The Hot Seat: Toshiyuki Inoko

Team Lab's director tells us about life as an experimentally homeless man

The Hot Seat: Toshiyuki Inoko

イラストレーション: Haruna Nitadori

Toshiyuki Inoko is the Representative Director of Team Lab Inc. – the creative design group behind a number of projects including Sankei Digital Inc.’s news-blog-portal-website ‘Iza!’ and the search-functionality that allows users to search for specific musicians on the popular online ticket purchasing website ‘Ticket PIA’. Formed by a group of only five people, the number of employees at Team Lab now exceeds one hundred and fifty. Reading through previous interviews with Toshiyuku gives the impression that he’s an eloquent businessman; however, in reality, he’s a character who ranges from being lost in thought for periods of up to twenty minutes at a time to suddenly speaking in short, intuitive phrases and conversing as if there’s too much to say and not enough time to say it all in. However, regardless of the peculiar way in which he speaks, Toshiyuki Inoko is a man who talks of innovation and the future.

I’ve heard that, rather than rent your own apartment, you choose to live a kind of nomadic lifestyle. Why is that?
When I was a kid I remember being taught that the most important things in life are food, clothing and shelter. In an effort to find out just how important these things are, I decided to live without a home. I’ve been living like this for about two years now.

And how is it? Has it changed anything?
Tokyo is an incredible place, it has absolutely everything you need. Plus, I also have a company to store some of my things at, so in that respect I’m not completely homeless. Together, my company and Tokyo afford me with a fair degree of security. But Tokyo really is amazing. If I’m meeting someone important I can simply pop into a convenience store and buy a razor to shave with for about 100 yen. Plus, convenience store washrooms are really clean – some are even big enough to wash your face and brush your teeth in. In terms of entertainment, my computer provides me with most of the entertainment I need; whatever it can’t provide me with I can get from the rest of Tokyo. There’s a bunch of LaQua-like bath houses to wash at, and you can sleep just about anywhere. I’m not lacking anything.

Still, you’ve not given up food and clothing, right?
If I gave up food I’d die [laughs]. In terms of clothing, it’s too cold to be naked, but I once threw away everything I wasn’t wearing at the time – which was pretty interesting [laughs]. Since I had thrown away everything else, I ended up having to wear the same outfit (which happened to be my favourite one) every single day – which resulted in an increase in the number of times I’d be told I was wearing ‘nice clothes’. When you own lots of different clothes you have to make choices and invariably end up occasionally wearing clothes that don’t really suit you. About once in every two weeks I’d wear something I wasn’t all that keen on, which would upset the balance; however, when you’re always wearing your favourite outfit, no matter where or when you meet someone, you’ll always be regarded as ‘fashionable’. The people you meet everyday don’t really care about what you’re wearing anyway. Plus, looking good everyday also makes you more appealing to the opposite sex [laughs].

So there are some bonuses to it then. Maybe we should all be following your lead…
I’m not recommending it [laughs]. In fact, if asked whether it’s better to have things like clothes and a home or not, I’d have to say that I think having them is much better! I’ve never said that not having those things is better – only that, surprisingly, you don’t really need them. Having them is better! But not having them allows you to learn their real value – which is my goal.

So when are you planning to get your own place again?
I think that having your own place can result in feeling too content. Not having your own place keeps you on your toes. Plus, maybe being on my toes all the time might also be what helps me stay popular with the ladies. I think feeling energetic and inspired all the time gives a person more substance. I think it’s important to maintain a sense of urgency.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
There wasn’t anything in particular. I didn’t really want to become an adult at all.

