On fortune and fame in Japan

Making it in the Japanese market can seem like a glittering prize – but don’t expect anything to work the way you’re used to, says David Tonge

There can be few places where immersing yourself in the culture is more important than it is in Japan. I started to visit and work there in the mid-1990s and after thousands of hours of language study, endless hours exploring the streets of its major and not so major cities, building relationships and working with almost every big-name company you can mention, for better or worse Japan is in my blood.

As a result, I have been asked to write and talk about this experience many times. It’s important for DW readers to know that through trial and error, and thousands of pounds of investment, I have a good understanding of Japan’s attitudes towards design and working with overseas designers. It’s impossible to sum up briefly, but I hope some of my reflections will begin to highlight the complexity and excitement that is doing business in Japan.

When we founded The Division in San Francisco in 2003 we were 90 per cent reliant on Japanese clients and up until this past year they had accounted for 50-60 per cent of our, albeit modest, business. Now based in the UK, we are less reliant. Some of this is due to the current economic environment, but some is to do with the factors that influence our – and perhaps your – future investment there.

The word yumei or ‘famous’ is something you hear a lot in Japan. If you are unknown, cannot point to a long track record or you simply don’t know the right people, it’s going to be very tough to break into Japan. We used our experiences, an agent and friends of friends to open doors until finally, after four years of bimonthly visits and relationship-building, we were offered several exciting projects.

If you are determined, gritty and lucky, then you will be able to crack Japan, but it will not be overnight and the current environment makes it even more prohibitive. These days we lecture, feature in books and magazines and have appeared on national TV and hence have become ‘famous’. Ironically, it is easy to become over-exposed and clients can feel they know your style of design and will look for something else, new and different. After years of pavement pounding, this can leave you bewildered. Famous or not, Japan is a land of contradictions.

On the positive side, Japanese companies do enjoy working with overseas designers and the reasons for this are very clear. The big companies want to get as many ideas as possible, especially about overseas markets, which the internal design team will ‘loosely interpret’. And the small ones will want to use every element of your deliverable, including your name, as a signature to help sell their products.

The concept of ‘wabi-sabi’ is partly about the transient, the temporary and the changing. For me, it is the reason why the Japanese have a huge appetite for the disposable and the new. Others might say they’re mad. Either way, the result is that the Western notion of consistency that designers hold in high regard is not on the radar of most Japanese companies. This desire for perpetual change makes establishing a long-term relationship, creating an identity or building a portfolio you’re excited about very tough indeed.

Much is said of the difficulty of communication in Japan. In my opinion, the real difficulty is the lack of a shared understanding of the design process, not whether you can speak Nihongo. Japan is a ‘do it’ culture, whereas Europe is a conceptual culture. We devise solutions by developing a brief and consensus, and then focus our efforts by prototyping and testing, whereas they allow the physical act of building to define the concept, and the focus and testing come later.

If you didn’t notice the difference, ours is a more efficient and risk-reduced process. Due to many companies lacking a structured process, you will encounter changing goal posts throughout the project, your budgets being quickly eaten up and, if you are attending a meeting in Japan, the day slips into night without any decisions being made.

While still exciting, make no mistake, working in Japan will ask serious questions of you and your colleagues, the way you work, communicate and think about design. Despite this, Japan still has a glittery, jewel-like attraction for many designers and I will certainly continue to work there. But, with advancing grey hairs, I have become more realistic about its value to our business and profile, however much I love to hang out in Tokyo noodle bars talking to the locals and being famous in Japan.

Tokyo Challenge:

  • Do learn about the culture and enlist local support
  • Do enjoy the experience
  • Do expect to visit at least once or twice a year
  • Don’t expect it to happen overnight
  • Don’t assume they will understand your process
  • Don’t expect positive vibes to mean anything
  • Don’t expect portfolio-making results
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