The Japanese expat community in Ho Chi Minh City is made up of much more than the visiting businessmen who flock to sushi bars, izakayas and dodgy hostess restaurants at the top of Le Thanh Ton Street in District 1. Instead, this often-overlooked group is full of creative  entrepreneurs who are making their marks — both big and small — on Vietnam. By Michael Tatarski. Photos by Christian Berg.

The Pizza Maniac
Given his background, one wouldn’t guess that Yosuke Masuko is the man behind one of the city’s most popular restaurants. Before opening Pizza 4P’s, Masuko was a venture capitalist working in the technology sector. He was sent to Hanoi to open up a branch for his company several years ago, and he quickly fell for Vietnam. “I saw the fast-growing economy and felt the energy of the Vietnamese people, and I realised that if I wanted to start my own business, this is the place to be,” Masuko tells me.

Masuko’s love of pizza goes back almost a decade, to when he built a stone pizza oven in his garden in Japan. Along with a close friend, who is now the head chef at 4P’s, Masuko learned to make pizza through trial and error. “We experimented, and I went to New York, London, Naples and Rome to eat pizza. I was a pizza maniac,” he says. Vietnam was the perfect location to turn this obsession into a business.

“I couldn’t find any pizza I wanted to eat in Ho Chi Minh City,” Masuko says. So, he decided to open 4P’s with strict devotion to quality. Masuko and his team make their own cheese, which they learned how to do online, and grow many of their own vegetables. Now the restaurant has become so popular that it is packed with people from all over the world almost every night. But that doesn’t mean Masuko is complacent. “We are always trying to improve,” he says.

The Consultant
Yoshitaka Ohara, the director of Habataku Inc, is emblematic of the relationship between Vietnam and Japan. He connects Japanese experts who want to share their knowledge with Vietnamese social entrepreneurs who are striving to move their country forward. “We encourage people to go outside of Japan and we believe all people should be able to design their own life,” Ohara says.

With a shrinking population and struggling economy, more Japanese are going elsewhere for opportunities. “We have realised that happiness is not wealth, so people are looking for ways to contribute to society,” Ohara says. His company provides business consultation and connects people with entrepreneurs, mostly in the manufacturing industry, in Vietnam, as well as several of its neighbours.

Ohara believes such work provides a confidence boost to people from his home country. “Vietnamese still think Japanese skills and techniques are something to be modelled after. Right now many Japanese are losing pride in their country, but by working in a place like Vietnam we realise we can still do some good for the world,” Ohara says.

The Train Conductor
After years of supposed planning, many people view Ho Chi Minh City’s metro system as nothing more than a pipe dream. Akira Hosomi is working to ensure that the dream becomes a reality. Hosomi, who has a doctorate in engineering, is the chief representative in Vietnam for the Japan International Consultants for Transportation Company (JICT).

Hosomi moved to Vietnam in 2002 as part of the team from the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which disburses the Japanese government’s foreign aid, that developed the master plan for the city’s metro system. When funding for the first line, which will run from Suoi Tien to Ben Thanh Market, was approved, JICT was founded to provide consultation for the project.

“Traffic is getting worse, and this is a city of 6 or 7 million with no real public transportation,” Hosomi says. “The metro system is needed, and that is why I want to be here.” Having previously worked in the Philippines and Mongolia, Hosomi has expertise in transportation systems in developing countries. Work on line one is underway, and the construction along the Hanoi Highway through District 2 is evidence of Hosomi’s contribution to Ho Chi Minh City.

The Dessert Chef
Like Masuko from 4P’s, Yuya Arashima proves that no one is limited to one career path. Arashima worked as a business management consultant at IBM in Japan for five years before realising it wasn’t what he really wanted to do. He came to Vietnam to help a colleague and decided to see what opportunities were available. He focused on food, and discovered that locals loved Japanese desserts.

Thus a star was born: Star Kitchen, to be exact, a Japanese cooking studio. Arashima, who had no experience with cooking, approached an ex-colleague from IBM whose mother is a famous food personality in Japan. She helped train Arashima’s staff, and now Star Kitchen offers cooking classes and sells desserts.

“This is meant to be a nice place,” Arashima told me in his airy studio above Pizza 4P’s. “I went to some cooking schools here and they were very traditional … with one teacher surrounded by 50 people taking notes.” Arashima’s studio is meant to be like a friend’s kitchen, where a small group can have fun while cooking. He says, “I want to show people a model of how you can enjoy your life.”