What was it that inspired you to start your own company?
It’s a bit complicated to explain. Mobile technology arrived in Japan back when I was still in junior high school and, in order to make the most of this new technology, Japan needed to change. I remember thinking that doing anything that wasn’t inline with this probably wasn’t a good idea and that I should at least pretend to be doing something inline with these changes. I did some research and found out that the top thirty companies in Japan were mainly all financial conglomerates, government-run organizations or companies working in regulated industries – the kinds of organizations in which only gold-diggers do well in. After finding out that the president of one of the major construction companies effectively married into his position after graduating from Tokyo University, I figured I might as well start by at least going to the same university. However, just before I was about to take the entrance examinations, I discovered the internet, which led me to realize there was no need to bother trying to pursue such a dated line of thinking anymore. I remember thinking: wow, this is amazing. For the first time in human history, people have the power to freely receive and transmit information to and from all over the world – isn’t that romantic? I figured it would definitely change the face of society, in terms of both technology and culture, so I decided to get involved. However, the Internet was still very new at time, and I had no idea where I should work. Plus, I also wanted to work with my friends, so we put together a company of our own. Having lots of friends is great. Boys are different to girls in that, if a boy has no particular subject to talk about then he’s left with nothing much to say. So I figured that working together would at least give us all a common interest.

As you say, the internet allows people all over the world to send and receive information. What kind of information do you think Japan should be sending?
Japanese culture gives rise to a number of phenomena. I think we should be telling the world about both these phenomena, including the various things these phenomena give rise to, and the types of thinking that brings about these phenomena in the first place. Take Koakuma Ageha [magazine] for example. I love that magazine. I buy it every month and own every issue ever published [laughs]. It’s really interesting. To begin with, all the models are hostesses...

They all look the same to me…
That’s the same as foreigners saying Japanese people all look alike. Eskimos have a number of different names for snow. They have an interest in snow so they can see all the small differences. In days gone by, Japanese people had a fascination with colours, which is why we have so many words to indicate different colours. The reason that the models all look the same to you is because you have no interest in them, because they don’t fascinate you, right? [Laughs] The way culture gets perceived depends entirely on the cultural sphere from which it’s viewed. Hatsune Miku, manga, and idols, for example, are things that have only recently become popular. Up until now, Japan’s intelligentsia have been affecting western styles, however, the same isn’t true of the general public, and it’s only recently that such things have been able to break through. By its very nature, Japan isn’t a country that attributes much importance to the present. Take the words ‘Koakuma Ageha’, for example. I’ve no idea which design is their actual logo. They use a different font and/or colour every month. Occasionally, they even make the wording transparent. I think the trick is to make things that look like they can be easily copied but actually can’t be copied very easily at all. Koakuma Ageha is something that’s exactly that; their logo is really attractive and you might think that it’s probably not that hard to copy, but, if you try to create something similar, you’ll find that whatever you come up with isn’t quite as cool. Without a cultural sphere from which to view things, it’s impossible to determine what’s cool and what’s not.

That’s true.
Considering the things that drive culture as an industry is really interesting. Fashion is one thing, but I think consumer electronics could also be influenced by this kind of culture. A camera that takes different pictures, like the front cover of Ageha; each time you use it, it could be really interesting. The technology for a camera like that could probably be copied, but it would probably be difficult to copy what makes the camera so special. Also, people’s tastes could change tomorrow. Or, even if people’s tastes don’t change as soon as tomorrow, it’s not at all unreasonable to expect that they might change in the course of a year or so. What’s important is keeping things inside people’s cultural sphere.

I think the way Japan considers and thinks about things fits right in to the twenty-first century. Speaking really biasedly, Japanese people are different to Europeans and Americans in that, generally speaking, they aren’t globally or objectively minded. Everything here is subjective – even people’s sense of  right and wrong. The west, on the other hand, tends to be able to look at things more objectively. People in the west seem to think it an innate human trait to consider things objectively – which is a different way of thinking to ours.

For example, in Japanese manga and anime, nobody is explicitly good or evil, and justice is subjective. In Princess Mononoke, for example, both Princess Mononoke’s standpoint and the standpoint of the women of Iron Town are both befitting their respective positions. However, their differing standpoints lead to a dispute. In Hollywood films, where things are considered more objectively, the hero who drives out the evil villain  – and who invariably wins in the end – is considered just. Western films end when the villain is defeated, which isn’t the case with Japanese films. In Princess Mononoke, the hero, Ashitaka, sees both perspectives and searches for a common understanding. Although, in this case, there isn’t one… Still, the film ends with both sides continuing to exist.

