By ROLAND KELTS
In Japan, Western culture usually means American products: hot dogs, hamburgers, Starbucks and Krispy Kreme donuts, and recent boutique outlets like Blue Bottle Coffee and the Dominique Ansel bakery — not to mention the nearly 50,000 United States military personnel still stationed across the archipelago.
The rest of the West, especially Europe, is often relegated to second-tier status. A bistro here, a trattoria there — a chain of quasi-pubs for ex-pats and tourists. While hipster Japanese may find European culture superior to American consumerism, its presence remains sparser.
British entrepreneur Dan Chuter is out to change that, at least as it applies to his homeland. Against economic odds, Chuter believes that genuine British culture can find a home in 21st-century Japan.His business strategy is less about Cool Britannia, former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s 1990s campaign to promote British soft power via the Spice Girls and Oasis, than a kind of True Britannia — an introduction to the wonders of traditional, elemental British culture.
Two years ago, Chuter opened Malins, a fish-and-chips shop across the street from the Roppongi Midtown complex. Named after the Jewish founder of London’s first known “chippy,” Chuter’s venue has brought to Japanese foodies the essence of a classic English meal — take-out fresh fish, battered and fried, alongside finger-thick wedges of deep-fried potato, mushy pureed peas and British malt vinegar.
Though the fare is cheap fast food, Chuter wanted to appeal to Japanese customers’ demand for quality. He sources the fish and potatoes from Hokkaido; he brought the potato-chipping machine from the U.K. and shipped in a seasoned Scottish chef to prepare meals. The results were so successful that Chuter opened a second Malins shop last year in Hatagaya — a larger space suitable for in-house dining.
On March 1, Chuter returned to Tokyo to launch an outlet in Roppongi for the venerated, 80-year-old bespoke British tailors, Benson & Clegg, clothiers to the British royal family. The Benson & Clegg brand is featured in a Tokyo store called Muse Style Lab, run by Japanese designer and stylist, Tomomi Katsu. Benson & Clegg’s managing director Mark Gordon and head tailor Tony Martin joined Katsu in Tokyo late last month to celebrate the debut.
“The Japanese have a refined taste in all things,” Chuter tells me. “There is a desire to do things more than halfway. This is all very calculated, you see. There’s a story behind it.”
With Benson & Clegg, the pressure is on sustaining a narrative of British elegance, quality and class in a Japanese consumer market that is nearly incomprehensible to the English sensibility. The two nations share complex relationships with their continental partners: the British don’t consider themselves European, just as the Japanese don’t think of themselves as Asian. That shared ambivalence is the core of Chuter’s business — Argon Enterprise — which he runs with his partner, former banker turned entrepreneur, Koichiro Abe.
“The British and Japanese sensibilities are basically the same,” Chuter says. “They just don’t yet know one another very well.”
Chuter’s wife, Diana Yukawa, is a violinist, composer and musical celebrity, and the couple’s marriage, he says, is critical to his interest in Japan. His wife’s success as a musician in Japan opened him to opportunities in another island nation, thousands of miles and a complicated language away.
“I think he’s become more Japanese than I am,” says Yukawa, who just released her new album, “Spaces Between Shadows.” “I sometimes wish he would be a bit more bolshy, a bit more assertive. But I think that’s why he’s doing well here. He’s a nice guy, and that works in Japan.”
“People back in the U.K. understand that we’re doing things in Japan,” adds Chuter. “I manage Diana’s career, too, so they do get the overall story, even if they don’t know exactly what we’re doing.”
Chuter is planning on opening more fish-and-chips shops in Tokyo — Shibuya is a target, as is Aoyama. His newest venture is a mobile truck, a Japanese Anglophile’s dream, that will deliver proper British street fare to Tokyo residents, ex-pats and tourists alike.
At 31 and 30 respectively, Chuter and Yukawa are remaking Japan according to the true Britannia they and their consumers envision. It’s a rendition of the West in Japan that encompasses more than the standard Americana, and it’s appealing to a new generation of Japanese who are less obsessed with America than their elders were.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.