When Supertyphoon “Yolanda” struck the country early last month, Gift Gate Inc.’s Virgie Ramos received a phone call from her longtime friend Kunihiko Tsuji, chief operating officer and senior executive vice president of Sanrio Co. Ltd.
He asked Ramos to send help to the victims, specifically the children. Unknown to her, he had already directed the company’s general manager in Asia to do the same.
That was the last time Ramos would speak with Tsuji. The only son and heir of the Sanrio founder died a few days later of acute heart failure in Los Angeles, California. He was 62.
“I cried so hard when I heard the news,” Ramos says, several days after returning from Tsuji’s funeral in Tokyo. “He was so kindhearted. He was a longtime friend of the Philippines. He has been coming here since the 1980s.”
Tsuji, who knew the late President Corazon Aquino and was considered a family friend of the Aquinos, had even sent his older son Tomokuni, 25, last October to attend an exhibit of Ms Aquino’s paintings at the Manila Hotel.
‘For all he did for my mom’
Ramos says the Aquino heirs sent flowers and their condolences to the Tsuji family, with a message from Ballsy Aquino-Cruz, stressing their gratitude to the deceased “for all he did for my mom.”
Ramos was set to meet with Tsuji on Nov. 21; on Nov. 22, he was to be officially named chief executive of the company his father founded in 1960. He died on Nov. 19, before he and wife Yuko could fly home to Tokyo.
“When she saw me at the funeral, Yuko broke down because she knew Kunihiko and I were supposed to meet,” Ramos says. In 1979, Ramos became the first Sanrio agent in the world, only five years after Hello Kitty was born.
Tsuji was a health buff, according to Ramos. He even ran marathons. Apart from having an irregular heartbeat and hypertension, he had no other known health conditions. He had just left the gym when he had his first and fatal heart attack. When they received the phone call, his mother couldn’t accept the truth that her otherwise healthy son was gone.
A hard worker, the Sanrio heir traveled the world for business, always with his wife by his side. They had been to 100 countries together, the wife told mourners at her husband’s memorial, according to Ramos. That time they spoke about the Yolanda aid, says Ramos, the Tsujis were in Brazil.
While it was the dad, Shintaro Tsuji, now 86, who founded the company that would create one of the most successful characters and franchises in the world—Hello Kitty—it was the son who had the vision to take it outside Japan and grow Sanrio to what it is today.
Owing to the younger Tsuji, 90 percent of the Sanrio business is now overseas, via a flourishing licensing model. Tsuji was in charge of the overseas business. Today, Hello Kitty, the epitome of Japanese kawaii or cuteness, can be found in over 22,000 licensed products—from little trinkets to airplanes and theme parks and even vibrators. “From womb to tomb,” as Ramos puts it.
The Sanrio Co. succession will be announced in a week or two, Ramos says, declining to go into details.
Hello Kitty family
The Sanrio artist and first woman director of the company, Sakayama-san, made a most loving tribute to Tsuji, says Ramos. On the coffin made of Japanese wood and black hardware, she drew the Hello Kitty family.
The altar was awash in pink and white flowers with the likenesses of Hello Mimi and Hello Kitty flanking Tsuji’s portrait. Beneath is the Japanese word for “thank you”: arigato. Thousands of their friends and business partners from overseas, including Ramos, attended the funeral.
Ramos has the fondest memories of Tsuji. On her first meeting with the Sanrio founder, two young men were sent to pick her up, one of whom was Kunihiko. She didn’t know he was the Sanrio heir. Ramos was a bit tardy, but managed to joke that she’d report the young men to her host for being late.
This was in the late ’70s, and Sanrio had never done business overseas before Ramos came. The Japanese are very traditional, and she knew that the Sanrio officer she had met with before the meeting with the chief executive had misgivings, as she was a woman.
But Shintaro Tsuji hit it off with Ramos right away. He invited her to his house to meet his wife.
In the Tsuji home, a young man walked in. Ramos recognized him as the same man from earlier in the day. The older man introduced Ramos to his son. The two started laughing. “He had to explain to his father our previous encounter. Since then, we had a good friendship. His son Tomokuni just stayed in my house a couple of months ago.”
Kunihiko and Yuko Tsuji have a younger son, Masakuni, who’s about to enter university.
Kunihiko Tsuji often visited Manila, says Ramos, and he usually stayed in her family home. One time, wanting to surprise his friend, he arrived unannounced and took a cab from the airport. Then the cabbie offered to take him to a girlie bar. He never took a cab in Manila again.
“He loved me, we were ‘BFFs’ (best friends forever)! Our relationship had gone beyond the business… And he had quite a sense of humor,” Ramos recalls of her friend. When she opened her Japanese fast-food concept restaurant, Tokyo Tokyo, Tsuji came to show his support. Ramos later found him in the kitchen making yakisoba because the queue was so long.
She also brokered the partnership between Swatch and Hello Kitty; the Hello Kitty Flik Flak Swatch is the top-selling cartoon collaboration of the Swiss watchmaker, says Ramos, who owns the local Swatch franchise.
Even in the midst of the family tragedy, his heirs never forgot Tsuji’s last directive for Yolanda aid. Son Tomokuni went all the way to Ramos’ hotel after the funeral to give the contact information of the executive in-charge of releasing the donation.
Sanrio, which began as a silk trading company, was inspired by the Japanese culture of giving little gifts and that sense of imparting “a good feeling,” says Ramos.
“That really lived in this guy.”