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Kensuke Ozaki: The Trader Who Worked Across Central America and the Caribbean Sea – Part 2

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Sales of home appliances in Puerto Rico; Starting restaurant business in Florida

Tosna International S.A. is the name of the company that I started in Panama in 1967. Tosna derives from Tosa, where I come from. I worked with Nissho Iwai as an agent who’s in charge of business in the Caribbean Sea area in Central America and launched some projects: establishing refuse disposal facilities in Panama and Honduras, building a geothermal power plant in El Salvador, and creating a microwave communication system in Guatemala. Some projects didn’t go well, due to various factors such as the lack in funds and dissension, while others were a success.

No matter how busy I was, I took time for some leisure such as golfing. I went to meetings of a group of Japanese expatriate employees, which consisted of about 30 people, including their families, and enjoyed golfing with them. Then the president of Hitachi in Panama asked me to work for him. So I started working part-time, thinking that I would just devote some morning hours.

At that time, Hitachi was mainly selling home appliances to Latin America. I worked there for a while, and this time the vice president from the headquarters asked me if I could work full-time. Now I was back to being a salaryman again. I made a proposal to build a factory in Puerto Rico. I told them that the labor cost was low and we could take our products directly to the mainland, the United States, since it was part of the U.S. territory. When I told them about such benefits, they said, “Then you go there.” So in 1969, I moved from Panama to Puerto Rico. In the beginning, Hitachi’s color TVs flew off the racks. But it’s a small island with the population of less than five million. Soon our sales hit the ceiling and stopped. As for the factory I proposed, they eventually decided to build one in San Diego, California. After three years of work in Puerto Rico, I left Hitachi, thinking that it was the right time to quit my life as a salaryman. Around that time, luckily I was able to get permanent residency in the U.S.

In 1971, Disney World opened in Florida. I took my family and went to Florida, to see how things were going there and looked around Tampa, Clearwater, and St. Petersburg. I was having lunch at a restaurant, and its owner approached me and said she wanted to sell the restaurant to me. I had never even thought about doing restaurant business. There weren’t many Japanese people in Florida, and naturally I thought that my restaurant would specialize in Japanese food. I gave it some thought and decided to buy the restaurant—I gave the owner 500 dollars as front money, which was really only what I had at the time.

Around that time, a friend of mine who was a chef at the Japanese embassy in Panama was working in a Japanese restaurant in New York called Saito. I contacted him and asked if he could find someone to work for me. Quickly he found a chef for me and I started a new life in Florida as a restaurant owner.

I was determined to make a success in this new field of restaurant business, but I was just too ignorant. I didn’t even know that we were prohibited from selling alcohol when there was a church nearby. Still I managed to keep the business going for four years, since the location of the restaurant was good—it was in the downtown area in St. Petersburg. But I ended up selling it. I opened the restaurant for dinner time only and devoted the daytime to trading.

At a slaughterhouse in America, I taught people how to clean and cut cow’s stomach and sent them to Japan as frozen products. In Japan, they are consumed as grilled innards.

When I was driving in the place called Ocala in Florida, I saw eel fishing. The fishermen there told me that they would send big eels to Europe and release small ones in the river. So I called a specialist from Hamamatsu, had him cut and clean the small eels, froze them, and sent them to Japan.

Oil business with China; Plans to make films in the future

I had also sold approximately 10,000 Honda motorcycles to the Dominican Republic. During the time of the bubble economy in Japan, Japanese people replaced refrigerators in a cycle of three to four years. So I took those “almost new” fridges and sold them to the Dominican Republic. I also exported automobiles to Chile in South America. On the site I took the steering wheel and replaced it from the right to the left.

I team up with my wife to do these jobs, and I don’t have any other partners. I want to avoid financial conflicts which arise from having different perspectives on things and such. My main job is to negotiate with people in Spanish and Japanese. And to collect money.

I define the time I spent in Japan until I was in my mid-20s as my first life. My second life is the period of about 30 years I spent in Panama, Puerto Rico, and Florida.

Now I’m in the middle of my third life. Since the burst of the bubble economy in Japan, there has been a rise in the value of the yen which resulted in the change in trading partners. Currently I’m doing business with people in countries such as China and Russia. I’ve been interested in China since around 1988, and I have introduced tricycles made in China to Peru. In addition, I’ve also been to Beijing and Shanghai on business to handle pickup trucks and buses. There I met an employee from a national petroleum refinery and heard that the import of petroleum in China would increase in the next few years. I thought that this could turn into a big business if I could find reliable suppliers, so I’m contacting some in countries such as Russia, Nigeria, and Iran.

If that business goes well, I will start my fourth life. What am I going to do? Well, this time I’m going to make movies. I’ve already written a Spanish script of the story of Tsunenaga Hasekura who took a group of delegates to Spain and Italy. I’ve also finished English scripts of the stories of John Manjiro, Nagamasa Yamada, set in Thailand, and a female pirate of the Caribbean.

I’m going to turn 77 soon, but I’m confident about my health, and I’m preparing to spend the next 10 to 15 years of my fourth life as a filmmaker. What I do does not always please my wife, but we can only live once, so I want to make the most out of it.

A trip to Cappadocia in Turkey with his wife.

 

© 2015 Keiko Fukuda

business businessman Central America florida Kensuke Ozaki Panama puerto rico restaurant Shin-Issei