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‘Japan is a country that requires deep commitment and patience.’

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Feature by Michael Canning

A family connection to Japan meant that Michael Peng was fascinated with the country from an early age. Fast forward more than a decade, and the native of Orange County, California, found himself living and working in Tokyo as a Partner and Managing Director at IDEO.

As a Co-Founder of the innovative firm’s Tokyo Studio, Michael's goal was to help enable change in Japan through creativity and design. We spoke to him about his inside tips on life in Japan, launching IDEO Tokyo and the thoughtfulness that’s evident in the Japanese design you’ll find around every corner.

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On where you’re from

I was born and raised in Orange County, California — The OC, although my childhood definitely did not look like the show!

On moving to Tokyo

I first went to Japan at a very young age to visit my grandparents, who used to live and work there. My grandfather was a doctor in a local town just outside of Tokyo and my grandmother was a nurse. Japan fascinated me back then and it continued to intrigue me many years later when I went on a home-stay program during my third year in high school. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Tokyo is so cool. I have to come back to live or work here one day…’ Fast forward 13 years, the opportunity to help start the IDEO Tokyo studio presented itself, and I just couldn’t pass it up. 

On your relationship with Tokyo

I would say it’s pretty flirty! Tokyo is one of those places where you feel like everything is nice and steady, and then something new opens up that makes your heart beat a little bit faster. It doesn’t even have to be something new. A seemingly ‘new’ place might have been there the entire time, and you just never noticed it. That’s one of the many reasons I love Tokyo. There are new discoveries, big and small, every day.

On the best new phrase you’ve learned in Japan

There are so many amazing phrases in Japanese that reflect the culture here. One that I love is ‘enryo no katamari’. It is used to describe the last piece of food on a plate that no one wants to take because they don’t want to be seen as the greedy person who rudely grabbed the last bite. So much of Japanese culture is about how you show yourself to the world and how others perceive you, and the fact this phrase exists typifies just that. I know this sentiment often frustrates many people here, but I have come to love and appreciate this about Japan.

The Tokyo skyline and the IDEO Tokyo office. Images courtesy Michael Peng.

On something you recently discovered in Japan

Up until a few months ago, I would travel throughout Tokyo using the metro, the bus, or just by walking. But I recently purchased my first bike and, as a result, I see different sides to Tokyo that I had never seen before; streets that I never knew existed, cafés that were hidden away. It’s been fun to pedal to new neighborhoods that I normally don’t frequent.

‘You learn that so much of understanding and appreciating Japan is in the unspoken — it’s in the space between, the pauses, the transitions.’

On how life in Japan inspires you

For me, living and working in Japan is significantly different than when I visited Japan as a tourist. When you’re just visiting, you’re typically going from sight to sight, restaurant to restaurant, checking off things on the must-do list before you leave.

But when you live and work here, you really get to see all facets of the country and culture. You learn that so much of understanding and appreciating Japan is in the unspoken — it’s in the space between, the pauses, the transitions. It’s all quite poetic, and often you don’t realize how inspiring something or someone is until you’ve had time to reflect on your own.

On what makes Japan’s creative culture unique

Everything is so considered in Japan. There’s a term in Japanese called omotenashi and it’s similar to the definition of hospitality. But embedded in this term is a deep cultural value of understanding the needs of others and acting upon it generously, without asking for anything in return. You can see and feel omotenashi everywhere in Japan — from the hot towel that’s provided to you before you eat a meal, to the toilet that lets you play music to mask any sounds of you doing your business. Everything is so thoughtful and designed here, without you even thinking about it. And I think that’s what makes Japanese design truly unique.

IDEO Tokyo + teams collaborating on projects. Images courtesy Michael Peng.

On where you find inspiration

I’m a big wanna-be foodie and constantly find myself trying different restaurants and being inspired by the stories of these restaurants and the owners and chefs behind them. Not to mention the food is pretty fantastic.

But what I also learned is that so much inspiration lies outside of Tokyo and in other parts of Japan. For example, everyone must visit Naoshima at some point in their life. These ‘art islands’ off the coast of Japan house some of the most amazing museums, exhibits and galleries you’ll ever see, and they will definitely change the way you look at art and design.

On a popular topic of conversation

Right now there’s a lot of conversation about work-style reform in Tokyo. Many Japanese business people still work endless hours in very stressful environments. There’s recently been a lot of talk around changing this way of working and creating greater work/life balance.

‘There’s a term in Japanese called omotenashi and it’s similar to the definition of hospitality. But embedded in this term is a deep cultural value of understanding the needs of others and acting upon it generously, without asking for anything in return.’

On launching IDEO Tokyo

Helping launch the IDEO Tokyo studio has been something I’m incredibly proud of. Our mission from the beginning has always been to help enable change in Japan through creativity and design. When we first started, it was just a couple of us here in Japan trying to establish a presence within the business and creative communities. Now, more than seven years later, we are 30 people strong and working with top Japanese organizations, emerging start-ups, and educational institutions to help them grow and change. We’ve always wanted to be a creative catalyst for our clients, and it’s humbling to hear from them years later spearheading change within their organization, far beyond our original engagements together. We’ve definitely had our challenges throughout the years, but we know that Japan is a country that requires deep commitment and patience, and as long as we’re continuously learning and having fun while doing it, we’re in good shape.

Hanami, the cherry blossom festival in Tokyo (above) and the simplicity and service of Japanese cuisine. Images courtesy Michael Peng.

On a store to check out

D&Department. The store believes in ‘long-life design’, and has preserved and elevated beautiful Japanese household products designed decades ago.

On entertainment

Hanami (cherry blossom watching). Nothing is more poetic than getting together with groups of friends once a year and watching cherry blossom trees while eating and drinking delicious treats.

On great food

D47 Shokudo. A restaurant that highlights the best foods from each prefecture within Japan. Instead of choosing what to eat, you choose where in Japan you want to eat from.

On something from the USA you need a fix of in Tokyo

Oh how I miss my In-N-Out burger — animal style. It’s usually the first meal I get as soon as I touch base back in California. Tokyo has some of the most AMAZING burgers in the world, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something about In-N-Out that makes my taste buds flutter. 

On window seat or aisle

Definitely window. I like to get into my own world when I’m on the plane. Sitting next to the window and looking out enables me to do just that. Plus, my bladder is pretty resilient, so I don’t have to get up often and bother my fellow passengers to use the restroom!

On Tokyo in one word

Extreme. You have a city that is seemingly one of most futuristic in the world, while holding on to some of the oldest traditions in the world.

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