Former chairman of collapsed retailer Yaohan dies, aged 90

Mr Kazuo Wada, boss of Yaohan, which had stores here, including in Katong (top). ST FILE PHOTOS
Mr Kazuo Wada, boss of Yaohan, which had stores here, including in Katong (above). ST FILE PHOTOS
Mr Kazuo Wada, boss of Yaohan, which had stores here, including in Katong.
Mr Kazuo Wada, boss of Yaohan, which had stores here, including in Katong.ST FILE PHOTOS

The former chairman of defunct department store Yaohan, Mr Kazuo Wada, has died of natural causes, Japanese media reported on Thursday. He was 90.

Mr Wada, who died on Aug 19 at his home in Izunokuni, Shizuoka prefecture, was once dubbed the whizz-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 home town 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 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 tailwinds 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 in Shanghai what was then Asia's largest department store. 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 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. In 2002, it changed its name to Maxvalu Tokai. Today, it has stores in Japan, China, Malaysia and Thailand.

Mr Wada is survived by his wife Kimiko.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2019, with the headline 'Former chairman of collapsed retailer Yaohan dies, aged 90'. Subscribe