Isao Tokuhashi, the founder of My Eyes Tokyo, spends the majority of his time looking for members of the 1.5 percent in Japan that aren’t pure Japanese
Nearly 20 million foreign tourists visited Japan in 2015. It’s common to bump into a foreigner while shopping in Tokyo or visiting the temples of Kyoto – perhaps even unavoidable depending on the time of year. Coming across a foreign resident is less common. As of 2014, there were only 2 million non-Japanese living in the country of over 127 million.
Japan is, ethnically speaking, about 98.5 percent pure Japanese – the third most homogenous country on the planet, behind only the Koreas.
Isao Tokuhashi (pictured above), the founder of My Eyes Tokyo, spends the majority of his time looking for members of the other 1.5 percent.
From TV producer to entrepreneur
My Eyes Tokyo, or MET for short, is an online media startup Isao launched in 2006. Via brief interviews and photographs, MET offers a peek into the daily lives of foreigners living and working in Japan. It’s reminiscent of the popular Humans of New York blog, which is approaching 17 million followers on Facebook, but with less of an emphasis on photography and more of an emphasis on text.
From 2001 to 2002, Isao interned at a Fox affiliated TV station in Fresno, California. It was a life-changing experience for the Japan native, born and raised in Tokyo and the surrounding suburbs. Before relocating to the US, his only trip outside of Japan had been a short vacation to Hong Kong.
Isao attended a free English school when he wasn’t working, where he met other foreign transplants from across the globe. In many ways, the diversity in his classroom reflected the diversity of the US itself.
“One of my favorite things about America is the cultural roots – people aren’t just American, but African American or Italian American,” Isao tells Tech in Asia. “ I fell in love with the diversity, and I was curious about how they viewed a homogenous country like Japan.”
At the end of his internship, Isao returned to Japan to become a television news producer. He’d go on to work for two of the largest TV networks in the country, but despite his professional success, Isao felt like he had left a part of himself behind in America.
“I missed that environment when I came back to Japan,” he says. “I wanted to continue meeting people from around the world, and I became curious about their lives here.”
Japan to the world, the world to Japan
MET went live in 2006 as Isao’s personal blog. His first interview was with a backpacker from the Netherlands who had only been in Japan for a short time. The backpacker gushed about how much fun he was having in Japan, but didn’t offer any deep commentary on his experience in the country. Isao decided to focus on longer-term residents who could share both positive and negative stories about their lives in Japan. He also began profiling Japanese people who have lived abroad, or who have strong connections to foreign countries.
Isao has interviewed teachers, entrepreneurs, and even refugees. A popular theme is to profile a foreign resident who’s involved in traditional Japanese arts – like the Swedish man who performs rakugo comedy or the Australian geisha.
One memorable interview, Isao recalls, was with an Iranian housewife who teaches Japanese students how to cook traditional Iranian dishes.
“The media makes Iran sound so aggressive, but she was such a gentle person,” he says. “I watched her class and sampled her dishes. My personal image was that they’d be hot or spicy – but just like the teacher, they were far more mild than my preconception.”
Over the past decade, MET has published about 250 interviews, along with columns, feature stories, and photo essays. That number might not seem like a whole lot, but Isao is the only full-time staff – he quit his job last summer to focus all of his creative energy on the site.
“It’s still, in many ways, my personal blog, so it’s hard for me to call it a startup,” says Isao. “I can’t upload new content as often as I’d like, sometimes just once a month. If I can raise venture capital funding […] I can hire more help.”
Each article on MET is offered in English and Japanese, and Isao does all of the translation work himself. As you can probably imagine by now, an English-only site wouldn’t be in line with Isao’s quest to share the human experience with as many people as possible – even if going monolingual would save him a lot of time and energy.
“The Japanese version lets Japanese people see that foreigners are going through the same struggles as them, and the English version gives them a great study tool while increasing the potential reach of each article,” he says.
Isao employs a part-time web designer, a handful of freelance reporters, and one proofreader. He explains that he finds most of his subjects online, at various events around Tokyo, or through introductions by friends and people he’s already written about.
MET is fully bootstrapped with the founder’s own savings. Isao has earned some money by hosting meetup events and is currently experimenting with native ads, which are already earning revenue. He didn’t share specific readership breakdowns, but says most of the site’s visitors are, naturally, from Japan. MET’s Japanese-language articles are also often shared on Huffington Post Japan, making them even more visible to local Japanese.
Isao has two goals for MET. The first, which he’s already partially succeeded at, is raising awareness about what Japan is really like.
“Outside of Japan, few people know much about my country even if they drive a Toyota and their kids play Nintendo. In the US, people asked me if Japanese people ever eat steak and if the traffic lights are the same color. Writing about foreign residents and internationally-minded Japanese can show them the real Tokyo.”
His ambitious long-term goal is to turn MET into an international media network, with “My Eyes [insert city or country here]” spreading across the globe.
“I want people to understand that we’re all the same. Whether you’re an Iranian housewife, an African refugee, or a Japanese entrepreneur, we all feel the same emotions and experience the same ups and downs. I want to share this mindset with the world.”
“Changing minds is difficult,” he adds. “But hopefully MET can open their minds little by little.”
Editing by Nivedita Bhattacharjee and Nadine Freischlad
This post was originally published on Tech in Asia.