Successful Czech-Japanese entrepreneur Tomio Okamura on how the Velvet Revolution changed his life

Tomio Okamura

Czech-Japanese entrepreneur Tomio Okamura is a household name in the Czech Republic, both for running a successful tourist business to representing one of the country’s largest tourist associations. As an expert in his field, Tomio makes numerous appearances on TV and radio and is also jury member on a well-known business reality programme. His success, in a way he says, is linked to one thing: the Velvet Revolution. Ahead of the upcoming 20th anniversary, Tomio agreed to come in to the studio to discuss how the fall off Communism changed his life. He began by recalling the atmosphere of 20 years ago.

“The situation was already more and more against the Communists. Countless East Germans had come to Prague, leaving their plastic Trabants parked everywhere as they tried to make it to the West German embassy. That was the atmosphere, one in which a former partner in the Iron Curtain was leaving, which left Czechoslovakia as one of the last countries without any changes. It was clear it was no longer sustainable.”

You grew up in Japan: did you would ever see anything like this might ever happen?

“When I was a child we often spoke about Communism within our family. The Czech side of my family had a lot of problems with the regime. My grandfather was sentenced to work in the mines in the 1950s. We were strongly anti-Communist and a strict Catholic family, so we had problems. But within the family we talked about freedom and such questions. As a kid I even got into trouble for saying something against the Soviet Union and I was sent to the principal’s office where my teacher, the head teacher and principal asked me why I was against the USSR and warned me that I would have problems if I kept such a view. I was thirteen.”

From the time when you were a young teen you lived here, until you eventually went back to Tokyo…

“Yes, that had nothing to do with my father’s work, but everything to do with my mother’s health. Life in Japan was very rigid for her: there women were expected to be in the home, to raise the family and so on, and she had psychological problems. When she was ill, we came here, when she was better we went back to Tokyo again.”

To come back to the Velvet Revolution: were you able to take part or anyone else in your family?

“I think my brother took part in some of the early demonstrations. I just took part in related activities at school, and then went along to the square, just to have a look.”

November 1989
What kind of impression did it make?

“I think the strongest thing that everyone felt was that the whole Czechoslovak nation was really together. And it was real power. When the Communist leaders heard the country speak with one voice, they realized it was too strong and that there was nothing they could do to stop it. Unfortunately, it was also maybe the last time we ever did anything like this. Twenty years later, I feel it was the last time that we all did something to try and make this country better. Which is a pity.”

You must have, though, felt a great amount of promise in the early years that followed: the country was in transition, everything was new and open and you decided – as a n adult – to move here permanently and pursue what you have called your own ‘American Dream’.

“Japan has one of the most competitive societies in the world, whether you are born poor or rich, and it’s only up to you to decide if you want to be something more: rich, famous, whatever. There, I looked for something I could do and I tried at first to bring in Bohemian glass to sell door-to-door in Tokyo, but it didn’t work. I ended up working as a garbage man and later in a movie theatre kiosk. The work was poorly paid and of course there was no future in it, so it was then that I ‘remembered’ that I still spoke fluent Czech and realized that I could try something here. The country was newly free, so I figured it could offer me a new opportunity. Not rich Japan, but Czechoslovakia. Of course, many things in my life were by chance. Had the Velvet Revolution not happened when I was 17, to around the time when I was 25, I’d still be living in Japan. After the Velvet Revolution, everything changed.””

Since you made your career in tourism and tourism-related fields, was it obvious to you that Prague would now be a great destination?

“I had 20 years experience. My father, when he visited, always used to point out how wonderful it is. Prague has one of the biggest medieval centres of any city in the world: the Royal Route from Prague Castle to the Municipal House takes at least half-an-hour or an hour – and all the while you are still in a medieval town. It was clear that Prague had all the conditions to being a top world destination.”