Zhao Haicheng meets hotelier Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi, the “Richest Chinese Person in Japan.”
In the second half of the 1980s, there was a wave of young Chinese people studying in Japan, and a young man from Beijing who loved music was one of them. His mother used the family’s entire savings to pay one year’s tuition for him, and when he set foot on Japanese soil, he only had 5,000 yen left in his pocket after completing the admission procedures. The Japanese school sent a minibus to pick him up at the airport, and he was told by the driver to pay 5,000 yen in advance as the transportation fee from the airport to the school dormitory. He became upset and begged the driver to charge him less, only to be refused. He showed his resourcefulness in an emergency and made a suggestion to the driver: “Can you give me some time? I can go back into the arrival hall and find more Chinese students to travel in your car. You can charge them the usual amount, but I want you to halve my fare.” The Japanese driver agreed with a nod. He then hurriedly ran back into the arrival hall and brought back two Chinese passengers. Through this endeavor, he at least saved one day’s boarding costs for himself.
The young man from Beijing is Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi (former name: Na Qiang), dubbed the “Richest Chinese Person in Japan” by the Yomiuri shimbun newspaper. His assets currently total over 100 billion yen. At the beginning of 2017, he agreed to give me an exclusive interview on his 130-ton luxury yacht.
“It’s time to end the business adventure in my life, and the next step for me is to set off on a real marine adventure,” Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi said. “I love the sea. To me, sailing my own yacht and venturing far out to sea is the most exciting and enjoyable thing I can do. This yacht, which cost me hundreds of millions of yen, is considered to be the largest yacht in Tokyo Bay, and it can go to any country because of its Panamanian nationality. The yacht is fully equipped: a global satellite communication system, telephone, WeChat, television, you name it. I have had many years’ sailing experience, and, with a driving license, I can put out to sea by myself. I undertook the business of fishing and transporting fish when I was young. In the heyday of the business, I owned as many as fifteen fish-carrying boats. At that time, I had adventures on the sea to make a living, but now I’m creating adventures for adventure’s sake.”
For Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi, it was a true adventure for him to keep changing from one business to another. Before every adventure, he could always predict the future accurately so as to emerge safely from danger, making him an ace in the business.
Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi, born in 1962 and a descendant of the Manchu imperial family, is a Pekingese to the backbone. He has been a music fan since his childhood. He was fond of all kinds of musical instruments and learned to play many of them, including the piano, accordion, bassoon and harp. At the recommendation of his teacher, he entered the Hubei Conservatory of Music. Influenced by relatives living in Japan and Japanese films and television, he had a good impression of Japan and went to the country in 1987, before graduating from university.
While studying at a Japanese language school, Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi helped the school to recruit students and also created a conservatory with several domestic musicians in Beijing. Luckily, the Japanese language school where he was studying at that time did not register students’ attendance, so he could do what he wanted, including falling in love. She was a Japanese girl who was learning Chinese from him and working in the district government. At that time, all he wanted was to marry her, but she never mentioned marriage. After his two-year student visa expired, he had to leave Japan, so he went to Thailand. He broke up with the girl temporarily and later, after the president of the original Japanese language school helped him apply for a visa to stay in Japan for three months and lent him a room to stay in, he made use of the opportunity to get his girlfriend back.
“When I was staying in Japan, I would get up early in the morning every day to work as a temporary worker in Takadanobaba. Dressed in a suit, I would put my work clothes in my backpack. After arriving at the labor market of Takadanobaba, I would take off my suit and put on my work clothes, and then I would stand there and wait for the recruiters to bring me to work on any construction site. My salary was 8,000 yen a day. I would go to the entrance of the subway station to meet my girlfriend after I got my 8,000 yen at the end of the day and take her to dinner, which would normally cost me 5,000 yen, and the remaining 3,000 yen was for a bath and transportation to work the next day. I lived like this every day during the month I stayed in Japan. And then a week before my visa was due to expire, my girlfriend told me that she was pregnant and asked me what she should do. I told her that we must have the child! Actually, all I wanted was to marry her. She said that she needed to discuss it with her mother. When there were only three days left before my visa expired, she told me that we could get married. That night, I didn’t use my salary to take her to dinner, but instead used 5,000 yen to call my mother in China. My mother was so happy that I was getting married that she exchanged all her savings for 250,000 yen and asked someone to bring it to me. In Japan, men are responsible for supporting women after they get married, but it was impossible for me to do so at that time, which made me feel very embarrassed. To support my wife, pay my mother back and create a better life for my family, I needed to make money; a lot of money!”
