Masatoshi Ito was born on April 30, 1924, in Tokyo to Senzo and Yuki Ito, who ran a dry goods shop called Yokado.
In 1944, fresh out of high school, Mr. Ito spent a brief period in the Japanese military and at a Japanese company before joining Yokado, which he took over in 1956 after the death of his older brother. In 1958, he founded the company that would go on to become Ito-Yokado and, in 2005, Seven & I.
In 1961, as Japan continued to recover from the destruction of World War II, Mr. Ito traveled to the United States and there “experienced a kind of cultural shock at how rich everybody seemed,” he said in a 1988 interview with The Journal of Japanese Trade and Industry. He added, “I became particularly conscious of the sheer size of America’s consumer society and the distribution techniques that made it all possible.”
Convinced that Japan would soon follow the same development path, Mr. Ito devoted himself to building a chain of supermarkets inspired by the American model. He began making regular trips to the U.S., and by the 1970s Ito-Yokado had become one of Japan’s top retailers, going public in 1972.
But the company’s fate changed forever the next year, when a young executive, Toshifumi Suzuki, traveled to the U.S. in search of new business opportunities. Convinced that smaller shops like 7-Eleven could be the future of Japanese retail, he talked Mr. Ito into taking a gamble on the operation. They opened a small shop in Tokyo’s Toyosu neighborhood in 1974.
Before long, stores began opening up all over Japan, introducing new ideas about how to run retail operations, including the use of franchising to expand market share and instituting 24-hour operations.
By the late 1980s, Ito-Yokado had become a Japanese business empire with super stores, department stores, a nationwide chain of Denny’s restaurants and more than 4,000 7-Elevens, all generating over $12 billion in annual sales.