Isao Murodate is president of Choryusha, which has been publishing the monthly magazine Karento for 57 years. He also founded an education-related company that has taught many young people about the value of defending their country. Toshio Motoya spoke with Murodate about the content of Karento, leading a group of 800 people to visit Yasukuni Jinja, speech events, the thoughts Murodate wants to share with young people, and other topics.
(Mo) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. We were introduced by Hideaki Kase, who is head of the judging committees for the “True Interpretations of Modern History” Essay Contest and APA Japan Restoration Grand Prize. Have you known him for a long time?
(Mu) We became acquainted 10 years ago. He writes for Karento, which is published by Choryusha. This magazine was launched in 1964 by Okinori Kaya, who was minister of finance during World War II. He wanted to start a publication that was not biased to the right or left wing, one that would inspire a correct public sentiment in the liberal democratic society of Japan. The articles are written by a wide range of authors in diverse fields such as politics, economics, defense, diplomacy, and education. I took over the post of president from Motoharu Yano, who used to be vice president of the Yano Research Institute. Yano and I work together to carry out the publishing business, myself as president and Yano as chairman. Copies of Karento have long been sent to members of both houses of the National Diet.
(Mo) We also send copies of Apple Town, this magazine, to Diet members. We have been publishing it for the past 31 years without missing a single issue. I started Big Talk 30 years ago, and this is the 367th interview. We print 100,000 copies every month. Since we put copies in every APA Hotel guest room, this number increases as we open more hotels.
(Mu) That’s a large circulation. I’ve only been president of Choryusha for one year, so I hope to learn from you.
(Mo) What was your business before that?
(Mu) In 2003 I started a company named “Career Consulting,” which I still have today. We offer a fundamental leadership education program for working adults and university students, and also help university students find employment. Approximately 3,000 people participate in our programs each year.
(Mo) That’s a big number!
(Mu) Yes, and one unique feature of our programs is that we teach the concept of “Kunimamori,” or “defending our country.” Over 200,000 people were dismissed from official posts during the Purge of World War II. We want to do the opposite of that – we provide support for sending talented people into the political and business worlds. We have also visited Yasukuni Jinja every January 3 since 1999. On the first visit, our group numbered 70 people. Last year we had a total of 800, including 150 of our employees along with working adults and students who participate in our programs.
(Mo) It was thrilling to see the photo of your group.
(Mu) I think it must have been the largest group to visit a shrine in Japan. That photo was taken from atop a five-meter tower. At first we all wore suits when visiting Yasukuni, but as time went on the police began questioning us about what we were doing (laughs). I started wearing a kimono, and so did my employees. Today more young people are wearing traditional garb, maybe because they thought our kimono looked cool. Kase shared words of encouragement about our efforts, saying that we are engaged in a wonderful activity.
(Mo) Why did you start going to Yasukuni Jinja?
(Mu) I’ve never belonged to either the right or left wing. Around 25 years ago, an acquaintance asked me if I knew about Yasukuni. When I replied that I didn’t, he scolded me severely. I went to the shrine without delay and read letters written by members of the kamikaze unit, which are displayed in the Yushukan Museum. I ended up crying because I realized that those men gave their lives to protect Japan, which is why we are here today. I came to believe we must teach our students not only about leadership and business, but also about the people who created the Japan of today. They must think about society and about Japan, not only about themselves. In addition to Yasukuni Jinja, we also go to Ise Jingu and volunteer at the Imperial Palace.
(Mo) It’s great that you bring so many young people together.
(Mu) We also put on an annual Kunimamori speech event. Eight people are chosen to give speeches from among 1,500 entries. It’s always an impressive thing to see students and working adults in their 20s speak so passionately for seven minutes about topics like politics, the economy, national security, and safeguarding our traditional culture. Many of these participants also win prizes in The Sankei Shimbun’s Dokohai speech contest. In this way, we make many people aware that each individual must work to protect their country, without leaving this task totally up to the Japan Self-Defense Forces. More than 50 elementary and junior high school teachers – who are in charge of developing the young minds who will defend our country – have taken part.
(Mo) I think that’s fantastic.
(Mo) We’re in the latter stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, which I think will come to a complete end next spring. Most pandemics of the past have lasted about two years. Despite these difficult circumstances, APA Hotel has continued doing business, and we expect to record a profit this period as well.
(Mu) APA Hotel promptly rented entire hotels to local governments to be used as facilities where infected persons could recover. I think that was a splendid decision.
(Mo) A central figure in the government directly called my mobile phone to make the request, and I agreed on the spot. However, I was a bit surprised when then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced it at a press conference the next day. I didn’t have to consult with anyone because I am the founder and owner, and all of the shares in the company are held by my family.
(Mu) On the eve of World War II, the chairman of the Tokyo Stock Exchange asked Kaya to prepare reserve funds of 100 million yen to prevent a stock crash. Kaya responded, “Let’s get one billion yen.” This anecdote shows that only people with great courage can make decisions in every era. I am interested in the early stage of your business. I heard you started with residential housing.
