Wataru Kato
Wataru Kato


Wataru Kato

Representative Director, SR

Stories of living within objects
Empathy that transcends language.

A person's story lives in an object. So, how did a young man who used to chase a ball in Hokkaido end up in Kabutocho? What drove him to travel over 40,000 kilometres? (roughly the circumference of the Earth) Was it coffee or a goal to learn English? We asked Wataru Kato, the person responsible for micro-roaster SR, formerly Stockholm Roast, about his journey so far and his perception of the city through his eyes.

●When you were young, what were you thinking about?
When I was a student, I was a club person to the core and my mind was always on club activities. I had no interest in clothes or music, and my life was devoted to club activities. I was born in Tomakomai, Hokkaido, played ice hockey in junior high school, and joined the handball club in high school, chasing a ball in the name of youth (laughs). I went straight to university for sports, but I didn’t feel like I could become a professional, and I began to have doubts about my future. At that time, I remembered that my classmate’s older brother was running a second-hand clothing store, and that’s when I became interested in clothes. It was the first time I was interested in something other than club activities. Thinking about it, it was a lucky day. I immediately dropped out of college and decided to go to a vocational school for fashion. While working part-time at a major speciality store, I was able to expand my friendships, but to be honest, I didn’t gain anything from it.

●What was the turning point in your life?
I would say it was when a friend took me to Squat (*1), a privately owned clothing store located in the back of a dimly lit building. There were mainly new clothes, but there were also about 10% of second-hand clothes that the owner had bought, and when I saw the clothes, I realized for the first time the quality of objects beyond the personal viewpoint. There was a person’s unique perspective and commitment, and when I listened to the story behind them, I was drawn to them. At the same time, in contrast to my experience at a major speciality store, I realized the responsibility of managing a business while making my own decisions about purchasing, pricing, and other numerical aspects. The products were good, so I naturally wanted to buy from that person. This experience changed me and ultimately led me to Tokyo.
※1 Squat
A select store in Sapporo. Now) Peau de l’ours
The jacket in the bottom photo was the first one he purchased at Squat.

●Is that how you ended up in Tokyo?
That’s right. With the help of a friend, I was offered a job at HIGH BRIDGE INTERNATIONAL and moved to Tokyo, a company that I had always seen written on the back of the tags of clothes I liked at Squat. My first job in Tokyo was as a salesperson at Buttero (*2), where I worked as hard as I could for four years, but there were times when I couldn’t convey to customers what I thought was good about their products, and my work became a task with a customer service content that separated people from products. It was around this time that I began to realize that it did not matter what field I was working in and that my thoughts would not be conveyed to anyone.

Italian shoe brand famous for its leather boots

●Was it around that time that you decided to work in coffee?
That’s right. When I was working part-time at a café as a technical student, I remembered how much I enjoyed the experience of making lattes with an espresso machine and decided to get into coffee for the first time when I was 26. By chance, my favorite company FilMelange (*3) was hiring, so I decided to make this my last apparel job and applied for it.

※3 FilMelange
FilMelange is a cut-and-sew brand that focuses on “Made in Japan” products, using carefully selected natural materials to express the highest level of comfort.

When I was about to turn 30, I couldn't stop thinking about coffee and I began to ask myself, "Have I really done what I wanted to do?”.

●Did you find any differences in your work at Buttero and FilMelange? How did you get your foot in the door of the coffee industry from there?
Unlike my previous job, I was left in charge of everything at FilMelange, so I think I was able to work in a way that was both rewarding and financially satisfying. Of course, it was a lot of work, but I never got sick of it. But when I was about to turn 30, I couldn’t stop thinking about coffee and I began to ask myself, “Have I really done what I wanted to do?”. At that time, it was rare to have an espresso machine in a store, and I realized that the coffee I served casually every day in the store was functioning as a communication tool. My desire not to have any regrets grew stronger, and the confidence I gained here also encouraged me to finally quit that job, and after a one-year handover period, I was allowed to go abroad to study coffee.

●Did you go to Australia to study coffee right away?
No, first of all, I went to the Philippines to learn the language before going to Australia. There I realized I couldn’t understand English at all, but I thought it would be too uncool to go back to Japan right away, so I flew straight to Melbourne. I thought, “There’s no turning back now” (laughs). I started out working at a summer café in a resort area called Buckley’s Chance, which served 800 cups of coffee a day at its peak. But for some reason, all they made were shakes. In the end, my coffee skills just couldn’t keep up with the orders. After the summer, I moved to Perth to look for a job. It was interesting to see how different the culture was even within Australia. The year passed quickly, but what I gained from living here was “kindness”. There were people who treated me as if I could hardly understand English, and even times when they were angry with me, they accepted me as one of their staff.

●I’m surprised you didn’t run away.
I think the main thing was that I could not go back to Japan if I did not finish. You have to keep going until the end. That was the result of my “club spirit” as a student. After that, I went back to the Philippines to study the language again, and then I decided to leave for New Zealand. In Queenstown, the first place I visited, my English was still not good enough. I moved directly to Wellington, where I finally felt that English was coming in easily. I worked here for 7 months, serving coffee, and then spent the rest of the time road tripping around the island in a car with a friend I made there. When I had exhausted my savings, I ended up working in New Plymouth, which is famous for its surfing, and then finally returned to Japan.

