junko watanabe
riarumi talks to Junko Watanabe, Owner of Premium Wine. Junko tells us about how her passion for wine got her started in the wine business, her love of all things New York, the tough times she faced during her school years and shares her words of encouragement for young women.

Who is the riarumi?

My name is Junko Watanabe and I work in the wine business. In 1988, I moved to New York for the first time, because I was curious to explore the world. I grew up in a very strict family and didn’t have much freedom. Of course, I loved my parents but they were very strict. Even when I was in high school, I had a 6pm curfew.

I was in my mid-twenties when I first went to New York. I was initially supposed to come back to Japan in six months, but I ended up spending a lot longer there, because everything was new to me and there was so much freedom. People there really seemed to be enjoying life. In the 80s, Japan was going through its bubble period, as you know. People were extremely materialistic – money, owning luxury items, and so on – and I wanted to get away from that.

Tell us about moving to New York.

It was kind of a coincidence. One of my friends was asked by someone, “do you know anyone who wants to move to New York?” So she asked me, because I’d previously told her that I wanted to go to New York. She then told me that there was a Japanese restaurant there looking for a waitress, and was I interested. And, of course, I said “yes!” So I went there to work at that restaurant. Fortunately, they had dormitories for their staff, so that’s what made it possible for me to go there. That’s also how I was able to convince my parents to let me go because, in the 80s, New York was still a relatively dangerous place, and I was a lone person with no friends there, so naturally they had reservations about that.

So I moved there in ‘88 and stayed there for six months, working at that restaurant. And then, with my visa coming to an end, I returned to Japan. I then continued working here, so that I could save enough money to return to New York again. That took a few years but after that, I had enough money … well, not really “enough”, because I also wanted to go to NYU (New York University) and take an English class there, but the tuition was very expensive. But I had enough money to move back to New York.

The same restaurant as before had also offered me to come back and work there again, so in ‘92, I returned to New York and worked at the restaurant again. However, my mum was also unwell at that time, so I was frequently traveling back and forth between New York and Japan. In ‘95, I got a job at a Japanese company in New York and, a little after that, I quit and established my own company there.

What was the company you established?

It was a kind of export company. At the time, Nike was very hot, very popular. So I bought some Nike sneakers for myself. I especially liked Michael Jordan’s Nikes, and that compelled me to go to see him play in Chicago. There I met someone who introduced me to another person who had a large supply of Nike shoes. I thought that it would be a good business to export them to Japan, so that’s how I started that company.

How did you make the transition from that into the wine business?

In ‘99, I went to France to develop my knowledge of wine. Wine was a subject I’d enjoyed tremendously, including the history of wines, and I wanted to know a lot more. I love learning. During my stay in France, I started thinking, “I should do this as a business. What kind of wine business should I start?” While I was walking around Paris, I walked right past Christies’ Paris office and I then realised, “that’s it, this is what I want!”

When I got back to New York, I decided to approach Christies. I mailed and faxed my resume to them many times, called them frequently, and even visited their offices on several occasions, but they ignored me each time. Someone then told me that I had to know a good connection in order to get a position there, otherwise I’ll have no chance. So I asked everyone I knew, everyone I encountered – even waiters in restaurants I visited – “do you know anyone who can introduce me to someone at Christies?” Then eventually, I met someone who knew Mr. Michael Broadbent at Christies’ wine department, and Mr. Broadbent then contacted the New York office and told them about me. Then finally, I was able to get an internship there.

I don’t like to give up. I don’t care whatever people think, but I want to be able to fulfill my dreams. I don’t think that anything is impossible. Everything is possible, if you make effort and keep your dream alive. Life is too short to regret anything and not do the things you want.

How did you progress to the role of Junior Wine Specialist at Christies?

When I started working there as an intern, I worked very, very hard. Because I was so happy! I really enjoyed being there a lot! My boss would say, “Junko, you work too hard! You don’t need to work this hard!” but I would say, “This isn’t work for me. I enjoy it, I’m so happy to be doing this!” So then my boss realised that I was such a genuinely hard worker. Later, quite suddenly, our Junior Wine Specialist left and her position became open. Of course there were a lot of applications for the job, but my bosses recommended me for the position, because they already knew me and had seen my passion for the work.

Could you tell us a little bit about Premium Wine Co., Ltd. and what it is you do?

Our main business is wine auctioning in Japan. I also aim to introduce real wine culture here. I consult with private collectors about what wines they should have, helping them to build a good portfolio, and hold lectures on wine investment and their price fluctuations, as well as offering useful information on wine.

