Kazuo Wada, former chairman of bankrupt Japanese retailer Yaohan, dies aged 90

Former chairman of defunct department store Yaohan, Kazuo Wada, died in his home in Izunokuni, Shizuoka prefecture on Aug 19, 2019.
Former chairman of defunct department store Yaohan, Kazuo Wada, died in his home in Izunokuni, Shizuoka prefecture on Aug 19, 2019.PHOTOS: ST FILE, BT FILE
A photo from 1996 shows a Yaohan store in Singapore before Yaohan Japan went belly up in 1997, becoming a high-profile victim of the bursting of the Japanese asset bubble and the Asian financial crisis.
A photo from 1996 shows a Yaohan store in Singapore before Yaohan Japan went belly up in 1997, becoming a high-profile victim of the bursting of the Japanese asset bubble and the Asian financial crisis.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

TOKYO - Mr Kazuo Wada, the former chairman of defunct department store Yaohan, has died of natural causes, Japanese media reported on Thursday (Aug 29). He was 90.

Mr Wada, who died on Aug 19 at his home in Izunokuni, Shizuoka prefecture, was once dubbed the whiz kid of the Japanese retail industry for having been at the forefront of Yaohan's aggressive expansion to 430 stores in 16 countries across Asia, Europe and North and South America at its peak.

This had included Singapore, where Yaohan drew large crowds when it began operations at Plaza Singapura in 1974 and would eventually open branches in areas such as Katong and Jurong.

But its iconic green and white logo disappeared in 1997 after Yaohan Japan went belly up, becoming a high-profile victim of the bursting of the Japanese asset bubble and the Asian financial crisis.

Mr Wada had inherited a local grocery store founded by his parents before World War II in his hometown of Atami in Shizuoka prefecture, a seaside town about two hours south-west of Tokyo, after his graduation from Nihon University's Faculty of Economics in 1951.

His late mother Katsu is said to have inspired the popular television drama Oshin (1983-1984), which depicts the life of a poor woman who defeats the odds stacked against her to succeed as a department store owner in the decades after the war.

Under his charge, Mr Wada restructured Yaohan from a fruit-and-vegetable chain into a department store, becoming president of the Yaohan Group in 1962.

By 1971, Yaohan opened its first overseas store in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The aggressive global expansion coincided with a period of rapid economic growth for Japan, with the company riding on these headwinds to open stores worldwide. At one point, it was raking in 500 billion yen in annual sales.

Mr Wada's high-flying strategy was instrumental in Yaohan Group becoming a major international retailer that was listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange's First Section.

In 1995, Yaohan opened what was then Asia's largest department store in Shanghai.

But all these would come to naught just two years later, as Yaohan Japan incurred massive debts amid sluggish domestic consumer spending.

The company filed for bankruptcy protection in September 1997 with liabilities of some 160 billion yen, in what had been the largest post-war failure at that time.

Ashamed, Mr Wada left the company and sought refuge at a relative's house to hide from the media.

 
 
 

But he was inspired to turn his life around after reading biographies of world leaders like China's Deng Xiaoping, and at 72 years old, became a "corporate doctor" by setting up a management consultancy for young entrepreneurs in Iizuka, Fukuoka prefecture.

In doing so, he wanted to offer himself up as a role model in a country where failure has long been stigmatised.

"I became virtually penniless. My life went suddenly from heaven to hell and I had only my pension to live on," Mr Wada said in a 2001 interview.

"But my experience is so rare, and I felt I should put it to good use by helping the many other companies suffering from the economic slump."

Yaohan Japan has been restructured with the support of general merchandise store operator Jusco - now known as Aeon - and in 2002 changed its name to Maxvalu Tokai. The company today has stores in Japan, China, Malaysia and Thailand.

Mr Kazumi Uchiyama, 71, who was head of sales when Yaohan went bust and who was the first president of Maxvalu Tokai, told the Shizuoka Shimbun newspaper that Mr Wada's overseas expansion drive had extremely motivated him.

"Mr Wada has lived a dramatic life full of ups and downs, and I hope he can now rest in peace."

Mr Wada is survived by his wife Kimiko.