Question the World

Japanese tech guy interviews interesting people.

Qanta Shimizu (PARTY NY) is a Japanese creator who in his late-30’s, moved his entire life to New York. This is his monthly interview essay of chats with a different person each time, and thoughts about the Web, digital, with the world as stage.

#7. Rei Inamoto (Founding Partner, Inamoto & Co)
The fun fetish of “Ichiro of the advertising world”

Rei Inamoto, who broke out of Japan and into the world over 20 years ago, needs no preface such as “Japanese” in this industry. Some may refer to him as “Ichiro of the advertising world.”
 What is the driving force behind a pioneer as heroic as Rei? What made him who he is today?

Recently Rei embarked upon a new journey with new challenges, and I wasted no time in paying a visit to his new office.

A corner of Rei’s temporary office in Brooklyn. “I forgot to wear it for today,” he explained about the absence of his trademark “★” logo shirt.

There seems to be many kinds of “Japanese people making a name for themselves overseas.”

Some might have simply set up office overseas. Some might have only put on an exhibition overseas (but the kind that only Japanese people go to). All these are somehow declared as “being active globally.” The meaning of “global” is in a state of jumble.

Amidst all that, Rei is as real as it gets — — a “genuinely global Japanese” who had cut his way through the unbeaten path. He had led a large team as the top creative during his decade at the worldwide digital agency AKQA. He holds brilliant records in winning and judging awards. No one in the advertising industry in the U.S., or rather, the world, is unaware of his name.

For someone like me, who happens to share his birth country and experience of working in the advertising industry outside of Japan, Rei’s existence is that of a great forerunner.

Due to his status and that the Japanese notation of his name is in Western style, I had thought he had spent his tender years abroad. That was not the case.

Rei and his new team partner Rem. Last year, the two shocked the global advertising industry by announcing their simultaneous departures from AKQA.

“I grew up in Hida-Takayama, where my dad had moved us to establish a furniture startup.”

That’s right, the origin of Rei Inamoto is the place famous for historic townscape, magnolia leaf miso, and delicious beef. I have visited there with my family before. I’d love to go again.

“I felt that the Takayama community is limited to just local areas, and I had to get out. If I were to leave, I thought I might as well go somewhere even more distant than Tokyo.”

Yours truly was born in Tokyo. Since my early years, I’d enjoyed everyday luxuries such as multiple TV channels and having everything I would want or need within reach. Being born in Tokyo meant the lack of frustrations induced by materialistic or cultural elements. At the same time, it meant a lack of motivation to break out (this is why it took me three decades to finally move out of Japan).

On the contrary, young Rei, who was raised in the deep mountains of Hida-Takayama, felt enough frustration to venture beyond Japan.

This big leap from Hida-Takayama to overseas seems to have a major influence on Rei’s worldview. While the gap was drastic, it very well led to his habit of changing and evolving.

After high school in Switzerland, Rei double-majored in art and computer science at University of Michigan, and set forth on a journey to digital creativity.

“I’d originally wanted to become an artist, but after reading Susumu Tonegawa’s Mind and Material [lit.], I was able to consider art scientifically.”

Dr. Tonegawa, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (1987), wrote this book to communicate that human mental activities such as emotions are actually scientific reactions.

It’s very interesting how applicable this thinking is to today’s society, where the Internet and digital technologies are a reality. Be it Facebook, Twitter, or LINE, bulks of emotions are being processed rapidly. However, if we were to trace the origin, it would be nothing more than combinations of digital signals, 0’s and 1’s.

I first learned of Rei in a book of creator interviews, published in Japan about ten years ago. Ever since then, he had been a creator active at the global forefront. R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Rei had broken out of Hida-Takayama. He started from art and expanded his expertise to the digital world. As creative director, Rei’s creations go beyond and redefine the concept of “advertising.”

The reason Rei remains a leader in the industry is that in addition to making advertising, he continuously presents fresh and unexpected perspectives to his followers around the world. Evidently, all Rei does is keep breaking out.

Rei doesn’t drink or smoke. My impression of him is always working hard. So I decided to ask,“Rei, what do you do for fun?”

“Whether business trips or otherwise, I love traveling.”

To travel is to savor change. It is also to physically stretch one’s world. With the monumental experience of leaving Hida-Takayama for the world overseas, perhaps Rei has a fetish for “breaking out.”

As we all know, the digital realm is a prime example of the fastest changing industries. A general philosophy is something like “the winners are who do without inhibition.” Come in contact with something, change, expand, break out, and revel in the whole process. That is Rei Inamoto.

This Japan-born aficionado of breaking out has just embarked upon his latest journey, creating a new team after departing from AKQA. With his world on an even wider scale, how does the view look to him? No matter the scenery, I can already imagine Rei with a big grin on his face.

Rei’s new business cards and stationery, all bearing the trademark “★” logo.

Translation : Mandy Wang (PARTY)
Photograph :
Suzette Lee