Autobiography of Tadashi Yanai– The Man Behind Uniqlo

According to Forbes, as of 2023, Tadashi Yanai, is the richest man in Japan, with a networth of $35.4B. His retail store, “Uniqlo” is now known all over the world.

Autobiography – One Win Nine Losses

Tadashi Yanai’s autobiography, “One Win Nine Losses”, (Isshou Kyuuhai) was published in the year 2003. The book is not available in English; Amazon does show a Chinese edition though. I purchased the online Japanese edition to understand more about the man behind the humungous success of Uniqlo. I wanted to know what drove him to accomplish something big in the clothing industry in Japan.

After graduating from Waseda University with a degree in Economics, he seems to have spent a few years working for the retail giant Jusco. In his own words he really didn’t have much purpose in life at that point.

He began working for his father’s men’s clothing store (mainly suits) called, “Men’s Shop Ogori Shoji”. He later changed this name to “Fast Retailing” which is now the parent company of Uniqlo.

He begins by saying that any business is simply “a series of trials and errors”. Be prepared to fail nine times for every ten times you decide to try something new, he says. That explains the title of his book. He shares the lessons his failures have taught him in this book.

The book traces his journey from the time his father was running the show and goes all the way up to when Uniqlo moved to international markets.

Lessons From Dad

Shortly after he started helping his father in his business, he saw some inadequacies and inefficiencies in the way things were done and wanted to make changes. But his interference lead to many staff quitting and there was a time when he and the only other staff who remained (this man continued through his Uniqlo journey), had to do everything including purchasing, arranging and selling stock and cleaning the floor. But he says his father never once criticized him for his decisions.

The day his father gave him the bank passbook and the company’s official seal, Tadashi Yanai knew the only way for him, was the way forward – he felt motivated to succeed. “Whatever you do, try to become number 1”, is the only advice his dad ever gave him, and Tadashi Yanai throughout his life seems to have followed this advice.

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His father also ran a café and a theatre and seems to have been quite the hustling businessman. He ran a VAN shop ( apparel store in Japan that has been around since 1948) too. Tadashi Yanai liked VAN apparel and this became the first time he developed an interest in the business of casual wear. He could not have known then that soon his whole business would focus on casual wear.

His father passed way on the 5th day after Uniqlo was listed on the Stock Exchange. During his memorial service, Tadashi Yanai, apparently referred to his father as “his biggest rival” and burst into tears. Understandably so. He owes his natural business sense and restless ambition to his dad. But he didn’t stick to the family business. He did things his way and carved his own path in the business world.

The World of Casual Wear– Moving Away From Family Business

Tadashi Yanai makes some sharp observations about the “casual wear” market. While formal clothes require a sales clerk to “convince” the customer into buying, casual wear typically doesn’t require sales talk. Since the demand for casual wear was also higher, he seems to have felt attracted to this market.

Sharp Learning Curve

With a view to learning more about the casual wear market, he started buying fashion magazines, made trips to England and America and checked out apparel stores including chains such as “Gap” and “Next”. He started buying t-shirts and accessories and even antiques from America and London and sold them in Japan. He created three new outlets in as many years. Though sales were good, due to the short trend cycles and high overheads, he was not really raking in the money. He was buying what he liked and selling them wherever he liked – he criticizes himself saying none of what he did then made business sense.

Moment of Epiphany

At an American student cooperative, he observed how the customers were helping themselves with no sales clerks around. Students walked around and picked what they liked; like “a record store”, he observed.

It immediately struck him that this is how he wanted things to be in his own store. Customers should not feel the pressure to buy from persistent sales talk. The sales clerks should not have to say anything unless the customer wanted help. Thus was born the idea for Uniqlo.

Uniqlo – A Shop Where People Would Want to Buy

He priced all his products at 1000 yen or 1900 yen. His idea was to offer good quality clothes at an affordable price. He designed the store with, a high ceiling, wide aisles and lots of free space so customers could easily move about. The floor was meticulously maintained, with neatly displayed apparels. Sales clerks didn’t have to “smooth talk”. They just responded when sought by customers. This was his idea of, “a shop where people would want to buy”; in other words, this was his idea of “a shop that would sell well”.

Harajuku Store and Foreign Market -– History in Making

Although he had already made his mark in the suburbs, Tadashi Yanai wanted to be known within the city as well. He thought of opening a store at Harajuku which was the heart of fashion in Tokyo. It was post the bubble period and the rentals were low. Further, some apparel companies had already shut shop making way for Uniqlo.

But Tadashi Yanai knew that to get the customers’ attention in a place like Harajuku, he would need to think differently. He went with the strategy of choosing to focus all his advertising on just one item. He focused all his advertisements around “fleece” and distributed flyers that said “fleece 1900 yen”. The strategy was a massive hit and sent the cash registers ringing like never before. People who came to purchase fleece, ended up buying other items too.

Until then, people who had heard of Uniqlo thought it was a “cheap store”. With the entry to Harajuku, people’s perception changed. They now knew Uniqlo sold quality items at affordable prices.

Foreign Market

When his sales crossed 300 billion yen, he decided to enter foreign markets. In the year 2000, Uniqlo entered London. It wasn’t successful as he tried to replicate the Japanese business model there too. But, that hardly stopped him from eyeing further expansion.

Employees – Key to the Success of a Business

Employees can not just be the hand and feet but should also be the brain of the management. This applies to every department in an organization as he says, ‘one man show” is a bad idea for a company’s growth.

During a meeting, if he finds that someone has not spoken at all, he tells them not to bother attending the next meeting. Meetings are for talking, discussing and deciding on important matters. It doesn’t have to be a meeting room. At any point in time, employees should be able to openly discuss, decide and carry out things.

Tadashi Yanai firmly believes that one need not and should not blindly do what the boss says. Instead, employees should try to understand what the boss wants to accomplish and see how that can be done.

This just shows how different Tadashi Yanai is from traditional Japanese businessmen. Unlike the traditionalists, Tadashi Yanai, believes in letting young people trying what they think they can; for there is no happiness at work when employees can’t do what they want to do.

In a Team of 10

He makes this funny observation about human resources. Usually in a team of 10, 2 will be smart, 6 will be alright and 2 will bring the team down, he says. Even teams that start off with 10 excellent members will eventually fall into this pattern. A good organization is not one that has all excellent employees. It is one that has found the right balance among employees. All employees should share the same company goals and try to work independently towards those goals. He believes that what is important is to have staff whose morale is high. They don’t all have to be brilliant.

Women in Workforce

He says there are very few women occupying top positions in his company. He makes an interesting observation and says, women don’t need “special” or “preferential treatment”. This, he says will never motivate women to achieve great professional levels at work. Instead , what they need is an environment that is comfortable for them to continue working after marriage and childbirth. He suggests creating teams where the majority are women. With Japan’s declining birth rate he says it’s all the more important to make use of women’s labor.

One Win Nine Losses

This book that was written in the year 2003, has Tadashi Yanai hinting at his retirement. Businessmen are like sportsmen; “they remain relevant only as long as they have the strength in them”, he says. But, with “Fast Retailing” going from strength to strength there has been little signs of him slowing down.

Apparently he had the nickname “yamagawa” (literally “mountain river)when he was a child. If somebody said “mountain”, he would say “river”. He never did as he was told and always thought independently and made his own decisions and wrote his own success story.

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Anupama

I am a Japanese language trainer with over 10 years of experience in teaching and mentoring students. I have lived in Japan for many years and enjoy sharing insights from my experience in the areas read more...

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