16 Oct 2021
27th February 2021
How JET experience can help you become an entrepreneur
Work culture in the UK has never been more changeable. Many people are working from home, Furloughed or unemployed and none of us know what the next week will bring. With an unstable job market, many are making their own opportunities and starting businesses rather than waiting for companies to start hiring again. With this in mind, we interviewed Helen Pang, a JET Alum who has started her own Japan-related business.
Please tell us about your company
“Our company imports saké into the UK from Japan. The difference being we have a dispensing machine at our tasting venue in London where people can come over and sample different sakés. Alternatively, buy from our online shop. Check out our website: Sakaba. Should browsing turn into buying, please do email me directly at HelenPang@yahoo.com and I will sort out a nice discount for you as a fellow JET.”
What inspired you to start the business?
“I’m a certified nutritionist, but I don’t practice it. I just love learning about nutrition in food and drink. And although saké isn’t the most nutritious drink, I still love learning about the science behind it. It’s nourishing for the mind and soul!!
It was more my husband who came up with the idea as he was spending more and more time in Japan due to business trips and we share the love of drinking. For us, this is a fun business on the side from our main business.
We always joke about it, saying that if this business doesn’t do well, it is fine because we will still be able to drink the saké ourselves, it won’t go to waste! Give some bottles away to friends even!”
Did your JET experience help you with starting this business?
“Definitely, knowing the language, people, and the culture really helped because it seemed a lot easier and familiar. I still have a lot of friends in Japan, and I’ve also met and made so many Japanese friends from all the different countries that I’ve lived in. As opposed to venturing into importing vodka from Russia for example, as we have no knowledge of the language, people or the culture.
I have always enjoyed drinking and when I went to Japan, I quickly discovered Izakayas. It was there that I fell love with Nihonshu (Japanese rice wine). To be more precise, I fell in love with Atsukan (hot sake). I also drink Hiya (cold sake), but I prefer Atsukan and I can definitely drink a lot more Atsukan than Hiya.
During “enkais” with the Japanese teachers as a JET, they would ask me about what I like about Japan. And of course I would tell them that I love Atsukan. Their reaction was always one of a pleasant surprise and friendly laughter as Atsukan is often perceived to be drank by old Japanese men.”
Is there a great demand for sake in the UK?
“Yes, there is. Of course, there are already many importers of saké into the UK but there is still a huge market. The trend and popularity of Japanese food and restaurants has been increasing year by year. Naturally, the rising popularity of Japanese food goes hand-in-hand with the increasing demand and popularity of saké.“
Where did you go on JET and how long did you stay?
"I was a JET in Kawaguchi-shi in Saitama-ken. My nearest JR station was called Warabi. From Warabi to Shinjuku, it only took 30 minutes by train so it was very fast and convenient to travel into Tokyo.
There were 12 ALTs including myself and 1 CIR. Since I was young, I’ve always wanted to learn Japanese. I used to try and teach myself through watching a series on the BBC called “Japanese Language and People” and I also did Karate. I’ve always loved learning new languages and learning about different cultures. I was a JET for two years and after that I moved to Hong Kong. I had a magnificent two years in Japan. Even up until a couple of years ago, I used to teach English to Japanese Expats’ wives in London. It was more of a hobby and to keep up with the Japanese language and culture more than anything else."
Do you have any advice for enterprising JETs thinking of starting their own business?
“I would advise any enterprising JETs to take it slowly but do start!! Take it step by step and build a good foundation. Nothing can be completely perfect, especially when you’re just starting off. Don’t procrastinate, you will definitely make mistakes, encounter difficulties and challenges but start. Everything has to start challenges ahead. Endure and enjoy the ride.”
Where are you hoping to take the business in the future?
“It would of course be great to be well known and become a well-respected brand by all who knows about saké. I was also very fortunate and was asked to be the JET Programme Poster Girl! Obviously, it was to promote the JET Programme. So I was the JET Programme pin-up girl around the world in all Japanese embassies.”