Memories with Mr. Aoki Rocky, the founder of the American restaurant chain “Benihana”
Mr. Rocky Aoi was born in Tokyo on 9 October 1938 and he died in a hospital in New York on 10 July 2008. While attending Keio University, Mr. Rocky visited the United States as the Japan’s Wrestling representative and from then on he decided to remain in New York where continued his studies and wrestling.
Mr. Rocky, taking advantage of the successful ice-cream business at a stand in New York, opened the Teppanyaki Restaurant “Benihana of Tokyo” in Manhattan in 1964. The restaurant became very popular thanks to the reasonable prices and the chef’s cooking style, in fact he added a show-like part using cooking tools and equipment in front of the iron plate stove. It was a great success and “Benihana of Tokyo” became a nationwide chain of 80 restaurants.
He was also a national freestyle and Greco-Roman style wrestling champion for three years from 1962 to 1964.
Mr. Rocky was an adventurer and on 12 November 1981 he succeeded in crossing the Pacific Ocean together with 4 people coming from Japan and America. They left from Nagashima Onsen in Mie Prefecture with a helium gas balloon (No. Double Eagle) and arrived on the west coast of the United States. Nagashima Onsen is close to my home in Nagoya and when I heard this news, I said: “Amazing! Some people can really do such great things! I still remember I was very surprised. That hot balloon flight took 84 hours and 31 minutes and set the world record for the distance covered: 9,600 kilometers!
The encounter with Mr. Rocky
The encounter with Mr. Rocky dates back to 1994. While I was working for the previous company, it was decided to rent Carnegie Hall in New York in order to held the first event introducing Japanese Traditional Performing Arts.
I was searching for a reliable local person who could cooperate in inviting both the most important audience and the less interested one when Mr. S. (Editorial Office Deputy Director of a Newspaper Company), introduced me to Mr. Rocky. So I made an appointment with him immediately and I flew to New York to meet Rocky.
He was a well-built man with broad shoulders and because of his small face, his legs seemed to be very long. In addition, I was very nervous when I met Mr. Rocky for the first time because, in spite of his mild speaking manner, I could feel his strong appearance.
However, once I started talking to him I realized he was very kind, just a different person than I expected.
「The Japanese Festival at Carnegie Hall」Mr. Rocky Aoki, the Honorary Chairmanof The United States
Mr. Rocky was extremely friendly and kind. Moreover, he was fond of Japan and from his words I could feel that he really treasured Japan in all its aspects including the Japanese Traditional Culture and the Japanese Traditional Arts.
Regarding the event we were planning, Mr. Rocky said: “I can’t cooperate if the performance aims to be a show hurting the Japanese pride. So please refrain from doing that! Anyway, don’t damage Japan’s reputation in America, ”
Mr. Rocky, as the Honorary Chairman of The United States, took the lead in announcing “The Japanese Festival” inviting the audience.
Mr. Shigeru Inagaki (deceased, the former Honorary Chairman of Nikkei in New York) and Ms. Eiko Akutagawa (The President of Shufunotomo’s New York Tomokai, the second from the left in the photo below) were also very helpful.
Mr. Rocky’s kindness
Year 1996: when the second Japanese Festival finished, I packed the instruments and the tools in the underground warehouse.
The following day, Rocky knew I couldn’t participate to the good-job-party, so he took me to the membership club Cigar Club with his own Rolls-Royce. I still remember that day vividly.
Year 2005: JFF foundation and the re-encounter with Mr. Rocky
At the end of May 2008, three years after the foundation of JFF, I met Mr. Rocky again at the Palace Hotel in Tokyo 10 years later.
The first thing that Mr. Rocky said was: “I’d like you to organize again the Traditional Performing Art representation we held at Carnegie Hall in New York.”
At that time Mr. Rocky didn’t seem to be very well. He had a slightly feeble voice and I was very worried. Successively, Mr. Rocky came back to New York and his health condition gradually worsened. Unfortunately, he passed away a month later. I was extremely sad and heartbroken when I had heard of his death occurred at the very moment when I was thinking we could work together again.
Year 2009: the relaunch of “The Japanese Festival”
I think that Mr. Rocky’s “Words” were such as a will to us! Thence, I started the preparation in earnest and in September 2009 I was able to hold “The Japanese Festival” at Carnegie Hall again.
After that date, JFF held “The Japanese Festival” five times involving the cities of Munich, Madrid, Prague and Hanoi.
I believe that also Mr. Rocky’s desire was a project that would have allowed foreigners to understand Japan appropriately through genuine Japanese Traditional Performing Arts and Traditional Music. Therefore, from now on we will continue spreading far and wide the real Japanese Traditional Culture both inside and outside Japan.
“I’d like you to organize again the Traditional Performing Art representation we held at Carnegie Hall in New York.”
With these words in my mind we value our “Japanese Identity” with the goal of creating an international understanding and impressing stage of Japanese Traditional Performing arts and Culture.