The thing is, the wine business here is behind other Asian countries like Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. Their wine market is mature, but it’s much less so in Japan, because Japanese people don’t have access to all the necessary information about wines. So giving wine news, helping people to buy good wines at a good price – not at Japanese prices (laughs) – and organising wine auctions makes up the bulk of my work.

My work takes me between Japan and other countries all over the world, but my office is in New York.

Junko conducting a wine auction.
Junko conducting a wine auction.

What compels you to continue to work and live in New York? What do you enjoy most about life in New York?

New York gives me a lot of energy and takes away my fears. If I feel worries or feel weak, I go to Central Park and it seems to refill my energy. I don’t know why, but I feel a huge amount of energy in New York. It seems to be everywhere, but my favourite place is Central Park. It’s a very inspiring place for me to be in.

You know, as a young woman in Japan, it seemed like it was better to be like everyone else. To be part of the standard, to fit in. So when I moved to New York the second time and was working there, and going to the office meetings, I didn’t say anything. I wanted to fit in. My former boss said, “Junko, do you have any ideas or comments?” and I said “mm, not really”. Then the boss told me, “you have to say something. Surely you have some opinions or feelings about this? You have to share them and not be afraid.” I wasn’t used to that, because in Japan, my bosses never said anything like that or had that attitude. I would have to either agree or say nothing. So giving my opinions and feelings started to come a lot more naturally to me in New York.

Did you study at university or college?

No, I didn’t graduate from university in Japan because I became unwell in high school. I was bullied by my teacher and developed an eating disorder. After that, I lost all ability and confidence to return to school and couldn’t graduate at the same time as my classmates. So I also lost my chance to go to university at that time and I couldn’t work.

I then wanted to change my world.  I worked part-time and made enough money to move away somewhere. Anywhere would’ve been fine for me, but I really wanted to go to London or New York. I got a chance to go to New York, so that’s why I went there. But because I’ve always wanted to go to university, I recently entered NYU, although I haven’t graduated yet. I’m still a student there.

I’m sorry to hear that you had to go through bullying in your childhood. That must have been tough on you.

The teacher took advantage. She had no reason to bully me. As you can see, my hair is not completely black, this is my natural hair colour (brown). And when I was younger, my hair was an even lighter shade of brown. The teacher would tell me, “you dyed your hair, didn’t you?” but I would say, “no, no I didn’t” and my mother also came in once and told the school, “she didn’t dye her hair”.  But the teacher still insisted that I had. So the teacher cut my hair (gestures to ear level). It was so short! I was so shocked.

The teacher would also always go through my bag, even though she had no reason to. And if I had something in there, for example a picture of a famous male idol or something, she would tear it up. So this kind of thing continued for one year. It came to be that I didn’t want to go to school, and I couldn’t eat anything. I was 16 or 17 years old.

If people are being bullied or pushed around by their friends or teachers, I really understand how they’re feeling and I want to help them.

What advice do you have for any readers who are thinking they would like to pursue a career unrelated to their previous studies or previous experience, but are perhaps afraid of risks in doing so?

In my case, I changed my career when I was 37. When I was 36, I went to France to study wine. Before that, I had no idea I was even going to be in the wine business. I just decided at that age to learn about wine for fun. Of course, at the time, I thought “I wish I had done this when I was younger” but now I think “I was young!”

You were young. You are young still!

I try to think that way. (laughs)

You’re bilingual in Japanese and English. How does being bilingual serve you personally in your career, and how important is speaking English?

Speaking English is very important. It’s the world’s second language. Wherever I go in the world, even if the national language isn’t English, I can always communicate using English. So it will be good for Japanese people if they can speak English. I think Japanese schools should hire native English teachers and teach it more effectively, so that Japan can become more globally competitive.

Also, in my job, I want to be a bridge between other countries and Japan, as far as the premium wine industry goes, so speaking English is very important for me personally too.

Even if you don’t plan to leave Japan, this is still a multi-cultural world that we live in. And if you speak English, you’ll be opening yourself up to so many more opportunities in your work and in the social experiences you can have in your life with people from other countries who are living in Japan. But I always tell young people, you should spend at least some time living in another country, wherever it may be. Not on a vacation, but actually stay there for a little while and experience their life. I believe doing that will change their way of thinking about life in a very positive way; it will open their minds and attitudes.

Junko in the wine region of Tuscany.
Junko in the wine region of Tuscany.

What are some of the main difficulties and obstacles have faced so far in your life?

I’ve had a lot of difficult times in my life. A lot. I have happy times where I enjoy what I’m doing. But also, in almost the same proportion, I have hard times.

