Today, I would like to introduce a success story of a man who brought himself up from a poor tenant farmer to a billionaire in early 20th century. After his success, he contributed to the preservation of cultural heritages in Japan including a magnificent Japanese Garden attached to a famous luxury hotel – Hotel New Otani.
His life- a poor tenant farmer came to Tokyo in his 31
Yonetaro Otani was born in 1881, and he was the eldest son of a tenant farmer’s family with 6 children in Toyama, a north-western part of Japan. In most of his early life, he worked for other farmer’s house in summer and sake brewery house in winter as an apprentice. He was so busy to support his family since he was little that he could not learn how to read or write.
When he turned 24, his father was dead. He was working hard, but he found that his family’s life would never be better even though he did so. One of a few things which brought him a great pride and happiness was a Sumo Wrestling Event which took place every year in his village. As he had a strong, large figure, he often won the first place and could get the prize.
In his 31st, he asked his mother to spare him 3 years to go to Tokyo and try something new. His mother gave him 2 dollars, lots of Onigiri (Japanese Rice Balls) and sent him off. This must be difficult decision for her considered that he was the eldest son of the famiy without a father. However, I presume he had already shown a talent or mindset which made her believe in her son’s success.
Having said that, the first thing he found when arrived in Tokyo was he cannot get a job without a reference letter. He had to use most of the 2 dollars to stay one night in a lodging. Luckily, he could get a job thanks to the information about day labor job from his roommate . He managed to get a job as a docker. Since his body was very big and he could carry many baggages. He was praised by others in his first day at work. This experience helped him to keep his head up even in the worst days in his later life, he says. Since it was a day job, he could not always get a job. Yet he kept saving even a small amount of money believing in next opportunity.
After a while, he decided to be a Sumo Wrestler since there was a trend of Sumo Wrestlers making a tour in America in early 20th. He asked his acquaintances from his home country to train him as a Wrestler, and climbed up to the higher rank called ‘十両.’ However, the American tour was not welcomed anymore when he became a professional. He also damaged his wrist so he needed to give up his career as a Sumo Wrestler and started to work as a sake dealer specialized for Sumo industry.
He never gave up and became a billionaire
Otani’s business mindset was to sacrifice himself to deliver the best quality of sake with the cheapest price. The profit was so small, but he gained the reputation and trust and only his company are allowed to deal all sake sold and consumed in 国技館 the small Hall in Tokyo. Several years later, he expand his business to steal-iron industry. But in this process, he had to confront an ordial. He was illiterate. But instead he had a high communication skill and the instinct to find out what is needed in the idusty, which perhaps were auuired through hands on experience. At the end of the day, he gained more than 10 patents for the production of iron roller.
He had expanded his business until the world war 2 and people called him as ‘a steel lord’ in early 20th. Though he suffered from the loss of his properties after World War 2 and a big earthquake, he contributed his money to reconstruct the treasure gate of Sensoji in Asakusa, and to build a college in his hometown. He always ashamed of not properly studied at school. He also said, he never forgot the experience where a son of the farmer he worked for insulted his family’s about economic situation in his adolecense. It had been his long-cherished dream to build a school at his hometown.
This is not the only achievemrnt. When Tokyo metropolitan government decided to host a Tokyo Olympic in 1964, he bought a land of former feudal lords in Edo period(17th-19th) and transformed it into a luxury hotel to welcome important guest and dynamic Japanese gardens.
This garden situates in the area where the residence of current Emperor and Empress families is and other important facilities for lawmakers. There is a massive water cascade which use the maximum of sloped landscape and balance with the high rise building of the hotel. This garden contains both modern and historical elements in harmonious way. It was created by a famous Japanese gardener in 20th century: Sentaro Iwaki. His uncle was also a pioneer of Japanese gardens called Ueji which name can not be missed if you learn about Japanese garden.
Unlike other traditional gardens, this garden is beautifully maintained by full-time employee of the hotel. They are hotelman and not only dedicated to the garden job, but they have a pride to maintain their garden beautiful to please hotel guess. They also gather new ideas to ransform garden, and the dry garden in front of the event hall was created according to their ideas.
Leaning about former owners of historical garden is the fun part. Please book my tour if you would like to know more about this garden or others.