●How was life after you returned to Japan?
My first job after coming back to Japan was at Nui, a guesthouse in Kuramae, when I was 32 years old. The feeling I had at the holiday park during my road trip had stayed with me, and I imagined working at a campground or guesthouse like that if I were to return to Japan. A daily life outdoors, where everyone can share the same space and time and where nature is simply a background element. Here, while working as a barista and learning to provide a certain quality of service that guests can use without hesitation, I couldn’t help but feel the gap between Tokyo and other countries, where such distance from nature is a hurdle. It was during this time that I meet Mr Matsui of Media Surf (*4), who is interviewing me right now. He told me about a coffee roaster in Sweden. That’s when I started a POP-UP of STOCKHOLM ROAST at a tobacco shop called TOBACCO STAND, which was located at the entrance to COMMUNE (*5) in Omotesando.

※4 Media Surf Communications
Media Surf Communications is based on the concept of “urban editors”. Currently focusing on the revitalization of Kabutocho.

A community space in Omotesando where Omotesando and Freedom University are located.

●Did you make a decision as soon as you heard about the project?
Actually, I had a lot of doubts, but the deciding factor was that I didn’t want to have any regrets. I didn’t want to think that I should have done it then, and that was the final push. It seemed to suit my personality to just crush it and not leave things I wanted to do undone. When I was in Omotesando, I used to put up fabric POP-UPs on the walls of my store. Whether it was raining or windy, I always hung up the cloth and took them down when I was done. This act became a part of my daily routine, and it was really fun to be able to do it with a sense of urgency. I was able to find the meaning of my existence.

●After that, you expanded to shared office café spaces in Otemachi and Yurakucho, and finally opened a real store in Kabuto-cho. Is there anything that you have learned from having more shops?
As we have gradually increased the number of our shops, I feel that we are now more involved with people. I can’t do everything by myself, and I think it’s important to be able to think of the lives of the staff who work with me as my own. As a team. But the reason I came to think that way was actually largely because of what my staff taught me. At the ‘Inspired Lab’ in Otemachi, people who use the facility on a daily basis sometimes say, “You can only meet staff like that here”. As a result, we were able to steer our progress as a team and give further trust to our staff.

●How do you feel about Kabuto-cho? What was your initial image of Kabutocho, and did it change when you started working here?
When I first heard about it, the timing was very last minute, and the shop was about to open. But I decided to do it because I originally wanted to be a roaster and I wanted to challenge myself in a new place. I was also looking forward to being in the same space as Human Nature, a natural wine shop. The people around me were moving out of the Omotesando community and into a new stage. I simply felt that this was the next fun place to be. At first, I felt that it was an empty place with a lot of big old buildings, but I think the flow of people has changed, despite the influence of COVID-19. People who would never have come here before are coming to this place, and I’d like to think about what kind of new culture we can send out in a place with a historical context, not only at night but also in the morning and afternoon when various elements of people mix together.

After overcoming the language barrier, what I discovered was the feeling of closeness that I felt to the people who lived there

●What do you think about the role of SR in Kabutocho?
I think the role we play in Kabutocho is similar to the way we think about coffee. In other words, it’s not about the coffee, but about the staff who work at SR, whose main premise is that the coffee is delicious. It’s about whether people can enjoy the experience of open communication and the personalities that are an extension of the act of drinking coffee there. On the other hand, I feel that it is important not to define ourselves too much. In a world and city that will be changing more and more organically in the future, we would like to blend into the local life, between the city and the residential area, with one foot in both. My current challenge and dream is to approach the local community first, and from there to develop a flexible approach involving people overseas. I am not a true coffee addict myself, but I trust the roasting team in Sweden and the roaster in Kabuto-cho, and I feel like I want to do coffee because of them. In the end, the important point was the same as what we have always done. After travelling about 40,000 kilometres from Australia to New Zealand, I realized that the important things are actually very close at hand. After overcoming the language barrier, what I discovered was the feeling of closeness that I felt to the people who lived there. This is something that I had already translated in my mind as “kindness”. That’s why I can change my perceptions, focus on the people in front of me, trust them, and build open communication. I feel that my role is to weave the stories that lie behind the people through coffee.

Wataru Kato

Wataru Kato

Born in Hokkaido, Japan in 1984. After working as a sales representative for an imported shoe company and as a manager for various brand’s physical and online stores, he went abroad to study English and coffee. After returning to Japan, he worked at a guesthouse, but when he heard that an interesting coffee shop in Stockholm was coming to Japan, he started “Stockholm Roast Tokyo” in a rented tobacco shop. In 2019, he became its representative director. In 2020 Stockholm Roast underwent a rebranding and changed its name to SR. As a space that is not limited to coffee, he aims to expand not only in Tokyo but also in other regions.

Text : Jun Kuramoto

Photo : Nathalie Cantacuzino

Interview : Akihiro Matsui

Wataru Kato

Representative Director, SR

Interesting people in Kabutocho

I’m interested in learning more about Yuya, he manages and works as a barista at Switch Coffee, which is another great coffee shop in the neighborhood. I’m looking forward to hearing about his background and his approach towards coffee.