Field notes

Enter the En'tour'preneurs

Young Japanese are looking to their roots for their future

Never before in the 58-year history of Tokyo Kyumeikan Kendo Dojo had there been such an occurrence: Two young Japanese men making separate appointments to introduce themselves to the dojo master, coincidentally on the same day, to make the same unusual request.

They were at the kendo dojo or academy to ask permission to use its training space regularly to conduct samurai "taiken" (or "experience") tours for their new ventures as entrepreneurs, or en"tour"preneurs, if you will.

The slightly bemused dojo master Akira Kubo, 71, told them: "Conducting kendo taiken is not easy, but you are most welcome to do so."

And the intrepid men were determined to give it a go.

Mr Kenshi Nagamatsu, 28, and Mr Ryuou Arai, 25, have recently quit their jobs at a securities firm and pharmaceuticals company respectively to venture into offering tourists local tours with a difference - an experience in Japan's traditional culture, and in their case, kendo, a form of sword fighting practised by the samurai or military noblemen of ancient Japan, and kembu, or samurai sword dance.


Mr Arai (above), is determined to spread awareness of his family's form of kenbu sword dancing through "taiken" or "experience" tours. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF RYUOU ARAI, TOKI TOKYO

They are part of a new generation of "dassara" - which refers to the act of exiting the salaried rat race - who are seeking their future back in Japan's traditional culture.

"I started work post-Lehman shock and, having seen big-name banks folding and conglomerates like Sony, Sharp and Toshiba firing staff, my generation doesn't believe in job security or a job for life any more," explains Mr Nagamatsu, a political science graduate from corporate elite-producing Keio University. He was referring to the collapse of US financial services firm Lehman Brothers in 2008 that triggered the global economic crisis of 2008-2009.

This new wave of dassara, however, is different from the first wave, in the 1990s and early 2000s - in the aftermath of the bursting of Japan's bubble economy and the breakdown of traditional employment practices of lifetime employment and seniority-based pay - where disillusioned young men and women quit the city for the countryside to become farmers.

Mr Nagamatsu and Mr Arai are staying put in the city and looking both inwards to the nation's past and outwards to the world to engage foreigners.


Traditional activities like sword-making (above) and sumo have recently been incorporated into specially tailored tours for clients of bespoke operators, such as Toki Tokyo. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF RYUOU ARAI, TOKI TOKYOn

Their decision is helped by a tourism boom that spells opportunities for their chosen trade. The number of foreign tourists to Japan almost doubled to nearly 20 million last year from the previous year, and they splurged a whopping US$3.5 trillion (S$4.7 trillion) on goods and services - over 70 per cent more than the previous year.

The Japanese government has raised its tourism target to 30 million a year for 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympic Games. Some analysts even predict the figure could hit 80 million a year by then.

FILLIP TO THE PAST

Mr Nagamatsu started practising kendo in high school and continued through university, but stopped training regularly after he started work in 2010 as a stockbroker at Nomura Securities.

A month ago, he left his stockbroking job of the past six years to start Samurai Trip, riding on what he views as a "taiken" boom.

"'Bakugai' (bulk buying) tourism is over, taiken tourism is the next big wave," declares Mr Nagamatsu. "Why come here and just shop when you can buy almost everything online?"

Over the past few years, Chinese tourists have been coming to Tokyo in droves and bulk buying their way through the shopping district Ginza, snapping up everything from milk powder to make-up removers, rice-cookers to automated toilet-seats. But Mr Nagamatsu is betting on tourists turning to "bucket list" cultural experiences that they can post and share on Instagram or Facebook.

NEW GENERATION, DIFFERENT HOPES

I started work post-Lehman shock and, having seen big-name banks folding and conglomerates like Sony, Sharp and Toshiba firing staff, my generation doesn't believe in job security or a job for life any more.

MR KENSHI NAGAMATSU (above), who quit his job with a securities firm to run local tours

This is promising to give traditional Japanese martial arts and cultural activities such as kendo, sumo, tea ceremony and kimono-wearing a new lease of life.

While it would have been blasphemy in the past to ask a dojo master for permission to use his dojo space, be it for the martial art it was intended for or otherwise, the reality of a dwindling domestic market coupled with a surge in tourism demand have made some traditionally closed quarters open their doors to foreign tourists.

For instance, kendo is losing popularity among the younger generation of Japanese in Tokyo, who prefer baseball and soccer and view kendo as an outdated and "3K" sport for being "kitsui, kitanai, kusai" or tough, dirty and smelly.