The Shift from Schools to Hotels
After getting married, Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi gave up his original dream of continuing to study music in Japan and started his adventures in business.
He and his former partner, the president of the Japanese language school, jointly established a consulting company (CHI Co., Ltd.) for Chinese business. From then on, he began to experiment with a variety of approaches to wealth. He imported eels from Fujian Province, opened an exhibition hall in the Tianjin Bonded Area, sold plane tickets near the Chinese Embassy in Japan, accepted clothing materials for processing, purchased ships to catch and transport fish on the sea, ran a Shandong restaurant in Utsunomiya, established Japanese language schools in Tokyo and ran dormitories for international students. Of these, the last two adventures created the most wealth for Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi.
In the early 1980s, the Japanese Government formulated the policy of accepting 100,000 international students by 2003, and Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi was the first to see a business opportunity in this. He used his savings to establish three Japanese language schools, and enrolled nearly 2,000 students at the peak. The fees paid by each student consisted of a deposit of 500,000 yen, 600,000 yen for tuition, and various petty expenses, totaling at least 1.5 million yen per student. One point five million yen for each student added up to 3 billion yen for 2,000 students, which was a huge amount of money, all in cash. He was worried that if he put it in the bank, the bank might close down someday. After careful consideration, he thought that it would be safer to invest it in real estate. After the collapse of the bubble economy in Japan in the 1990s, commercial banks in Japan almost stopped providing loans for real estate, and land prices continued to decline year after year. Many enterprises and individuals had to auction or were forced by the courts to auction buildings under construction to pay their debts. Grasping this opportunity, Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi started to “hunt for treasures” in the properties auctioned by the courts in Japan and purchased them to create school buildings and dormitories for international students of the Japanese language schools.
This also foreshadowed Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi’s purchases of buildings in order to construct hotels in the future.
There was a time when Japanese language schools experienced numerous problems. The Japanese Government began to carry out rigid reviews of and a crackdown on poor Japanese language schools. Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi felt in his bones that the road ahead for Japanese language schools would become increasingly difficult, so he decided that he needed to find a new way, and looked for new investment areas. And then a slogan (“development through tourism”) proposed by the Japanese Government attracted his attention. Right! It was high time to acquire hotels! Foreigners, especially Chinese, would certainly come to Japan in huge numbers once the Japanese Government implemented the tourism strategy, which would create a large market. Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi once again seized the opportunity. He continued “hunting for treasures” in the properties auctioned by the courts, looking not only for ordinary buildings but also for ready-made hotels and inns.
In 2004, Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi first invested 300 million yen to purchase the bankrupt Kisarazu Inn in Chiba Prefecture, which was then renamed the Tokyo Bay Plaza Hotel. This hotel, which was recreated by him, combines Chinese and Japanese styles. Just a few months after it opened, it had attracted numerous tourists from both China and Japan.
Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi expanded his career further after he bought the first hotel: he built Fujisan Garden Hotel in 2008, Hotel Marine World in 2012, and then Sekia Kyushu Garden Hotel, Hotel Fruit Flower Kobe, Radisson Narita, Day Nice Hotel Tokyo and others. To date, he has acquired and operated more than ten large-scale hotels, and also merged and acquired a sightseeing bus company, a golf course and a travel agency.
In the course of the M&A of hotels, Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi also encountered problems. He gave me the following example.
