An Interview with Taro Arai of Mikuni Restaurants
Taro Arai, a thriving, eclectic, down-to-earth, faithful, fully joyous and extremely blessed businessman in the greater Sacramento area, has a mind of his own. Today, he is well-known for being the personable CDO (Chief Dreaming Officer) and owner of Mikuni restaurants where he passionately loves and serves his community and clients. But like everyone else, he has, of course, had his fair share of struggles and difficulties and humble beginnings. (Would it really be a proper story without any conflict?)
The Crazy Kid
It all started in Japan. Taro was quite the character growing up, standing out literally everywhere he went. He explains, “My name Taro means first son; Arai means wild. So, wild, first son. I didn’t name myself, [but] I was kind of crazy. I was the only one that had a reverse mohawk—all different hairstyles—[sometimes] I shaved only half. I did everything I shouldn’t do in Japan, and people didn’t like it, especially teachers. They want to teach formality—you have to be a certain way. I just couldn’t do it.”
But it wasn’t an issue of crazy hair, though some traditionalists would argue otherwise. Everything Taro did was different, but his uniqueness and ability to stand out was nothing of the negative. From the beginning, God set him apart for what He would do later on in his life. He had to walk through unique trials too, however, before he’d ever learn to dream big. He recalls, “Even the first day in Junior High I had red shoes instead of white with the yellow trim (school colors). My dad has been a pastor, church [was] very small in Japan—less than 1% Christian, [so] he was not getting much money. I found very cheap, red shoes and said, “Why not get [those] instead?” I wore that and first thing, [in front of 2500] students. . .the principal said, “Hey, the kid in the red shoes come up to the podium.” And I said, ‘Yes!’ [as] I’m waving at my friend [and before I know it], [the principal] starts smacking my face until I bled everywhere. And at school, if you don’t follow rules, that’s what [they’re] going to do to you. I wasn’t that special. I gave those shoes to the school and that teacher, and I didn’t wear shoes for a year.”
Always uncomfortable, Taro couldn’t settle in to his home country because he was wildly different. He says he couldn’t be himself. Distraught, he told his dad, “Dad, I have to do something about this.” Without question, he replied, “I heard America is a good place for you to go.” This resilient kind of thinking is the what Taro thrives on today. He knew he was different early on, but he refused to change who he was just to fit in. From a young age, he was already beginning to think outside the box. And with his dad in full support of his genuine expression of himself, he didn’t have to pretend to be like everyone else. He was free to think, and gradually became free to believe in impossible things.
Hard Work Pays Off
It’s not only about believing, however. To back up Taro’s belief that there had to be something “more” in life than his negative experiences, he knew how to work hard. He says, “I started doing the newspaper route since [I was] 11 and raised enough money to pay for the whole family to come here. Then as soon as we got here, actually, we had a Japanese speaking church that needed a Japanese speaking pastor. We got a green card right away; that was a miracle too.” Had he not put the effort in, after the dream of going to America fell into his lap, he and his family may not be in the sweet spot they’re in today.
Learning how to press in and work hard to pursue his dreams was a muscle Taro began to exercise much earlier than most. Given his name and his drive, he was built to push the envelope which would get more heavy and damaged down the road, however. So many things happened, one right after the other, after Taro and his family settled in to the states. They would take flight with a positive for the restaurant; then the next moment, things were falling apart. Not to mention the fact that they didn’t even know what they were doing when they began their journey in the restaurant industry. He had so many opportunities to strengthen his faith.
One day it became almost too much for Taro to bear. So much so, he was tempted to go back to the very place he felt imprisoned. He recalls twisting his finger, breaking his ankle, having an ulcer, cutting his hand—pretty much any terrible thing that could happen did as he describes it. Completely stressed out and not even able to make sushi because of all the injuries combined, he asked his dad, “Can we go back to Japan in the middle of the night?” Full of wisdom and patience, his dad replied, “Son, dig deeper. Deepen the foundation—God promised me He is going to build something amazing upon [it].”
Taro’s dad continued to pour out the wisdom. “He said two things that hit me,” says Taro. “One is it’s not about what you know, but who you know—know Jesus, you get to heaven. Knowing people is the key for us.” In learning this, he says “I started talking to every customer.” Then, the question arose, “Why don’t you do your best (which isn’t much) and then God will do the rest?” From that point on, something clicked. “I changed my whole attitude about work,” he says. “Since then, I never have a bad day because I’m doing my best and the rest is up to Him.”
