Correspondents' Eye on Tokyo:
Jet-setting Journalist Looks Back Over the Years He Has Called Tokyo His Home

Hailing from California, many laughed at Randy Schmidt when he expressed a desire to move to Japan in the '90s. Looking back, he's glad he ignored those who ridiculed him, 26 years on, his life and career have been built around that decision.
Living in Tokyo since the 1990s, Randy Schmidt has seen Tokyo and his industry undergo great change.

Tokyo Has Two Speeds, Either Glacier Slow or Lightning Fast

Schmidt recalls his decision to move here, stating, "In 1996, at the age of 33, I put all my possessions into storage in California, bought a plane ticket to Tokyo, and completely rebooted my life and career. Without the benefit of the internet or a cellphone, it was quite a challenge to move to a foreign country with a three-month tourist visa when I didn't speak the language, didn't have friends, and didn't have any job prospects."

Since then, he has gotten married here, started a family, and traveled around Asia as a TV News cameraman-editor-producer, capturing some of the most historic events of the last three decades. He has also had the opportunity to see Tokyo evolve over this period of time.

"In some ways, Tokyo has changed a lot, and in some ways, it hasn't" he says, explaining that "places like Shibuya sort of look the same, including the famous crossing. Businesses come and go, but the overall market remains very similar. The bullet train has incrementally changed since 1964, but it's still the same basic train - fortunately, now without smoking seats!"

Though Japan likes to keep many jobs as human-centric as possible, compared to the West's automation of a lot of its industries, Schmidt does remember some relics of Japan's past that have since disappeared thanks to modern technology.   

"When I moved here in 1996, some train stations on the outskirts of Tokyo employed human ticket-takers. At the station entrance, a guy would punch everyone's ticket as they entered. And, as a nervous, repetitive habit, he would just keep punching his handheld hole-puncher even when no one else was around!"            

In the time before satellite-navigation and Google maps, Schmidt would carry a map and compass and navigate his way through the city streets that way, "which sounds so silly now," he laughs. Of course, with the rise of the internet and smartphones and English found on all signs, getting around Tokyo has become a lot easier.

Schmidt has seen other aspects of Tokyo change at varying speeds. Quoting a friend, he says, "Tokyo has two speeds: either glacier slow or lightning fast. Some things take decades to change and other things just happen overnight."

Thanks to the nature of his job, taking him away from Tokyo for months at a time, Schmidt would leave and come back to find some things completely different. He would return to realize "Oh, there's a building there. Or some restaurant has gone away or something has appeared magically overnight."

One of the places he has witnessed drastically change is Roppongi. The wild nightclubs of yesteryear have become tame. "The club called Motown House is still there," he says, "but it seems like it's visited by  the same people who were there 26 years ago, just older now. They never left!"

Randy Schmidt in Shinjuku in 1996. Photo: courtesy of Randy Schmidt

One of the biggest shifts Schmidt has seen in his time here is the shift toward diversity.

"There are just a lot more international residents here now," he notes. He also adds that the job market has become a lot more diverse as well, opening Tokyo up to people with varying skill sets. "In the 1990s, the vast majority of jobs for Westerners were for just English Teachers and Proofreaders."

Though the traditional salaryman is still ubiquitous in Tokyo, there has been a steady rise in less conventional jobs, offering international residents wanting to work here a lot more options than when Schmidt first arrived. Though there has been this increase in diverse work, Schmidt has seen his own industry whittled away thanks to developments in technology.

"My industry of foreign TV news has gotten much smaller in the past 20 years. There are actually far fewer people working in it now."

Because of the rise of "hyphenated-jobs" as he puts it, Schmidt now works as a cameraman-soundman-editor-producer-etc., which all used to be separate jobs for a larger team. Less is more.

Making Time for Family and Hobbies

Another big change in his own life has been that he now has a 12-year-old son, a challenge for anyone to take on, let alone someone whose job requires them to spend months away at a time covering news across Asia. During the pandemic, when traveling was not an option, he got to spend more time with family and get back into one of his older hobbies.

"I taught my son how to make stop motion animated movies, which we did together." Though his son's interest eventually waned, it was only reignited in Randy Schmidt.

"I screened my recent movie at a film festival called the Rising Sun International Film Festival in Kitakyushu, Japan. I also taught an animation workshop for children, which was sponsored by the city of Kitakyushu."    

Schmidt's life has evolved along with the city he lives in; originally finding it difficult to rent a 16-square-meter apartment in Yoyogiuehara when he first arrived, he now lives in a home close to a good school for his son.

"As a westerner, I've always felt welcome in Tokyo. I think the benefits certainly outweighed issues like the difficulty in renting an apartment," he says.

Regardless of all the changes that both the city and Schmidt have undergone, living here has been a positive experience for him. "It's been great. It's been very rewarding. I'm glad I moved to Japan. It's hard to imagine that things would have worked out better if I had lived somewhere else. I've been very lucky here. Japan has been good to me."

There is something that Schmidt feels is a staple of Japan, one he hopes will never change.

"One thing that hasn't changed in Japan in the past few decades is the price of a weekday lunch, which is still a bargain."

Randy Schmidt

Randy Schmidt is a cameraman and editor for CBS News. Based in Japan since 1996, he has witnessed the immense physical and cultural changes that Tokyo has undergone in the 26 years that he has lived here.
Interview and writing by Laura Pollacco
Photography by Laura Pollacco