On the other hand, foreigners' interest in trying out kendo - or anything related to samurai culture and wielding a Japanese sword of any kind - is growing in tandem with the recent rise in the number of visitors to Japan, driven by the cheaper yen and the spread of Japanese soft power via anime, manga and movies.

Mr Arai knows this reality all too well. The third-generation master of Kinou Style kembu started practising under his mother's supervision from the age of three, but all attempts throughout his school years to interest his classmates in it had failed miserably. By the time he was appointed the third successor of the Kinou Style - an updated form of kembu that combines poetry recital with sword dancing - at the age of 20, he had all but lost interest in the performing art himself.

However, an opportunity in 2014 to introduce kembu to foreign university students in Tokyo reignited his passion for spreading awareness of the art form. He was subsequently invited to introduce kembu in a seminar at Oxford University, to overwhelming response.

"Explaining the beauty of kembu to foreigners, who showed so much interest in it, also helped me to rediscover kembu," says Mr Arai, who has set himself a target of introducing Kinou Style kembu to over 100,000 people in the world.

But he and Mr Nagamatsu are not the first to ride this taiken wave.

In 2010, Ms Auga Magari, now 31, resigned from her job at electronics conglomerate Nidec Corporation to start kembu taiken at her hometown in Otsu, right next to Kyoto city, Japan's old imperial capital. Popular demand led to her opening a new dojo in Kyoto in 2014 called the Samurai Kembu Theatre that provides taiken and performances. Last year, this ranked eighth out of the Top 10 Things To Do In Japan by travel website TripAdvisor.

RETURN OF THE LOCALS

Ms Magari, a third-generation Seiga Style kembu master, told The Straits Times that her parents had initially objected to her leaving her job to run the family kembu dojo.They also disliked the idea of teaching people who would come to their dojo for only one session.

"They couldn't see what the point of that was. But now of course they do, and through this popularity among foreigners, more Japanese have also joined our regular classes at the dojo," she says. Teaching foreigners kembu has spread awareness of the art form, including among locals.

Mr Nagamatsu, too, was motivated by the dassara success of his contemporary at Keio University, Mr Kotaro Miki. The economics graduate quit his job as a trader at Mitsubishi Corporation - Japan's largest trading company - to set up Toki Tokyo in 2014, a travel experience company arranging taiken for high-end clients.

Mr Miki, 28, tells The Straits Times: "I realised through my friends and business partners overseas that there was a demand for high-end cultural experiences in Japan that wasn't easily available, and I wanted to provide that bridge.

"It wasn't always easy to convince the craftsmen to allow foreigners to participate in a taiken, as some of these trades are very closed and traditional. But gradually, they have come to see the benefits of spreading awareness about their craft."

Some of the bespoke artisanal craft tours offered include glass carving, katana (Japanese sword) making, tea ceremony and wagashi (Japanese sweets) making sessions.

From a one-man show, the company now has eight staff and a pool of 150 part-timers who work as tour guides and translators.

FOR THE LOVE OF IT

Then there are accidental dassara en"tour"preneurs like Mr Masashi Takahashi, now 33, who started online travel portal Voyagin in his 20s. He quit his job in 2008 as a management consultant with consulting firm A.T.Kearney and joined an Internet start-up that matched music teachers with students.

He went on to start Voyagin in 2013 connecting tourists with local hosts, inspired by his travels to over 30 countries during his college days.

"I was just doing what I love, and I never dreamt or planned for the company to grow beyond three or four people," he tells The Straits Times. During his backpacking days, advice from locals made his visits much more enjoyable, and he wanted to find a way to connect Japanese locals with tourists.

Now, Voyagin has expanded to offer tours such as observing a sumo training session. It was bought over by online commerce giant Rakuten in 2015 and now has 30 full-time staff. It offers over 2,000 unique travel experiences.

"The older generation of Japanese were not so keen to deal with foreigners but this is changing with the younger generation who travel and are comfortable with foreigners," says Mr Takahashi.

For dassara to work, however, one should go on to do something for the love of it rather than just for the money, says Mr Shigeki Kuroyanagi, in his 50s, among the first wave of dassara, who left a middle-management job in the car industry in 2007 to become a blueberry farmer.

"The most important thing is to do something you want to do and that you love. One shouldn't just dassara for the sake of dassara, or go into a business because you think that it is lucrative, because it may not be sustainable," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2016, with the headline 'Enter the En'tour'preneurs'. Print Edition | Subscribe