How to be big in Japan

Mike Exon gets advice on succeeding in a country that has a fondness for things Western.

Japan is a country bursting with opportunity for UK design consultancies, if you know how to find it.

In October, when Tokyo celebrated its first month-long design festival, a cohort of British designers took the opportunity of prospecting this design-rich land for themselves. Design luminaries like Terence Conran, James Dyson, Tom Dixon, Jasper Morrison and Ron Arad spearheaded the British presence at the festival, dubbed Design UK, which spans the worlds of product design, graphics, furniture, lighting and digital media, It was supported by UK Trade & Investment and the British Council.

Dyson, Arad and Conran are fine examples of savvy designers who are already doing big business in Japan. Conran is planning to open ten restaurants there using the coveted Conran brand name, while Dyson is already designing bespoke products purely for the Japanese market.

Other groups too are making headway and interestingly it tends to be individuals that make a success of things. Tomato partner Steve Baker lives in Japan, which is a huge source of work for the group these days. Then there’s Klein Dytham Architecture founder Mark Dytham, who all but runs the UK design scene in Tokyo, from his underground bar SuperDeluxe. Like Dytham, designer Steve Lidbury decided the only way to make it here was to settle in Tokyo. They haven’t looked back.

Product designer Andy Davey of TKO is probably the most well known example of a designer making his name in the Japanese market and Davey’s influence has inspired huge clients like Yamaha to employ Western designers in-house (consultancies are an unusual concept in Japan, where in-house design is king).

Davey’s close relationship with Yasuhiro Kira, general manager of the product design laboratory at Yamaha’s music division, has been instrumental in Yamaha employing UK designers like David Keeches on the ground. Kira is now looking for his next British designer for Tokyo.

Yamaha’s radical example illustrates an idea that designers wanting to work here would do well to think about: the Japanese penchant for ‘things Western’. Our Britishness – eclectic styles of work, living and play – is often a thing of intrigue for the Japanese, particularly if it can be used to commercial benefit in its post-recession economy.

Johnson Banks founder Michael Johnson has lived in Japan and has been on the last two ‘design missions’ there. He has just had an exhibition of his graphics work during Tokyo Design Month at the Creation Gallery in Tokyo.

Johnson points out that Japan is a market to take with a long-term view. ‘Some consultancies have been on one mission and then ditched Japan, but it takes a lot longer than one trip to succeed there. The big thing here is making contacts and introductions, but they take time to cement,’ he says. ‘Innovation is a big feature of the design industry here, but in graphic design it’s harder. The other thing is that everyone is so polite that you often don’t know if they really like your work or not.’

Top Tips

David Elliott is assistant director (arts) of the British Council, based in Tokyo.

• get yourself on a Design Services Mission

• bring plenty of business cards (English only is OK)

• network furiously; go to all design openings/ events •keep coming back – it won’t all happen on the first visit

• follow up enquiries quickly with as much information as possible

Alison Scott heads the 50-strong commercial unit at the British Embassy in Tokyo, which is fully geared to advising UK businesses via its regional Trade & Investment offices in the UK.

• talk to British businesses already working with Japanese clients

• develop relationships, don’t just ‘sell’ your work

• take a long-term view on new business in Japan, there are no ‘quick wins’

Finding a trade mission

Trade missions to Japan and other countries are organised by UK Trade & Investment. The organisation’s website holds details of forthcoming trips.

Design Partners creative industries advisor Christine Losecaat also suggests searching for missions not organised as ‘design missions’ because consultancies may be eligible for trips run for specific industry sectors.

On-line resources Mission news: Travel advice:

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