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Monday, April 21, 2014

Misako Kamata and Kinpanchi Restaurant

For 33 years, Kinpachi Restaurant stood at its little nook in the tourist district of Garapan and through all but seven years of its existence, the oldest existing Japanese restaurant on Saipan has had on its helm no other than Misako Kamata.

Kamata is known to her staff as a year-round Santa Claus, to the businesses that front the Paseo de Marianas and its nearby environs as Ms. Cleanup, and to Saipan Awaodori Team members as their personal travel agent. You don’t have to ask them why she has acquired those monikers.

Her father, Yoshio, established the landmark restaurant on Sept. 15, 1980. After his death in 1987, Kamata was thrust into a leadership role in the company and has grown the business into one of Saipan’s most recognizable and iconic restaurants serving authentic Japanese cuisine.

“The first time I came here I was still a student so I was not allowed to be involved in the business yet. So I just came during vacation,” Kamata told Saipan Tribune.

She remembers only one Japanese restaurant at the time, the Samurai Restaurant in front of Kanoa Resort.

“Not many buildings, much less a Japanese restaurant, was open when my dad set up Kinpachi Restaurant in 1980. There were no direct flights from Japan yet. After seven years I took over management of the restaurant. It wasn’t really hard taking over from my dad because when he was still alive he taught me how to run the business.”

The ’80s and the ’90s were the heyday of the CNMI economy as the influx of Japanese tourisms fueled the boom years.

It didn’t last, though.

“Business started to decline when the Japanese economic bubble burst in the ’90s. It was very hard but luckily we owned our building. We were also lucky that we have nice employees and loyal customers who patronize us whenever they return to Saipan.”

As if things couldn’t get worse, the island economy was hit with another blow with Japan Airlines’ pullout in 2005, which again drastically reduced Japanese tourist arrivals. “When JAL stopped direct flights we really suffered. I think all businesses in the CNMI suffered, not only us.”

After a couple of turbulent years, Kamata said business is finally thriving once again, so much so that she opened a beer garden in 2012 and just recently unveiled a seafood-themed restaurant next to Kinpachi Restaurant.

“Now the economy is better. We’re surviving because of Chinese tourists who seem to like Japanese food.”

When asked about the secret behind Kinpachi Restaurant’s success, Kamata deflects praises to her staff.

“I don’t know if it has anything to do with my management style. I guess I’m just lucky that I have good staff and loyal customers. In the company, we treat each other like family from the management down.”

Her assistant, Sonia Siwa, and chief cook Loretto Pedoyco attest to the familial atmosphere that exists at Kinpachi Restaurant, which lead to many of its employees staying there for more than 20 years.

“She treats us like family. Most of our staff has been here 13, 15, and 20 or more years. Most staff stay at Kinpachi because of her,” said Awa.

“You can’t say anything bad about Kinpachi and the owner. I wouldn’t stay long here if they don’t treat me right. My son already finished two courses [chemistry and nursing] with me just working here. Her only dislikes are those with vices like poker, alcohol, and womanizing. She let’s us do our thing and doesn’t micromanage,” said Pedoyco who along with Awa, are two of the restaurant’s 26 employees.

Aside from her business acumen, Kamata is also admired for her many causes to uplift the island community.

Kamata established PDM Promoters, Inc. in December 2005, a non-profit corporation, as a means of giving back to the island.

She said PDM Promoters was first set up to combat the then negative image that Garapan acquired due to the many adult businesses that had cropped up in the area.

“It wasn’t nice for family-oriented tourism. It was only catering to the male tourists. We really lost a lot of good customers because of the construction [of the Paseo de Marianas] and the unwholesome atmosphere that this district came to be. We wanted to clean up things and promote this area as a tourist destination for families and try to change its image.”

Through PDM Promoters, Kamata also sponsored a monthly cleanup drive of the Paseo de Marianas and its surrounding environs.

“I’m ashamed because when I first came here it was a beautiful island. But nowadays I see a lot trash everywhere. I’m ashamed for tourists who see trash everywhere. I don’t want them to leave Saipan with that impression, especially when they take picture together with the trash.”

Aside from Kinpachi Restaurant staff, members of the Saipan Awaodori Team also volunteer in the monthly cleanups.

“We want to educate them about the importance of keeping our island clean because we are a tourist destination and it is the only driver of our economy. This island, our only industry is the tourism industry.”

Another offshoot of the non-profit group is her establishment and continued sponsorship of the Saipan Awaodori Team.

Now in its sixth year performing on Saipan, the group has had stints in Japan at the Koenji Awaodori Festival in tandem with the Tokyo Tensuiren Group.

“We want kids to do something in their spare time. Also to promote Japanese culture on Saipan and by sending them to Tokyo and let them experience the culture there,” said Kamata, who bankrolls the team’s annual trips to Japan, not to mention the uniforms, instruments, and shuttle service of local members.

For Kamata, Saipan is no longer a place to visit only during school vacation. It truly has become home to her.

“All the people I meet are very kind. Even during my first time here. They don’t know me but they’re very kind. They talk and greet people even if they don’t know them. I don’t know why my dad established a restaurant here. But he really loved it here. Saipan is home now. I’ve lived here more than half of my life. People are very nice. You can’t stay here long if you’re not comfortable.”

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