Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Ex-Merrill Lynch Banker Sets Sights on a Broadway for Tokyo

  • Cartoon characters trump kabuki at Tokyo’s oldest theater
  • Ex-Merrill cost-cutter targets tourist-spending windfall

To fuel Tokyo’s flagging tourist boom, Japan is tackling visitors’ long-held complaints. Better English signage. Broader credit card use. Wi-fi.

Now a former veteran of Merrill Lynch & Co. wants to keep the 20 million annual visitors to Japan amused. His vision: Tokyo’s own pop-infused, multi-color, anime-eyed Broadway.

Hidemi Fukuhara

Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

“The night-time entertainment market in this country is wide open,” says Hidemi Fukuhara, who as the former deputy president of Merrill Lynch in Tokyo headed a painful cost-cutting and job-slashing drive before departing in 2003. His brainchild, “Sakura - Japan in the Box,” is a stage show that fuses Cirque de Soleil acrobatics with saucer-eyed anime, idol-group pop songs and a magical dancing fox, and is targeting a piece of the 3.48 trillion yen ($31.8 billion) spent each year by tourists.

The ”musical fantasy” follows Sakura, a high school student taken on a journey through Japan’s four seasons. Each focuses on a different aspect of Japanese culture, from samurai warriors to snow-white geisha. Characters dance on screens while pop songs blare and drummers beat traditional taiko, all in a Kabuki theater - Tokyo’s oldest - that first opened almost 150 years ago. 

Visitors to Japan have surged since 2012, well ahead of ambitious targets, catching the hospitality industry by surprise. Despite gourmet eating and famed historical sites, Tokyo has no equivalent of Broadway or London’s West End, leaving tourists with few spending options once dinner is served. Less than 4 percent of the 160,000 yen an average tourist spends per trip goes towards entertainment or services.

The Meijiza theater in Tokyo.

Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

‘Cool Japan’

What of Japan’s classic theater - noh, kabuki, bunraku? 

“Difficult to understand,” Fukuhara, 66, said in an interview in Tokyo. "I’m the guy who goes to Vegas for the shows.”

He has some work to do before rivaling “Penn & Teller.” Foreigners are only 10 percent of Sakura’s audience, Fukuhara says. The website’s English is garbled (example: “That is a world various "Japan" keep changing beyond time and space”). And word of mouth for the 6,000 yen show is slow to travel.

“It was very difficult to figure out how to watch it,” said Andrew Khutorskoy, a tourist from Russia who saw the show with his wife. “They need to provide more information about the show to foreigners. We couldn’t find anything on the Internet and our guide had no idea.”

Currently topping the Nightlife category on TripAdvisor Inc.’s ubiquitous travel site is the Robot Restaurant, a bizarre cabaret show that boasts battling robotic dinosaurs and bikini-clad singers, which became a unexpected hit after opening in 2012, just at the cusp of the tourism boom.

The “restaurant” - in reality, a cramped sub-basement with limited food options - attracts 400 visitors a night, 80 percent of them foreigners.

Dancers dressed as futuristic characters perform at The Robot Restaurant in Tokyo.

Photographer: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Fukuhara thinks he’s found a niche. Sakura is backed by the Cool Japan promotion council, a government initiative that boosts Japanese products and culture overseas. Fukuhara also sits on the council.

“Although there are museums and galleries, there are really no stage shows for visitors to enjoy,” said Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto of the NLI Research Institute, a think-tank. “The biggest hurdle for shows geared towards foreigners is the language. Subtitles or bilingual pamphlets can raise costs.”

Sakura tries to address this by using a syncing smartphone app that gives real-time explanations in multiple languages.

Eponymous Schoolgirl

Fukuhara’s journey has been almost as eventful as the eponymous schoolgirl’s. As deputy president of Merrill Lynch’s Japan unit from 1999, Fukuhara oversaw a sweeping, bloody restructuring, slashing 1,200 jobs and turning its money-losing retail business profitable. He left shortly after. “After letting all those people go, it wouldn’t have been right for only me to remain,” he says.

The Sakura show at the Meijiza theater.

Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

He followed his interest in Japanese culture to head San Francisco-based Viz Media Inc., which localizes anime and manga for the American palette. He was executive producer for the 2014 Tom Cruise blockbuster “Edge of Tomorrow,” adapted from a Japanese novel, before breaking into Japan’s theater scene.

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