For many Japanese creatives, forging a career in the US or Europe seems daunting. It means overcoming linguistic and cultural hurdles that locals don’t need to worry about. But for some, the opportunity to make a mark in the wider world by bringing their own unique perspective is something worth fighting for.
Yuri Suzuki is one such person. The experience and sound designer became a partner at Notting Hill-based Pentagram, one of the world’s most highly regarded design firms, a year ago. For more than a decade before that, he made his way as an independent consultant and artist. He defines the mission of his practice as deploying sound, “the strongest medium for communication”, as effectively as possible to forge a connection between people.
In practical terms, it means leading imaginative sound-based projects for companies such as Google, Facebook and Audi. It also means continuing to experiment in the creation of sound by building instruments and other devices, which Suzuki has free rein to do in his studio.
Suzuki considers himself “extremely lucky” to be where he is, especially considering that Pentagram is known for its visual work rather than sound. While luck surely plays a role in any personal success, Suzuki’s case can be seen more as the result of unique talent, hard work and perseverance. Notably, he got to where he is despite being unable to read a musical score due to dyslexia.
As an industrial design student at Nihon University, he found the curriculum quite uninspiring, but his time there received a lift through his involvement with Maywa Denki, an experimental performance group that defines itself as a company, which was founded in 1993. Shows incorporated handmade musical instruments, humour and clever branding, and the act is still going. Designing instruments and toys for the group set Suzuki on course for a career in music production and engineering, and ultimately brought him to the UK. He was inspired to study product design at the Royal College of Art after staging exhibitions with the collective in Britain and France, and decided to stay.
Occupying a niche has served him well. He thinks many companies have overlooked the importance of sound in their branding but are now realising the role it plays. Part of the problem is that the effect of sound is more “psychological” than for visual design and therefore less tangible. Companies often ask pure musicians to create sound identities but that only works up to a point; understanding both music and the principles of design can have better results, he believes.
He thinks the advantage that Japanese design professionals can bring to a market like the UK is “not necessarily groundbreaking ideas” but great attention to detail that takes into account “all contexts and all scenarios”.
Working in London as someone from Japan, Suzuki feels able to blend in while retaining a distinct identity. He spent three years in Sweden, where he found it difficult to fit in. “Being Asian, it was hard to jump into Stockholm,” he says. By contrast, “in England, I don’t feel as if I’m a foreigner. When I’m on the tube, the language being spoken around me is often not English. There is still quite rich diversity here”.
In the early years, a love of music helped forge friendships despite linguistic challenges. He found it easy to become involved in conversations due to his cultural upbringing, which involved exposure to some of the best artists from the UK and US.
Language is “a real fear” for Japanese people in working abroad, he says, adding that he couldn’t speak English properly for two years.
“But maybe the issue [around fitting in] is not language but cultural background,” he says. “Having an interest in subculture, anything you like about what that country produced, I think that’s quite important. Because otherwise, there’s not much reason for you to go outside Japan. The country you go to and its culture should be intriguing for you. It’s much easier to communicate with people if you have that kind of experience and [mindset].”
Olympics vs. Brexit
He continues to be inspired by the abundance of culture that London offers, but thinks that Britain hit its creative peak around the 2012 Olympics. “It was an incredible time for creators,” he says, pointing to the public works of art that sprang up and imaginative redevelopment of parts of London around the event.
“Something I love about people in the UK is that they’re quite cynical, but once the Olympics actually started happening, they got into the spirit of it.”
He thinks financial support had much to do with the creativity on display at that time, and a lot of funding for the arts dried up post-event. It’s hard to tell if Tokyo 2020 will tread a similar path, but he thinks Japan’s apparent willingness to open up to ever-increasing visitors and immigrants “could be an amazing change” for the country.
With Brexit, the UK appears to be moving in the opposite direction. Suzuki felt the sharp end of the government’s changing policies: despite being a long-term taxpaying resident, he had to fight for his right to stay in the country—a process that involved costly legal support and applications. Could this make Britain a less attractive place for talented foreign workers?
“I don’t know, but it’s quite tragic in a way,” he says. “It’s all a political power game instead of [something that takes the interests of everyday citizens into account]. In general, no one knows what’s happening and it’s not healthy. It’s a strange time but I love this country and its culture and I hope things will turn out to be in good shape again.”