The rise of an entrepreneurial niche? Japan’s unique bakeries

Posted by on 2 February 2014 in Consulting, General Interest

The rise of an entrepreneurial niche? Japan’s unique bakeries

I recently travelled to Japan for holiday – a country which, depending who you speak to, can conjure up anything from images of sushi to technology to anime to nuclear catastrophes to controversial whaling practices. It was my third visit and I was once again reminded of how difficult it is to “get to know” another country, culture or its people, while only being exposed very briefly to the (tourist) tip of their lives. Understanding is a complex activity and in a country with as many stimulations, but also unspoken rules that govern everyday behaviour, it is even more so.

The one theme I found intriguing was what seems to be a strongly emerging entrepreneurial culture among young people, specifically in services, food and hospitality.

Japan’s bakery culture is the stuff of salivating tales and recollections of the ubiquitous panya, literally bread shops. What I found very interesting in buying daily goods from these small independent bakeries was the youth demographic. A large percentage of the small bakeries we bought from in Osaka, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Kagoshima and Takamatsu, were run by 20-something Japanese. What I want to know is whether they are owner/managers, or employees only?

There have been a number of recent stories about Japan’s new generations and how they are bucking the trends of marriage and work in strict and hierarchical work places, and I wondered whether there is a new entrepreneurial generation opening bakery shops and cafés.

BREAD panya in Fukuoka

BREAD panya in Fukuoka

I checked this observation with a few people, and received anecdotal confirmation that many young people take a gap year to go to countries like France where they enroll in pastry courses, learn as much as they can and come back to open a shop, but a search online for case studies on the ownership structure of these cafés and shops did not deliver anything substantive. Are these young people baking bread at 04h00 and selling it until 22h00 doing it for themselves, or are they working for an invisible owner, not there, as part of the “informal labour” sector? The issue of NEETs have been debated for a number of years now, and there was even this recent example of a company paradoxically established by NEETS. I have also heard of the plight of many young people unable to secure jobs because of the strain on pension funds in a country with a rapidly aging population.

I would love to know more about this issue and to understand what the risks and barriers are for a school leaver in Japan to start their own panya/bakery. I especially wonder about this because of the employment challenges faced by African countries, and the need to develop a new entrepreneurial generation which can contribute in the same way as these young business people.  The challenges remain many though, if you consider this piece by TMS Ruge recently on the lack of venture capital in Africa.

For totally different reasons across different countries, traditional employment cannot be the only way to earn an income anymore. There is a large global generation of young people who will not be able to rely on steady work and will have to find their own way – whether as an artisanal baker or a mobile app developer.

I do know, however, that the panya of Japan need some more field research from me soon…

Two roll cakes bought from fuku+re in Kagoshima

Two roll cakes bought from fuku+re in Kagoshima

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting article. Looking forward to visiting the panyas.

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