(Mo) We began taking contracts for order-made housing. We received an advance payment before starting construction. We also received payments midway through and when delivering the finished product. In other words, it was a business that could be conducted without any funds at hand. But it was also a business with poor efficiency. In some cases the client’s wishes didn’t align with the shape of the lot, and we had to change everything, including the design. Once we gained some economic clout, we moved into residential land development, as well as the planning and sale of ready-built housing. We didn’t just build multiple homes that look the same, like the developments you often see. Customers liked how we came up with plans by thinking about the area’s appearance and changing the design of each home.
(Mu) You have a lot of great ideas. When were you born?
(Mo) In 1943.
(Mu) You’re the same age as my mother. It seems to me that many people take after one of their parents in terms of their ways of thinking. Who had a bigger influence on you, your father or your mother?
(Mo) I guess I’d say my father…However, he passed away from tuberculosis when I was in my second year of junior high school. I was born in Komatsu City, Ishikawa Prefecture. My father had a company, named “Motoya Woodworking Factory,” from before the war. He manufactured steering wheels for ships during World War II. He closed the factory after the war due to his protracted struggles with tuberculosis, divided it up, and rented it out. He also built an addition to our home that he rented out. That’s how we made ends meet.
(Mu) So I imagine that your mother greatly influenced your way of thinking.
(Mo) I’m not so sure about that. I was the oldest of six siblings. After my father died, I became head of the household. I was in charge of the finances and taking care of my mother. I do think my father inspired my habit of reading the newspaper. I’ve enjoyed doing so since I was a child, when I looked up any unfamiliar words in The Year Book of the Contemporary Society. I think that’s how I established a perspective of the world at such a young age.
(Mu) You developed your abilities that way.
(Mo) Yes. I started and grew my business from nothing. When I struck out on my own in my 20s, I thought I would fail unless I had some kind of weapon to ensure victory. I used the long-term housing loan system to that end. Back then people thought you weren’t a full-fledged adult unless you stopped renting and bought a house by age 40. There were no mortgages like today; people with no money couldn’t build a home, no matter how much they wanted to. That’s why I thought many people would buy order-made homes if long-term housing loans were available.
(Mu) You were certainly correct.
(Mo) I was working at a credit union, and I was also chairman of the district labor union. Back then the Ministry of Finance was spearheading efforts to merge regional credit unions. As a labor union leader, I held the casting vote for whether to merge or not. I thought local financial institutions of small or medium sizes could not succeed unless they had enough unique characteristics to compete on an equal footing with city and regional banks. That’s why I proposed a long-term housing loan system. After this system was launched, I quit my job and started my own business that involved selling loans and custom-built housing as a set. Even though they were called “long-term” loans, the repayment period was just 15 years. Rather than using the equal principal payment method, customers were drawn to our loans with fixed monthly payments of principal and interest. That’s one reason the business was profitable from day one. Of course, I also think this is partly due to my good luck (laughs).
(Mu) That’s great. I feel like your thinking aligns with “sanpo-yoshi,” a concept espoused by merchants in the former Omi Province that refers to benefits for three parties: the buyer, seller, and society. Of course you have profited, but my impression is that you are always thinking about providing benefits to your customers, too.
(Mo) Perhaps that’s true.
(Mu) How did you get into the hotel industry, which is your main business today?
(Mo) I got into this field initially as a type of tax planning. We could pay less taxes by building hotels using the gains from our condominium business through depreciation and aggregation of profit and loss. At first I considered rental apartments, but that business has a bad profit ratio. I thought hotels could be hugely profitable depending on how we operated them. I also thought one hotel wouldn’t be enough to boost our profit ratio, so my goal the whole time was to build a hotel chain.
(Mu) Did you emulate any other hotel chains?
(Mo) No. In the hotel industry it’s not unusual for different companies to be in charge of branding, operation, and ownership. But my objective was depreciation, so I focused on actually owning my own hotels. I think that alone differentiates us from past hotel businesses. We also launched a membership system starting from our first hotel. APA Hotel members receive 5,000 yen cash back when they pay 50,000 yen to stay at our hotels. On business trips the company pays for lodging, but the individual receives this cash back. In most cases, the employee makes the decision about which hotel to patronize when traveling for business. I thought we would gain popularity by appealing to these business travelers, who could earn a bit of pocket money their company or spouse wouldn’t know about. Today we have a cumulative total of more than 20 million members.
(Mu) That’s amazing!
(Mo) Research shows that most travel in Japan is round trips between Tokyo and another region. That’s why there is such a massive need for hotels in Tokyo, and why we have focused on building hotels in the five central wards of this city. APA Hotel would not benefit by fighting with other hotels over a small number of customers in rural areas with less demand. We’ve built many hotels in Fukuoka and Osaka because these are areas outside of Tokyo with comparatively more demand. That’s how we became Japan’s largest hotel chain today.
