client story: From the West Coast to Japan and back

Arriving on the West Coast of the USA in the early nineties was a dream come true. I had the crystals, Neil Young on my mind and a sense of Haight Ashbury. I threw myself in to the crucible. Home was Portland, Oregon and San Fransisco burned bright. The Zen center, Santana, Apple Computer, Levis, The Gap, City Lights and Gary Snyder.

There were many other attractions, The Global Business Network through which I met Jaron Lanier, Neil Stevenson, Bruce Sterling, and various other luminaries of the tech scene including people from Xerox Parc. Portland was about grunge, experiments and sport. San Fransisco seemed transcendent. It was an exhilarating pairing. 

Then I went to Tokyo. 

“Just do it” had a zen appeal. How do you cross the river? You just cross the river. It fit into my post Manchester worldview and our job was to make it relevant in Japan, maybe even understand Japan.

“I’m back to Tokyo tonight to refresh my sense of place, check out the post-Bubble city, professionally resharpen that handy Japanese edge. If you believe, as I do, that all cultural change is essentially technology-driven, you pay attention to Japan.” – William Gibson, 2001, Wired Magazine.

I was armed with my zeal for zen and the cultural trade route that connected Japan to The West Coast. I was wrong of course, Japanese views of zen were less transcendent and more militaristic, a reminder of harsh school regimes instead of following your bliss.

“Just do it” would become an icon rather than a slogan. It was attached to ideas that to Americans were inspirational and to Japanese were provocative. In Japan a  picture is worth a million words, design is a pattern language and context is so powerful that you learn to read the air.

Nike was thrust into a new high context world and would absorb Japan enthusiastically into its own brand identity. 

Tokyo remains a place to pay attention to, it is still both a vortex and a beacon for how we navigate the transition into a new era. As other Asian cultures grapple with the tensions of Western influence, Japan continues to absorb but remain Japanese. Later, working with MORI Building in Roppongi Hills I was introduced to Tyler Brûlée of Monocle Magazine. He loves Tokyo and shared an astute observation: “The reason we love Tokyo is because it is not really a global city like others have become”.

Back on The West Coast the cultural trade route continues, we are still, as David Bowie wrote, “under the Japanese influence”.