assistant manager at the Korean restaurant Ojori in Tokyo, said it was his third Teppen meeting. This time he had two of his staff with him.

“When I saw it first on DVD, I thought it was weird,” Kim said. “But I figured there’s something in it that gives me energy.”

Kim recently introduced a Teppen-style ritual at his restaurant and quickly noted a change of atmosphere.

“We had the feeling we were sharing the same goal,” he said. “Each of us was more motivated to work.”

Since Ohshima opened Teppen in 2004, more than 15,000 people, some more than once, have attended Teppen meetings, which are free of charge.

Ohshima, 33, who was awarded this year’s Dream Gate Award for entrepreneurs 35 and under, is one of those rare entrepreneurs whose goal is not just to make his bar successful but also to reinvigorate the industry.

To achieve his goal, he decided to open the Teppen meeting to the public and welcome those who want to learn from what he is doing. At the same time, he decided to make his izakaya chain available to prospective izakaya owners so they can learn the ropes.

Half of Teppen’s employees someday want to open their own restaurants. And even though hiring such people means the izakaya is likely to lose experienced employees after a few years, it’s part of Ohshima’s goal of spreading izakaya “culture.”

“I would not have done any of this if all I wanted was for my izakaya to be successful,” he said. “I am the president of Teppen but I also consider myself a member of ‘Izakaya Corp.’ “

Izakaya Koshien — a nationwide competition of izakaya — was also one Ohshima’s ideas to revitalize the industry. About 50,000 anonymous monitors visited more than 750 bars nationwide between last October to December to grade each izakaya in more than 100 categories. The top six made it to the final round in March.

Owning an izakaya was a dream of Ohshima’s since he was a young boy. He grew up watching his grandfather run a cafe near his home in Mie Prefecture.

Ohshima, however, discovered that running a bar wasn’t easy when he began managing a well-known izakaya in Nagoya at the age of 24.

“Because I did not have experience and knowledge, I was not respected or trusted by my employees, or even the customers,” recalled Ohshima. “Nothing I did worked.”

The stress saw him develop hemorrhoids, and at one point he ran a 39-degree fever that did not go down for more than two weeks.

By that time, he had low self-esteem and had practically given up his dream to run his own izakaya.

It was then that he was told by his supervisor to attend a corporate motivation seminar, which turned out to be an eye-opening experience for him.

“Through the seminar, I realized that I was limiting my capabilities because of my past negative experience,” Ohshima said. “That was when I was determined to change myself.”

He started to attend other seminars of successful entrepreneurs and meet with managers of popular izakaya for advice. A few were actually performing a similar type of meeting before opening for business each day.

Staff at first did not like his idea. But after they went to see the meetings held at other izakaya, they agreed to introduce it at their bar.

After working for seven years for that izakaya chain, Ohshima opened his own in Tokyo in 2004, naming it Teppen, literally “the summit.”

Teppen now has four outlets in Tokyo and Mie Prefecture, all of them raking in about ¥10 million in monthly sales, he said. An izakaya would be considered prosperous with ¥6 million in monthly sales.

Ohshima’s next goal is to spread izakaya overseas — a move already in the works. He said he plans to open Teppen bars in Seoul and New York.

“I want Japanese izakaya to become places that restaurants worldwide will want to come and learn from,” he said. “I want izakaya to become the world’s No. 1.”