(Mu) Now you have over 100,000 rooms.
(Mo) Yes, we have over 100,000 rooms when adding in our partner hotels. We also bought the Coast Hotels chain and have hotels in Canada and the United States. Most hotel companies and other Japanese corporations start their overseas business in South Korea, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, or other parts of Asia, but we began in North America. However, our profit rate is much higher in Japan.
(Mu) I’ve heard APA Hotel has an extremely high profit rate in the hotel industry.
(Mo) Our profit rate was over 30% before the pandemic thanks to our most unique feature: our use of automation technology. Members can reserve a hotel room and check in on their smartphone in advance. At the hotel, all they have to do is touch the QR Code on their smartphone to the terminal at the front desk to instantly receive their key card. We are proud of this “one-second check-in” system. I think we are the only hotel chain across the world to offer this. And to check out, the guest just puts their card key into the express check-out box. The staff instantly receives a smartphone notification about the vacated room, so they can quickly clean it and turn it over for another guest to use during the day. These creative measures are how we have achieved an occupancy rate of over 100%. We keep evolving, and many of our newest hotels are equipped with new functions.
(Mu) How did you come up with these measures and ideas?
(Mo) I’ve traveled around the world, and I think I’ve learned a lot from seeing things in different countries. However, Japan is the only country with automated check-in machines. The mainstream way of thinking in Europe and the U.S. is that high-grade hotels must preserve the traditional mode of customer service. However, I believe it is better to evolve so we will be chosen by our guests.
(Mu) I’m a huge fan of APA Hotels, which have large, comfortable beds and fantastic pillows. The televisions are also big, and you offer a wide range of amenities. I can tell that you pay attention to small details.
(Mo) We make the rooms compact so you don’t have to walk around the room. You can just recline on the bed and watch TV.
(Mu) What does “APA” mean?
(Mo) It stands for “Always Pleasant Amenity.” These are also the three letters in the middle of the word “Japan,” signifying that we always want to be in the center of Japan.
(Mu) You think deeply about Japan, and are actively expressing your views as well.
(Mo) As I mentioned, I used to be a union leader when I worked at the credit union, so I had left-wing sentiments. I had to speak with management on an equal footing and fight successfully for our rights. My way of thinking changed after I became a businessman and started speaking with important figures around the globe. I’ve published Apple Town for more than 30 years now, and I’ve made constant efforts to revive Japan. I launched the “True Interpretations of Modern History” Essay Contest in 2008, the Shoheijuku academy in 2011, and the APA Japan Restoration Grand Prize in 2018.
(Mu) I also invite knowledgeable people to a monthly meeting where they speak about their ways of living to young people. They include Toshio Tamogami, who won the Grand Prize (Fuji Seiji Prize) in the 1st Annual “True Interpretations of Modern History” Essay Contest; Keiko Kawasoe, who won the 13th Annual Grand Prize; and Michio Ezaki, who won the 1st APA Japan Restoration Grand Prize.
(Mo) I saw that the August issue of Karento included an interview with Abe. I have a high opinion of his accomplishments.
(Mu) He’s the one who proposed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India, which has never happened before.
(Mo) Now it is more important than ever for us to build an encirclement around China. I think Abe did a great thing by establishing the Quad.
(Mu) China is totally different than it was 20 years ago. It is drastically strengthening its military power backed by rapid economic progress.
(Mo) Its 1.4 billion citizens are a huge source of strength. Residents of rural areas make up the majority. A small number of urban residents exploit these rural dwellers to gain wealth, and this economic power is transformed into military strength. The army used to be China’s main force, but today it is striving for maritime hegemony and is embarking into the South China and East China Seas. I think the only way to oppose this is with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s deep-submergence submarines of the top class in the world. China couldn’t easily invade Japan as long as we have these submarines.
(Mu) I agree. We also have to inspire more people to want to defend Japan.
(Mo) I agree entirely. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(Mu) Japan would definitely improve if more skilled people served in key positions. I want young people to realize they have not yet developed many skills, and to focus on improving themselves through work and studies in their 20s. They should gain new abilities by interacting with many different people. There’s plenty of time to earn money in your 30s or 40s. I hope they will learn what key positions exist and fully study the Japanese structures and rules for these positions. I always say, “Your skills aren’t only for you.” I want capable people to enter the business and financial worlds, take up important positions, and work sincerely.
(Mo) My business has greatly benefitted through my conversations with many people in more than 80 countries around the world. Thank you for telling us about your wonderful activities today.
(Mu) Thank you.
Born in 1971 in Mutsu City, Aomori Prefecture. After graduating from high school in 1989, he moved to Tokyo and found a job at a supermarket. He changed jobs in 1990 and became the top salesperson and top manager in a business related to educating people in their 20s. He struck out on his own and founded Career Consulting Co.,Ltd. in 2003. It offers a fundamental leadership education program and job-hunting services for new graduates. He also became president of Choryusha Co., Ltd. in 2020.