The “Benihana Hugh Hefner” Story

Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki, the Japanese American businessman who founded the highly successful Benihana Of Tokyo restaurant chain was a very colorful fellow. His own successful business story prompted him to want to imitate Hugh Hefner, who seemed to celebrate his own success by publishing PLAYBOY almost as a monument to his own life’s achievements. In 1973, Rocky Aoki founded GENESIS Magazine, a men’s magazine very similar to PLAYBOY in so many ways, featuring the same mix of naked young women as well as feature articles on the good life. During the 1970’s, this magazine was also a favorite of many college aged men, and even often sold at many college bookstores along with PLAYBOY, PENTHOUSE and GALLERY. These four magazines had a wide appeal to young college aged men because of their good mix of the good life features, far beyond just being some pornography publications.

Strangely, about the same time that GENESIS appeared on the market in 1973, famed lawyer F. Lee Bailey loaned his name to GALLERY, the other major mainstream competitor to PLAYBOY along with PENTHOUSE. A few other magazines such as HUSTLER, CHERI and HIGH SOCIETY also were emerging as well, but dealt in harder content, and didn’t want to be mainstream publications like PLAYBOY was. It was strange that in the wake of a controversial 1973 Supreme Court ruling giving local communities a lot more powers to regulate obscenity, that a fresh fleet of new men’s magazines began to emerge on the market. In 1973, many adult businesses were actually closing down in the wake of this decision.

Sales were maybe never really stellar for GENESIS, but it had a long run for many years, and only just recently ceased print publication, as it is going solely as an Online adult content subscription service now. At some point, sensing that GENESIS wasn’t making as much money as Rocky Aoki really wanted it to, he sold the magazine, and the current owner, Magna Publications changed the magazine solely into a hardcore porn publication at one point. But, in the 1970’s, GENESIS was every bit as respectable and mainstream as PLAYBOY, although a little more sexually explicit, not really shying away from clear camera views of the model’s crotch areas. But, that was also the 1970’s as well, where most models never let a razor shave those crotch areas, as that was the common women’s style in those days.

It was a sad end to Aoki’s dream when his magazine was sold. The magazine was supposed to reflect his own success, as well as to cement his image as the “Japanese Hugh Hefner”. But, like many PLAYBOY imitators, GENESIS maybe just wasn’t as good as PLAYBOY. Yet, the classic 1970’s men’s magazine had it’s own character and was a pretty good attempt to publish a mainstream men’s magazine that was far more than just some pornography publication.

GENESIS perhaps lacked enough uniqueness or something. The magazine even tried the two centerfold gimmick for a while. But, unlike the Benihana restaurants, which combined the style of food along with the entertainment and performance skills of the food preparation by the master knife-wielding chefs, called “teppan-yaki”. GENESIS just lacked something unique enough not be called just a generic PLAYBOY by many magazine critics or buyers in the public. But, it was nonetheless a very good 1970’s mainstream men’s magazine by any objective standard. Back copies of the 1973 magazines still sell for around $20 or better as collector’s items these days.

But, the life of Rocky Aoki was a simply amazing saga despite the failure of his GENESIS Magazine. Aoki came to the U.S. from Japan at the age of just 19, and began selling enough ice cream in Harlem out of a truck to eventually open his first 1964 restaurant on a $10,000 budget. Incredibly, Aoki grew this single Manhattan restaurant into a chain of 15 restaurants in just seven years time, an astonishing financial feat. At one time, Aoki was simply a golden boy story of success.

Some aspects of his life were slightly amusing as well. The Harlem neighborhood where Aoki first sold ice cream out of his truck was so bad with crime, that Aoki plastered the truck with a bunch of posters bragging himself up as a wrestler to prevent robbery. He once tried out for the Olympics as a wrestler as well.

Women were always a weakness for Aoki. As a school student his first business was selling girlie photos to his classmates over in strict Japan. And after one of most serious racing accidents, he found both his wife and mistress standing by his hospital bed, creating a rather awkward situation for the badly injured Aoki to explain. His life was both impressive as well as times a little bit funny to some observers. He wanted so much to be a playboy much like Hugh Hefner.

Aoki loved powerboat racing and hot air ballons, and was something of a daredevil at heart, while the image of Hugh Hefner was that of a guy who seldom stepped out of his bathrobe and bedded young women. Aoki was such a man of action that he was even seriously injured not once, but twice, in two major racing accidents, one time rupturing an aorta, injuring his liver and breaking a leg in no less than four places. Another time, a crash at 80mph left Aoki with more serious leg injuries.

In 1998, Aoki was pretty much forced to leave his role as the CEO of the Benihana restaurant chain when he got personally involved in an insider stock trading scandal after he found out that John Sculley from Apple would be joining Spectrum Information Systems and made a big stock profit from the news. He was fined a half million dollars as well as put on three years probation. The fine was slightly more than the profit he made on that stock trade deal, but it certainly was better than prison time.

In 2008, at the age of 69, Rocky Aoki became gravely ill from pneumonia and died, ending one of the greatest business success stories ever of a Japanese immigrant from moderate means who became a great business success. It was an incredible story of business, and a great man who knew so much about how money works. Now, his once beloved GENESIS Magazine is gone as well, no longer a print publication. It is the end of another dream as well.

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  • MunDane68

    Hey Paul, check out the story of Ted Ngoy sometime. There is a lack of boobies in it, but a real rags to riches to rags story…

    • Thanks, MunDane. I will. I certainly love business stories, and if there’s boobs involved, well that’s a bonus I guess. But, seriously, the story of Rocky Aoki is both funny as well as inspirational, the sort of story that you only wish that THE WALL STREET JOURNAL could write. Strange how this guy’s love of boobs as well as food made him into the Japanese Hugh Hefner for a time.