“I once acquired a CTR hotel. After all the procedures were completed, a low-level manager at the hotel submitted his resignation out of the blue and said that all of the hotel employees were going to resign. I was stunned. What had happened? At the time, there were already numerous guests waiting to check in. It would be a disaster if all of them just quit! I immediately called other hotels and asked each of them to send two employees to help out, and then I had a talk with the manager. I said: ‘I don’t think I know you or have offended you in any way. Why do you all want to resign? Is it just because I’ve bought this hotel, and you want to give me a hard time? Please let me be very clear: it is your former boss who was irresponsible and sold the hotel to me. That is the truth, and it is pointless for you to be angry with me. Either you leave now and we’re done with each other, or you go to work now and you can tell me what you want tomorrow. You can stay if I agree to your terms, otherwise you will leave — as simple as that.’ The manager said nothing. So I told him to work if he had nothing to add, and that I would pay him as usual. The next day, I had a talk with him and understood that they wanted to resign because there had been a rumor that I would dismiss all the old employees of the hotel. At last, after my repeated exhortations, none of the old employees left, and they all became my employees.”
Secrets to Success
I asked Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi how he had transformed so many unprofitable and bankrupt hotels into profitable ones and what his secret was. He said, “If I buy a hotel and only target Japanese customers, I won’t be able to compete with those operated by Japanese natives because of differences in living habits, management styles and understanding of guests’ subtle viewpoints. So I have to find a new path, create my own features and target the Chinese market with boundless potential to attract Chinese guests.”
Take Fujisan Garden Hotel as an example. Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi made numerous changes specifically to meet the needs of Chinese guests after he merged and acquired the hotel in 2006. He designed it strictly according to the cultural habits of Chinese people by opening up the original suites so that each guest room has a minimum area of no less than 40 square meters. All the beds in guest rooms have been specially widened so that the width of a single bed is up to 1.4 meters, matched with widened and enlarged quilts. In addition to offering several Chinese TV channels, the voltage for the sockets in the rooms is now 200V, the highest limit in Japan, so that Chinese guests can use the plugs of their own electric appliances.
In addition, almost all the items and spares used in his hotels are brought in from China. For example, the furniture, bed sheets, quilts, curtains as well as the toothpaste and toothbrushes in the guest rooms are all imported from Chinese manufacturers. Japanese people wanting to buy such Chinese goods have to go through three middlemen, while Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi buys them directly from manufacturers, significantly reducing the cost and making him highly competitive.
Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi also encountered moments of crisis while creating his hotel kingdom. For example, foreign tourist groups canceled their orders one after another following the March 11 earthquake in 2011. All the hotels in Japan were caught up in the crisis of the guest shortage. Even the hotels in Tokyo almost closed down, not to mention the hotels in the quake-hit Fukushima Prefecture. Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi’s hotels were not spared, but he still anchored his hopes on Chinese tourists. He spent two months touring most of China in full stride and offered travel agencies a price that was one third of the normal accommodation fee. He finally received reservations from 125 tourist groups totaling more than 4,000 tourists.
“Of course, first and foremost I talked about the safety of Tokyo to dispel everybody’s concerns. No one would come to an unsafe place, not even for free,” Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi emphasized.
Before wrapping up the interview, I asked him two final questions.
First, does he have any plans to expand his business aside from enjoying sailing on the sea?
Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi said, “In principle, we will continue expanding our hotel portfolio and expand into other countries. We also want to further improve and consolidate our tourism service. Not long ago, I spent nearly 200 million yen and bought a very large apartment in Dubai, aiming to find opportunities there to invest in hotels and tourist projects. Eighty percent of the construction projects in Dubai have been undertaken by Chinese construction companies. I have already asked them to help me find ‘unfinished buildings.’ I will buy appropriate ones and refit them as hotels. I think that Dubai has great potential because it is home to the most luxurious things in the world. It appeals to the Chinese, who are becoming increasingly more wealthy.”
Second, how does being called the “Richest Chinese Person in Japan” make him feel?
“Maybe you can call me the richest Chinese living in Japan in terms of the value of my personal assets, which is over 100 billion yen, but it would be more appropriate to change ‘the richest’ to ‘the most indebted.’ Judging from the amount of my bank loans, I’m undoubtedly the most indebted Chinese living in Japan. But one could also say that the most indebted is the most capable.”
Zhao Haicheng is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Beijing and Tokyo.
Pictured below: Some of the hotels and golf courses in Tsuyusaki Tsuyoshi’s Hotel Kingdom. ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF CHI HOSPITALITY GROUP