Hakuei “Harry” Kosato is a man constantly on the move—he logs over 200,000 miles a year in air travel. Greetings from Singapore, London, Mumbai, or Tokyo in a week’s span are not unusual.
Kosato cannot help but be a man of the world. Conversations often start with questions about his nationality: “So, Harry, are you Japanese? Are you Chinese?” His first answer: “I’m human.” Second, “Like you, I’m a citizen of the world.”
Kosato’s Twitter profile is birthplace-, education- and place-defined: “Born Kobe, Japan. LSE/Oxford-educated entrepreneur. Publisher. Been there; done that. Calls Singapore, Tokyo, Mumbai home.”
As CEO of La Ditta Ltd., he’s a promoter of Japanese excellence in design and cuisine who’s learned from some of the most iconic brand champions in the world—entrepreneurs Richard Branson and James Dyson.
Kosato’s entrepreneurial spirit has roots in Kobe, the home of his parents, who are second-generation Chinese born in Japan. His Kobe-born father began teaching English in the 1960s. A polyglot (Mandarin, Cantonese, English, French, Spanish, Japanese), his father has a reputation for excellent public speaking, and won a university scholarship to study in the United States.
Kosato describes his life as a series of breakthroughs. The first was a linguistic break: “Most all of the people in my family went to Chinese or Japanese schools. My father was adamant about sending me to [an] international school.” Kosato spoke only Japanese before his international school plunge.
It was at St. Michael’s International School that his dad first named the Japanese-speaking 5-year-old Hakuei, “Harry” in English. The name “Harry” or “Mr. Harry,” as he is often called, stuck within his family, where his brother Junei became known as “Jonathan.”
The next breakthrough was attending Kobe’s Canadian Academy (CA), today home to more than 35 nationalities, and to at least 10 in Harry’s homeroom in the ’80s.
“The friends you meet really change the way you think,” says Kosato. “I was in a group of good friends who were intelligent, outgoing, and very international.” In the 1980s, when Japan Inc. was so dominant, it was not the norm for children in Japan to automatically attend an international school.
His experience of merging national identities in an international setting explains Kosato’s outward curiosity and embracing outlook today, when, by his own account, he connects with 2,000 to 4,000 people a year.
I’m just one tiny star in the global constellation known as ‘Mr. Harry from Oxford.’
Kosato’s high school graduation year was 1989, when students took over Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to rally for democracy, and the Berlin Wall collapsed, opening up then-East Germany to the West after three decades. It was also the year he left Kobe for the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), in the United Kingdom.
Only 5 percent of Kosato’s graduating class from the CA attended a non-US university. Meanwhile, he was deciding between Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and the LSE, in the heart of one of the world’s most diverse cities.
The move to London was a breakthrough in access to top intellectuals and entrepreneurs. He finished the three-year first-degree program in social psychology at the LSE, and his father encouraged him to stay for another year to finish a masters. At the University of Oxford, he studied social welfare and wrote a master’s thesis comparing attitudes to leisure and work between Japan and the UK.
One of Kosato’s major life experiences was the Kobe earthquake on January 17, 1995. For five days, he could not get in touch with his parents, who lived some five kilometers from the worst affected zone. Once he reconnected, he returned home to see for himself what had happened, and help distribute relief supplies. “It was a shock. I realized that anything can happen to you at any time.”
He wanted to travel and live in another part of the world, and make some impact in the world. Within six months, Kosato was living in Bangkok—where he and his wife opened an English and Japanese language school. He was doing very well until he lost the business during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
Kosato then moved on to publishing in Sydney, Bangkok, and Seoul, where he and his wife produced travel books for wealthy Japanese wanting to travel to Southeast Asia.
When he was 18 years old, Kosato had read a book by a certain Richard Branson, which may have played a large part in that detour from Brown to the LSE. By the time he graduated from Oxford in the 1990s, Branson had already created many business ventures under the Virgin label.
One day, while traveling for business with his publishing company, Kosato made a quick stop in Tokyo and picked up a copy of The Japan Times. In it was an ad from Branson challenging anyone to compete with Pepsi and Coca-Cola in marketing Virgin Cola in Japan—this was the heyday of the Virgin brand, with its airline, cinemas, colas, and cafés. Kosato was chosen from among 400 applicants.
Around the same time, Kosato was asked to chair the board of directors of St. Michael’s International School, an elementary school in Kobe. He was still under 30, and not yet a father.
Working with so many stakeholders—from school district managers, financial overseers, teachers, parents, to the British consulate—was a steep learning curve. “The man is made by the position,” he says.
Kosato is often asked about working with Richard Branson and the sage advice the entrepreneur gave. He asked Richard Branson to define a successful business, and Branson’s reply was simple and direct: “It’s being able to pay your bills, and have fun challenging yourself everyday!”
After Richard Branson, Kosato worked with James Dyson until he set out on his own again with La Ditta, whose specialty is promoting products designed and made in Japan, from cuisine to air purifiers. The company also provides consultancy services, including advising prefectural governments in Japan.
Kosato is still making breakthroughs every day. He oversees his Sushi & More takeaway, delivery, and catering business in India. There, in Mumbai, he also runs a successful Cool Japan Festival that is intended to promote Japan Inc. and is now in its fourth year. The event has each year attracted over a 100,000 people.
In September, I met Kosato at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan for a La Ditta-organized All-Japan Oyster Opening Championship and Festival featuring oysters from the Tohoku region.
Modeled on Ireland’s 61-year-old Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival, Kosato’s version included Miss World Japan finalists and remarks by Anne Barrington, Ireland’s ambassador to Japan. Not lost on me was “Mr. World” himself, who was overseeing it all.
Dr. Nancy Snow is a speaker, university lecturer, and author who has been published in outlets such as The New York Times and The Guardian. She is Pax Mundi Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.
I’m just one tiny star in the global constellation