A Conversation about Tokyo with Tyler Brûlé | TOKYO Comparison Vol. 2
A true media mogul, Tyler Brûlé founded Wallpaper* magazine in the mid-'90s and went on to launch the global affairs and lifestyle magazine/media brand Monocle in 2007. With six international offices - plus a number of stores and cafés - one of the publication's bases is in Tokyo. Self-described as an "old hat" at Japan, Brûlé has visited the country over 100 times, and, due to the lack of travel allowed during the pandemic, absence has made the heart grow even fonder. Here, the journalist and entrepreneur opens up about his unique insights into the media landscape, his absolute favorite spots in the city, and what advice he would give to someone looking to do business locally.
-- Having lived in many different cities and traveled extensively, what makes Tokyo so unique?
First and foremost, you have a global city that is still so homogenous. On one side, it is a very international city, and of course welcomes people from everywhere and has a level of diversity, but at the core, it is Japanese. And that's what continues to make it a unique place. Traditions can endure; whether it is those that are rooted in the family or those rooted in business, you don't have a dilution of values. And, to me, that is an incredibly powerful thing to hold on to.
There are lots of organizations that try to preserve the architecture, to maintain the craftsmanship and ensure that age-old recipes are protected. On the other side, you have also got the collision of globalization, which dictates that everything should strive to be the same - that's a very tricky balance, and that's one of the things that continues to make Japan such a place of fascination. Everything functions better than it does elsewhere, and yet it is also still set in its ways and navigates daily life on its own terms. In a globalized world, that's a very difficult act to pull off.
-- How about the local media landscape?
Japan is very outward-looking; you could say that the Japanese continue to borrow and be inspired by abroad, but they do it on their own terms, and along the way, they reinterpret, they refine, they perfect, and they take things to a completely different level. With the media scene, primarily magazines, there is something about the way that Japanese publishing houses focus on the quality of print, the complexity of page layout, and the depths of information that we simply do not see anywhere outside of Japan, and that's always a place of wonder for me - to just spend an evening at a Japanese newsstand or in a Japanese bookstore, reading and purchasing so many different Japanese titles, it is super inspiring. They push the limits of publishing in a way that's very rare in other corners of the world.
-- Can you put your finger on what first ignited your love of Japan?
There wasn't a magical turning point; it was a slow burn. It took a couple of trips. I liked Japan the first time I was there in the early '90s, but it didn't bite me right away. After that first trip, I started going for business reasons more often, and that's when I really got into my groove. The older you get and the more you travel, the more benchmarks you have, and you notice how outstanding Japan is.
Japan was the last long-haul trip I took [before the pandemic], in early 2020 and if you asked me now, do you want to go to Sydney today, to Los Angeles, to Rio, or do you want to go to Tokyo, there's no question that the first place I want to go to is Tokyo. If I could go anywhere right now, it would be to Japan. I've been well over 100 times, but when you can't visit somewhere, like now, you realize how important it is to your mental health; it has inspired so many business decisions, but it has also really informed the way I see the world.
-- What do you think continues to attract foreign media to Japanese subjects?
We've had an office in Tokyo for 15 years now and have always had a commitment to covering Japanese stories in a very different way. It has been about focusing on businesses and entrepreneurs, and to really cover the length and breadth of the country in all its facets. I think a lot of media outlets dip in and out of Japan, and they present the country in this slightly warped manner, focusing on big stories, natural disasters, or "weird" currents in popular culture, which are surely there, but so much is missed in between. I think that Japan has been rather misrepresented - once you really dive into Japan and experience it, you realize that it is a world apart.
-- How would you describe Tokyo to someone who has never visited?
It is the world's largest 'village', which is punctuated by all these points of wonder. When you look across Tokyo, it is actually quite a low-rise city; most buildings are two/three stories high. You don't have this vertical density one might expect. Yes, you have pockets of towers, but most areas are about family-run businesses and great little restaurants, and there is this incredible serenity. And these communities have all the functioning aspects that you expect in a 'village', that is one of the wonderful things; the local barber, the postal office, the small bookstore - so much of it is independently-run. It is not overrun by chain stores as we see in the west.
-- What does your perfect day off in Tokyo look like?
I normally stay in Shinjuku, so I would start with a run through Shibuya, around Yoyogi Park. I would find a good coffee shop somewhere in Tomigaya; there is a lovely place called Camelback. Then, I would probably walk and explore Shibuya Publishing & Booksellers. After that, I would want to have a good curry lunch at Shiseido Parlour, which is probably one of my favorite restaurants in the world. After that I would walk around Ginza and just look around, take the temperature of the economy. For dinner, I would go to Cignale Enoteca in Shinsen, one of my favorite restaurants. It's Japanese run and one of the most exquisite Italian restaurants in the world - Italian basics but with Japanese ingredients. And then, a late-night bar crawl - some favorite bars in Shinjuku or Ginza. I would want to make sure I stayed out until the sun was up the next morning. Tokyo has such an incredible nighttime economy; you can really, properly go out.
-- How do the rhythms of London and Tokyo differ, in terms of business?
The day starts later; Tokyo is not an early city, there's no culture of the breakfast. There is a culture of evening meetings, though - people are quite content to have a 10 p.m. meeting in the creative industries; you can meet with someone after dinner, and I love that. That is very specific to Japan. Coming to Japan, when I work in the Tokyo office, the metabolism is very different. There is this ease to starting the day that you don't get in western cities.
-- What advice would you give someone looking to expand or start their business in Tokyo?
Patience. Japan does not move at high-speed. I think I'm a bit of an old hat at Japan now, but there are still moments of surprise, which can be both illuminating and frustrating, and they can be so rewarding and positive in how they throw you a curveball. I can't think of another place where daily business would function this way. You can't look for spontaneity; things take time. But if you commit to it, you have to go in it for the long haul. And if you go in with that mindset, it can be a super rewarding experience.