What It's Really Like To Be A Young Creative In Tokyo

Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
Born and raised in Tokyo, Ai left her hometown in 1998 and moved to New York to study graphic design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Living the student life to its fullest degree, Ai frequently went from exhibition to exhibition and also interned for a number of agencies, magazines, and design studios. Eventually, her strategy paid off. Back in Tokyo, she quickly found her way working as a freelance art director, illustrator, and graphic designer.
We met Ai in her new home in Gakugeidaigaku, a residential neighborhood west of Shibuya where she had just moved with her boyfriend. Gakugeidaigaku is where Tokyo reveals its true spirit through a jumble of small streets filled with corner shops.
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Here you will find old-school Japanese fish shops selling the freshest maguro sashimi next to sophisticated boulangeries and organic clothing shops. On a sunny weekend, the streets are crowded with young couples heading to the nearby Himonya Park to enjoy the first sakura blossoming. We followed the example, wrapped a bag with some delicacies, and proceeded to spend a perfectly calm Sunday afternoon whiling away the hours.
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
When did you move here, and what do you love about your new neighborhood?
"I used to live between Ebisu and Omotesando, so basically in the centre of everywhere, close to Shibuya. I liked it, it is super convenient when you go everywhere by bicycle. I lived there for more than eight years, but there is no residential atmosphere, even though people live there. For example, the closest supermarket was quite far away so, in general, I wanted to move somewhere more residential. Gakugeidaigaku has lots of stores right next to the station, you have so many great choices in terms of what you want to cook. It's different here, it is very local. No salary man."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
Do you travel a lot around Tokyo?
"I sometimes go to the east side of Tokyo because it is so different from the west where we live. There are a lot of nice galleries. I grew up in the west, and I went to junior high school just one stop away from here."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
What is the major difference between these two parts of the city?
"People from East Tokyo are usually very proud of being Edoko (Edo is the old term for Tokyo), because it is the old centre of Tokyo. There are many historical places. Here it is different: There was nothing before and now all the young people live here. I rarely go to East Tokyo for a meeting — most of the things are happening in the West."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
You lived in New York for a long time. What was your motivation to leave Tokyo and move to New York?
"I went to California to study English when I was 15, and I realized how much I like to study the language. At the same time the whole Internet thing was happening and it dawned on me that this world will be globalized, and you have to speak English."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
You don‘t learn it in school?
"You do, but nobody can speak it even after six years of studying. I was drawing and building things since I was little; I knew that I wanted to be an artist and go to art school. I was already good at drawing, so I didn't want to study fine arts and decided to choose graphic design at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology)."

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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
How long did you study?
"Four years and then I stayed one more year in New York before I came back."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
You had to come back?
"Yes, I had to come back to Tokyo for family reasons."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
Did you work as a graphic designer in New York?
"I did so many internships when I was in school. Most of them were for big advertising agencies, but [there were] also small design studios. One of the studios was doing all the Hollywood film posters. I also interned at a magazine called Tokyo. Two American guys started it in Tokyo and then moved back to New York where they continued. It was one of the best magazines for art and subculture."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
What time was that?
"1998 until 2003. It was very different from now. I experienced 9/11."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
Did you experience a culture shock coming from Japan?
"I was fascinated! Especially art-wise because there was so much going on and so many places to go. If you are a student, you can enter everything for free. And, all the live shows: Everything was just there. That was very different from Tokyo."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
When you came back, how did you start working here? I guess it is difficult to start freelance right away when you are new to the scene?
"Through Tokyo Magazine I made some connections here in Tokyo and I got introduced to an art book publisher called GAS Book. They create very nice international publications, and I was doing the art direction for them. That was during a time when I was looking for a full-time job. Just a few months later, a design studio I knew from New York was about to open a studio here in Tokyo."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
"They opened up in the only design hotel here in Tokyo; the space was super fancy, and the boss was nice to work with, so I took the job. The second floor was empty during that time, and a lot of fashion shows were going on there so I would always go down for a glass of champagne (laughs). You would always meet new people and that was cool."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
Apart from your client work, do you also do projects on the side?
"All these paintings here I do for myself, and I also exhibit my works. And, sometimes I connect it with client work."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
Do you see a difference between your approach and other creatives that studied in Japan?
"Yes, I think so. First of all, there is the language barrier. If you speak more languages, you also get more information about what is going on outside of Japan. If you only speak Japanese, your information is limited and you won‘t find out what is happening outside in the world in terms of design or [even] in general."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
"As far as working is concerned, when you are young you want to enjoy your life and your weekends, but here, people are different. Working is such a cool thing, so if you ask somebody, 'How are you, what have you been up to?' people would answer, 'Well, just work, work, work!' because it is cool."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
Of course, people have this stereotype in their mind about the Japanese salary men living monotonous lives but I would have assumed that in the creative scene people choose to work differently.
"You might not have to wear a suit, but you have to work so hard and until very late in the evening, which makes it almost the same."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
Would you say it is harder to be a freelancer in Tokyo than somewhere else?
"Working freelance becomes more popular these days. Ten years ago if you graduated from university, everyone would have told you to get experience in a big agency and become independent when you are 40."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
Are you inspired by old Japanese handicraft and drawings?
"Yes, of course. I think that most of the old art is much better than what is produced today. The colors and every detail are just so professional."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
I am always amazed by the colors of Japanese paintings. It is very rare to see something like this today.
"If you look at the colors of Japanese kimonos, they are so beautiful. Even if I don't do the same in my art, I get inspiration from it. Everything depends very much on seasons as well. For example, this (points at the sakura moji on the table) you can only get this time of the year."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
How do you usually celebrate the sakura?
"My office is in Nakameguro, so I spend a lot of time by the river. And, even though it is partly for advertising purposes, I started making my own laterns for the sakura. With this, you also support the community. It really is the nicest season in Nakameguro. We hang out at Yoyogi Park for picnics, and if you are lucky you might get two weekends like this in a row."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
Do you have a favorite holiday destination?
"I think I like Bon-Odori in August. Everyone can go to the shrine to see dances, and a lot of things are going on outside."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
Will you be in Tokyo for summer?
"I always try to go on a trip for one month. Maybe I'll go to Europe this summer."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
Everyone somehow tries to escape Tokyo in the summer, right?
"Hm, I was born in August so I don't really complain about the summer heat. The only season I don't like is the rainy season, [which runs from] May until July because it gets so humid and hot. Once the rain stops though, you can go to the beach."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
It is a bit of an annoying question, but I have to ask. What is your favorite Japanese dish?
"I cook Japanese food a lot but mostly things that you can put together quickly. Most of the traditional Japanese dishes you have to cook them for a long time in the pot — that's what my mum and grandmother used to make. I like nimono, which is shiitake mushrooms, bamboo, Japanese potatoes, carrots, and soy sauce."
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Photo: Courtesy of Freunde Von Freunden.
Take a look at Ai's cheerful work on her web site.

For more stories from Tokyo, click here.
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