Humility is Key
Taro is not quiet about his faith, and he shines because of it. He’s written two books so far (the first about abundance and the second about appreciation) and a third is in progress where he’s adamant about pointing to God for everything he has and everything He’s continuing to do in/through his life. His faith in the God who wants to do impossible things with/through him is the foundation that can’t be overlooked. Even he says, “I mean, we don’t deserve to be here. That’s what I mean [when I say] ‘by the grace of God.’ That is the only reason we are here; that’s the reason we came and how we opened the restaurant.”
Believing that God and His good grace is the only reason for healthy success, like Taro, is key. When we begin to think that somehow we’re the sole author of our own progress, we stumble in the misunderstanding of Matthew 19:26 (“. . .with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”). Taro stays in remembrance of this truth which continues to propel him forward. His humility, heart connect with God and obedience to follow His lead keeps him free to dream big dreams. On his social media platform, he says “. . .I decided to keep dreaming big & expect big things from God, who is bigger than all problems/challenges. I will be praying humbly & believing that He will use me to help others!. . .I decided to replace ‘What if’ with “Why not’ & believe impossible things are possible with God!”
One of the most incredible things about Taro is his enthusiasm and hunger for life and more of it. He’s dedicated to keep flowing, never growing cold or stopping short because he truly believes there’s so much more in store if he exercises his faith and steps out. It’s evident his life is already abundant and overflowing, but his refusal to settle where he is is inspiring to say the least. With conviction he says, “We have to improve ourselves in every way. . .in the business world, in the spiritual world, we have to keep doing our best.”
“Let’s keep kaizening in every way with God,” Taro also exclaims on social media. “Kaizen means continuous improvement—change for the better,” he says, and this idea has been deeply rooted in him since he overcame a huge 11 million dollar loss around 2008. Although he’s had many hard falls, he claims that time to be “the best lesson from God on how to run the business [though] it was hard to see back then.” Since that low dip, he has changed the whole focus of his business ventures. When they opened Mikuni Kaizen in 2009, he says “We changed our whole attitude toward running the new store.” Though feeling defeated, he took it upon himself to act upon the wisdom his dad kept seeding into him, which was to “dig in again.” He shares about how his dad wouldn’t let him give up just because things became difficult. And ultimately, he resolved that “it’s not about building—it’s not about that stuff—it’s about heart.”
Taro’s perspective is not one we normally see, especially in the restaurant industry. Numbers talk and tend to be the guiding force toward more success, but he has remained faithful in following God’s lead on how to do things. From that lesson in 2009 he says, “We changed our mission statement to be the ‘most loved’ restaurant in the world. We don’t have to be the best; we just want to be loved by God [and] loved by people. . .that’s the key for success. That’s why we [chose the name] Kaizen. We had to keep reminding ourselves.”
Since that shift in heart, Taro’s impact on his community continues to heighten. The remarkable thing is that this man does not quit. Instead of focusing on temporal things, he understands the importance of self-care and self-improvement. He does his best to tackle the hard things deep down on this inside of him. He shares that he “used to be short-tempered. . .hard-headed” so he says “I started praying to God to give me happiness in my heart 24/7. And I told him I want to be the happiest. . .most joyous man ever.”
Not only that, but when he felt like he’d struck that goal, he kept pressing in for more. After praying for a new goal, God confirmed truth in his heart and he says “Now I don’t have to choose to be happy, I just have [to ask] God to give me the joy from within. And if I don’t share, I’m going to blow up! So now, every time I go out, I can’t stop sharing.” It’s beautiful to see him live out the message of Kaizen. And if we have the same desire for growth and experiencing abundance, it’s imperative we don’t stop improving.
We all have stories and different backgrounds and personalities. What’s awesome is God’s ability to take who we are—fully who He created us to be—and write us into His bigger plan. Taro’s rising success is no accident; we need to be inspired by him and his tenacity to push forward no matter what life throws his way. Whether Taro is catering or slowing down to sincerely connect with his customers or doing his best as husband/father as a devout family man, he manages to keep God at the center of everything. He has seen many highs and many lows, and he understands there will be more to come. But the most commendable thing about Taro is the way he lives empowered to believe in the impossible. No matter what comes, his heart is set on not holding back as he says, “It’s [all] up to Him, but I’m going to keep dreaming. . .”