Another example is our different writing systems. The west has ‘fonts’ and Japan has ‘calligraphy’. Fonts are objectively beautiful, in that it's the shape of the letter that’s focused on. On the other hand, if a calligraphic letter doesn’t take into account the mood of the author, then it’s not considered to be any good. Even two similar characters written by the same author can be considered very differently here – with people often favouring an incorrect version. However, since the decision is subjective, nobody bats an eyelid. Pictographs are the same, in that Japanese people can’t simply write something like ‘I’m waiting’ in a text message without also adding a pictograph to show an emotion, like a ‘heart’, or an ‘angry face’, or maybe a ‘smiley face’. The reason why that kind of thinking fits so well into the twenty-first century is because, in contrast to times like after the industrial revolution, when thinking about things objectively fitted in well with the opinions of the mass media, nowadays, everybody is connected to everybody else and people can freely communicate with each other: the world can no longer be objectively told things. Because things are no longer shrouded in objectivity, when we see something based on objective thinking we don’t like it.

Another reason is that the concept of things being finite doesn’t exist in Japan. In contrast to this, I think that the west takes things to be just that. The digital world is infinite, so I think this might give us an advantage.

In what form do you think we should be conveying what we have to offer to the rest of the world?
Having such rich culture enables us to develop things like new trends and fashions. I think what the government is doing with its Cool Japan campaign is a step in the right direction  – although, trying to package everything up in a giant bundle like that is probably quite challenging. Perhaps the best idea is to export things as they are – maybe something like Ageha, along with the various makeup and fashion items surrounding the brand, for example. However, this kind of phenomenon revolves around a lot of people spending only a small amount of money, plus the people running Ageha don’t have a lot of money to invest anyway, so I’m not really sure what would happen if someone tried to export it on a large scale…

The Japanese girl-band Ayaman Japan, who focus on performing at events like banquets, seem like they’ll do just about anything to entertain the crowd, and it’s not as if they seem to be doing it for the money either. However, I get the feeling that this kind of thing is also something that’s unique to our culture. Cheering everybody up by putting on a show to make people laugh, regardless of whether or not it makes any money or not, is something that Japanese people seem to really enjoy...
Indeed. We have a lot of phenomena here that seem to be relatively unfocused. I think it’s things like our society’s lack of logic and rules that gives rise to such things – which, as a result, sometimes go on to become global phenomena. Thanks to some of our difficult-to-understand management policies, like the one that stated ‘employees are like members of a family’, some of our previous Japanese industries managed to become global industries. When Japan behaves inline with the rest of the world it doesn’t produce things that become global products. Whichever way Japan does things doesn’t really matter, but producing things that become global products can only be a good thing. In an age where information is freely available, if something isn’t unique then it won’t do well globally.

Is there anywhere in Tokyo that you particularly like to go?
That would probably be Kabukicho. The best time to have visited Kabukicho was back in the nineties, but there are still some pretty interesting places there, like GIRAGIRAGIRLS. I also like Akihabara, although, my favourite place to hang out is probably Thailand  – I visit Bangkok multiple times a year.

Why Thailand?
If you’ve never been to Thailand before then you’re missing out on about half the world [laughs]. It's the only country in Asia that was never colonized, plus it hasn’t been overly influenced by the west. Japan was never colonized either, but we have experienced defeat by another nation before. Thailand, on the other hand, has never lost a war  – making it one of the few countries that have never been influenced by Jewish, Christian or Islamic culture. Unlike most other Asian countries, it’s a place where you can still feel how wonderful Asia once was.

Is that the only reason you like it there so much [laughs]?
There’s more to it than that, but if I went in to all the details here we’d need about another 70 hours [laughs].

テキスト Akiko Toya
Translated by Brin Wilson
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.



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