I am 60% Japanese and 60% Mexican

Carlos Kasuga Osaka is Director General of Yakult S.A. de C.V.  He is Founder and President of the Japanese Mexican School, Founder and Past President of the Panamerican Nikkei Association, and Past President of the Asociación México Japonesa. His parents migrated to Mexico from Japan in 1930.

INSIDE MEXICO: What was it likefor Japanese people in Mexico duringWorld War II?

CARLOS KASUGA: [US president]Roosevelt asked the Mexicangovernment to send the Japanese hereto concentration camps in Texas. TheMexican government refused to do this,but did agree to move Japanese fromaround the country to Mexico City.When the order came for us torelocate, my family was living inCardenas, San Luis Potosí. We weregiven 72 hours to leave for MexicoCity. Two soldiers came to our houseto escort us and another Japanesefamily to the train station. The entiretown came to see us off. It was 1942or 43. I was seven years old.In spite of the suffering, I haveto give some thanks to the Mexicangovernment. We had the bestconcentration camp in the world! InMexico City, we had access to schoolsand the chance to get an education.

IM: How did you start Yakult?

CK: When I was founding the LiceoMexicano Japonés, I traveled back andforth to Japan, looking for support.[Mexican president] Luis Echevarriahad given me letters of introductionto the Japanese government. I met acongressional representative, and Itold him about the problems we hadin Mexico, including unemploymentand intestinal problems caused by thewater. He said, you should bring Yakultto Mexico.In Japan, women sold Yakult doorto door. People left money in theirmailboxes, and the ladies came by andleft the Yakult. I said to them, thismethod of sales will never work inMexico. But they said, we’re celebratingthe 10th anniversary of Yakult inBrazil. So I decided to give it a try.

Before we launched, my businesspartners and I did a market study.We needed to know what people reallyate, not just what they said they ate.For three months, we got up at 4 AMand gathered trash in Mexico Cityand around the country. We spreadout the contents to examine them. Weknew if people drank milk or didn’t, ifthey ate meat, and how they cleanedtheir vegetables.When we examined the vegetablepeelings with a microscope, we foundlots of bacteria because they hadn’tbeen washed properly. This, amongother things, told us there weredietary problems in Mexico, andbecause of this, Yakult would be asuccess.The first year we sold 2,568containers of Yakult every day. Nowwe sell three million.

IM: When was the first time you wentto Japan?

CK: In 1959. My father sent me tolearn how to read and write Japanese.While I was there, I attended the firstInternational Machine Fair in Tokyo.One company made plastic beach toysand lifesavers. I had been on the schoolswim team, and I’d never seen anythinglike that in Mexico! I said to the ownerof the company, I’d like to bring theseto Mexico. He consulted a book of tradelaws, and said, I’m sorry, but theseitems are prohibited for import intoMexico. Why don’t you buy the machineand make them there?I said, what will I do if the machinebreaks down in Mexico? He said, don’tworry, we’ll teach you how to fix it.

Every week I sent my father a letterin Japanese, so he could see how mylanguage study was coming along. I toldhim about the machine and my idea forthe business. Soon after, someone fromthe company came to see me. My fatherhad sent a letter to the owner, sayingthat my Japanese was good enoughand I was to report directly to work atthe factory.For me—a Latino!—going to work ata Japanese company was really difficult!All the hierarchy, having to arrive early,sweep the factory, wear a uniform—thiswas culture shock! But it was one of themost important experiences of my life:I learned the importance of discipline,order and cleanliness. The owners ofthe company were the first to arriveand the last to leave. Everyone usedthe same bathroom. If the owner of acompany has a clean bathroom, and theone for the workers is disgusting, youbreed resentment and hatred amongthe workers.I eventually bought two machinesand brought them back to Mexico tostart my business making lifesavershere in Mexico. I have brought threethings from Japan for children:inflatable beach toys for fun, the LiceoMexicano Japonés for education, and Yakult for health.

IM: Are you more Japanese orMexican?

CK: I am 60% Japanese and 60%Mexican [laughs].

Carlos Kasuga Osaka has run Yakult México for more than 20 years. He graduated in accounting from the Escuela Bancaria y Comercial in Mexico City. In addition to his many other activities, he is President of the International Life Sciences Institute, and Vice President of the Committeefor the Centennial Celebration of the Japanese Migration to Mexico. He has traveled all of Mexico, to Peru and to Columbia speaking about hisphilosophy, based on Japanese-style Total Quality and Productivity.