Finance Jan / Feb 2021

Is Robert Hirst the first Briton to bring a theme park to Japan?

The delightful creation of Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson has long been loved in Japan. Since their first appearance in the 1945 children’s book The Moomins and the Great Flood, the white, hippo-like characters have grown to become cultural icons, central to cherished stories and regulars on products of all sorts. But bringing them to life in Japan fell on the shoulders of Huddersfield-born Robert Hirst, whose long career in the financial industry put him in the perfect position to bring a Moomin theme park to Saitama Prefecture.

Having spent more than 35 years in Japan, the 73-year-old senior adviser and former chairman of FinTech Global Incorporated (FGI) saw an oppor­tunity to bring joy to children and adults alike while using his experience to create a rewarding and balanced life for himself. ACUMEN asked him how it all came about.

What do you do now for work and play?

I am the chairman of Moomin Monogatari Ltd., the operator of the Moominvalley theme park. I spend most of my work time either at the park or in Tokyo, working on park-related things. I am also on the boards of several new ventures and funds.

I am a keen long-distance runner, to and from my office and in races, from time to time. I also spend time gardening at my farmhouse in Matsumoto whenever I can get there.

I split my time between the theme park in Hanno and the FGI office in Meguro. Each day is different, so I am not stuck to any routine. When I go to Hanno, I like to run the 2–3 km from the station to the park rather than take the shuttle bus. The final one-third is through very pretty woodland, which I find exhilarating. When there, I usually walk around the park checking on things, chatting with the staff and, occasionally, taking time out to sit by the lake and relax.

Please tell us about your theme park and how you came to be the owner.

The Moominvalley theme park, and my involve­ment, came about as a result of a chance meeting. From my days in investment banking, I had a number of close relations with Finns, one of whom asked me out of the blue in 2012 if I would be willing to meet the Finnish ambassador to discuss a Moomin theme park idea. From that initial meeting came the seeds of Moominvalley Park. I took the idea back to FGI, we linked up with Moomin Characters Oy Ltd., who own all rights to the Moomins, and from the initial discussions we entered into a licensing agreement and started working on the park idea itself.

What are the challenges and rewards of owning a theme park?

There was no Moomin theme park model from which to work, so we had to start from scratch. We also had to find a suitable site—a natural setting in keeping with the Moomins but near a large popula­tion centre and yet affordable. We had to design the park and, of course, find the money to acquire the land and create the attractions. All of these presented their own challenges. We were lucky to find both the right site and lots of support from Hanno, a township in Saitama Prefecture some 40 minutes by express from Ikebukuro with a long association with Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomins. There we have a very pretty wooded lakeside setting for the park.

Running the theme park is hard but rewarding work. It has obviously been difficult in 2020 because of the coronavirus, but most of the facilities are out­doors and there is lots of open space. The rewards come from seeing the happy smiling faces of the grown­ups and children who come to the park where young and old can escape into the fantasy world of the Moomins.

It must be quite a change of pace for someone who has been in high finance and big business for so long.

Well, yes and no. The biggest challenge was raising the funds to finance the park—perhaps not high finance but finance nonetheless. The most enjoy­able part has perhaps been allowing me to be involved in the creation of content and the design of the park itself—the suppressed artistic side of me finally being given free rein!

How has Covid-19 affected the Moomin brand and operations?

The park was opened in March 2019 but was forced to close for three months beginning in March 2020, shortly before our planned first anniversary. We also missed out on Golden Week—normally the busiest week of the year for theme parks. All of this put strains on our operations. We reopened in mid-June, and attendance figures slowly returned to normal. But now we are faced with another surge of the coronavirus, so we may again be forced to close for a while. On the bright side, though, Moomin Monogatari is the major shareholder in Rights and Brands Japan, the local licensing agent for the Moomins. Sales of Moomin goods—particularly online—remain robust and continue to grow.