Like I said earlier, when I was a teenager, I had a difficult time. I was also bullied as a young child because I was so fat. When I went to kindergarten, the kids would make fun of me because I was so fat. I used to really hate seeing pictures of myself when I was a child.

So I was like that until 6 or 7 years old, but then my mum sent me to ballet class to lose weight. But actually, that was fun. And I lost a little weight. Junior High School was fun. But then, as I said earlier, in High School I had those problems with my teacher.

When I went to New York, I was so poor and struggled to have enough money to survive. I couldn’t even pay my telephone bill and, of course, at the time there was no internet. So my mum couldn’t contact me. Then, at that time, my grandmother died. And, of course, I didn’t know – I couldn’t be contacted. So after that happened, I told myself “I don’t want to be poor” and I tried to work harder.

The most difficult time though was when my mum died. That was almost 20 years ago, so I was still fairly young. I also had a bad marriage and got divorced, which was also hard on me, particularly so because it happened around the same time I lost my mum.

What have been some of the highlights so far for you?

I started my own business exporting Nike shoes. The business went really well, so that was fun. But I also spent a lot of money on stupid things! (laughs) I was too young – I spent my money on fashion, on holidays, I spent money like it was running water. So, in hindsight, I should have saved more money. But at least I have a lot of memories now from that time. I went to many countries, I had a lot of fun experiences, lots of good memories to look back on.

Another highlight was working in Christies. I had a lot of confidence in myself, because I was fulfilling my dream of a New York life. I had an apartment on the Upper East Side, and my company was near the Rockerfeller Center in mid-town, so every day, I would go to work on foot through Central Park, across Fifth Avenue, across Park Avenue, across Madison Avenue … And Central Park was beautiful – green, fresh air, people jogging. It had a really nice atmosphere. And when I got to work, I had a really nice office. Also, because I was working at Christies, I always had opportunities to appreciate all the very fine art that was kept on our premises.

Junko with Christian Moueix, a distinguished French winemaker.
Junko with Christian Moueix, a distinguished French winemaker.

How is home life? What do you do to relax?

I like going to the gym, especially for yoga and jogging, and watching DVDs. I like American TV shows like Gossip Girl, Sex and The City, and Ugly Betty. I think Ugly Betty gives a nice message to viewers. It gives me a lot of courage.

Do you feel there is a gender equality imbalance in Japan?

Generally, I don’t think that men and women are treated equally in Japan. Look at the government for example; we have very few female politicians. Same with big Japanese companies, there aren’t very many women in leadership positions. We’re very behind in that respect, compared to the rest of the developed world.

How do you think both women in Japan can address this? And how can men address it?

Men and women have to cooperate with each other. Women have to work hard and, at the same time, men have to acknowledge their abilities and show a supportive attitude towards equality. Especially in the house, men should take a more active role in sharing the housework, and raising the children. This is something both people in a partnership should take an active role in. Housework is not exclusively woman’s work.

Something else is that I’ve also realised that there aren’t so many counselors in Japan. There aren’t so many places for people, women, men and children, to talk about how they really feel. Sometimes, people want to talk about what’s on their mind. I think the thing is, seeing a counselor is sometimes treated as a shameful or embarrassing thing in Japan. People would be ashamed to say if they’re seeing a counselor, because they would feel like they’re showing themselves to be a person with mental problems. And, of course, it’s not a shameful thing.

Everybody has issues in life that they may need a bit of outside help to deal with. And if someone can help you, that’s good. You can then overcome those issues, if you have the opportunity to talk to someone who can help. It’s much more damaging if you have a problem and you just leave it and let yourself feel worse. I think companies with enough resources should hire counselors for their staff as well.

What advice would you like to share with young women who are at the very start of their careers, or are yet to begin?

I was having a conversation recently with a young woman. She wanted to do something, but she wasn’t really sure what. So I told her, there are a lot of choices. Maybe she feels like she can’t decide what she wants to do, or wants to be, but whatever excites her, that’s what she should go for. For example, if music makes you happy, go into that industry, as an artist, or working for a record company, or working in production, or whatever. Keep yourself close to what motivates you and excites you.

Are there any famous quotes or philosophies on life that you particularly like?

“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”
– Michael Jordan

Do you have any other comments or inspiring words you’d like to add?

Don’t give up on anything. Someone once said, “it’s very easy to kill a person. You don’t need a gun, you don’t need a knife; you just need to take away their hope.” Having a dream, whatever it is, is the most beautiful thing in our lives.

junko watanabe