Computer whiz turns ‘strangeness’ into asset

Passion for Japanese culture and an eye for detail allows Australian Richard Northcott to avoid being 'cog in wheel'

by Barbara Bayer

From his early days in Japan as a destitute student sleeping in train station stairwells to living in a 3-mat room that cost him ¥10,000 a month, Richard Northcott went on to head a mobile software company that now enjoys sales of $2 million a year.

Northcott, a native of Australia who has lived in Japan since 1986, is a senior champion in kyokushin karate, owns a bar in Shinjuku and runs a real estate business as well.

“Diverse” is certainly a word that comes to mind when one speaks with the 43-year-old Northcott. The word he uses far more often to describe himself, however, is simply “strange.” “I’m better now,” he says. “I can talk with foreigners and I have some foreign friends.”

He also repeatedly uses the word “lazy” in reference to himself, insists he is “Japanese” and apologizes for his “poor English.” One begins to wonder if he is indeed using his native English properly.

Northcott looks neither strange nor Japanese. And to judge by his obvious success here and prowess with the Japanese language he doesn’t seem lazy, either.

Northcott started his company, Enfour Inc., 18 years ago, taking up in mobile software two years later. He can boast of having created the first third-party mobile application ever. Initially creating software for the Japanese market, Enfour now sells around the world, with half of its sales coming from the United States.

The company’s core product line is language and Northcott’s main job is “making language solutions and offering services for people wanting to learn Japanese, as well as for Japanese wanting to learn English.” Between the three undertakings, Northcott employs some 20 people, including his sister, Tracey, who has worked with him since 2000.

An “army brat” who spent his youth moving around Australia, Northcott had an unusual affinity for Japan from childhood. He was involved in the martial arts jujitsu and kendo, and developed an interest in photography and electronic goods. “Nikon was my god, and then Sony.”

He also became mildly obsessed with Japanese pop music while in high school. “I would get magazines from Japanese exchange students, and sit there and write down the characters and try to remember them,” he says. “Everything that was Japanese just fitted me so well. All the Japanese people I knew in Australia said, ‘You have to go to Japan. You must have been Japanese in another lifetime.’ “

Before coming to Japan, Northcott studied art conservation in Canberra. A perfectionist at heart, he had always been fascinated with detail and possessed an ability to concentrate for long hours at a time. “It’s perfect for someone who sits for hours cleaning a painting.”

Northcott’s interest was in paper, however, and he appreciated the art of calligraphy, as well as typography and layout, aspects of print now taking blows in an increasingly digital world.

He might never have come to Japan, however, had it not been for a trip to South America. When he was 19 years old Northcott took part in a three-month adventure survival expedition. “I had been interested in this program because some of the tours involved archaeological digs and ship-wreck surveys,” he explains, things that jived with his interest in art relics.

But because he was unable to choose his destination, Northcott ended up in Chile, rowing down fjords. “It rained every day and we had no tents.”

Returning to Australia, Northcott found himself bored and with newfound appreciation for his father, who had done two stints in Vietnam. “I was still in survival mode. It was like when you come back from war and you’ve changed but no one has changed around you.”

In his second year in a university, he took off for Japan on a working holiday, planned to stay six months, and ended up staying 24 years.

Northcott immersed himself in the culture and language. “For the first 10 years here, I didn’t speak to any foreigners. I avoided them like the plague. I’d be like, ‘You guys, you have Roppongi, don’t come over here. Don’t talk to me. This is my world.’ “

The world Northcott refers to is Golden Gai in Shinjuku, where he now owns the bar Araku. Northcott took to the unique cluster of tiny bars from the start, drinking there every day. A place where the same clientele frequent the same favorite bars, and faces soon become familiar. It was a home in a country where he had no family, no school friends, nothing, Northcott says. For him, it was “a big family.” It was “heaven.”

Northcott’s decision to avoid fellow foreigners was part conscious, part natural and part a matter of economics. “I couldn’t afford to drink in Roppongi,” he admits, and adds that he didn’t make friends with foreigners easily. “It’s probably because I’m so strange, but the only things I would talk about would be Japanese pop music.”

Northcott’s strangeness also worked in his favor. “I had made a conscious decision to live here. I didn’t want to be one of the people playing the foreigner, the people who are in Japan but not really here. It wasn’t me being in a foreign community and occasionally working with Japanese people. I had to know how people ticked and how the language worked.

“If you want to learn a language in 12 months you have to get into a mind-set. You can’t say, ‘Oh, I’m going to pick up a textbook now and spend an hour studying.’ “

“I’m very lazy,” he avers, “but when I motivate myself to do something properly, I do it very well. I guess in the early days I had to throw myself into the deep end and really challenge myself, and the result is what I’ve got today.”

Northcott describes his years in Japan as divided into “chapters.” After studying Japanese history and art history at Sophia University, he found his way into the music industry. “I literally was able to remember who wrote which song and which band they used to be in to the ninth degree. So, when I came here and learned enough Japanese to communicate, I met people in the music industry and they would say, ‘Wow, you are so strange. I’m going to introduce you to my friends.’ “

The music business, as well as giving him valuable insights into marketing, eventually led to a job with Sony and work in digital retouching. Later, with the start of Apple, Northcott admits he “did all the things you aren’t supposed to do,” hacked the system, learned “how it was all done” and started developing fonts for Japanese that could be printed to less-costly printers than the lasers of the time. That, in turn, led to Northcott starting up his own company.

“Now, I make dictionaries and take a lot of care and time to do a lot of little details to make a good piece of software, as opposed to something that just works.” Northcott calls his products “complete solutions,” such as his TangoTown, a mobile-phone site specifically for foreigners in Japan who want to learn Japanese “or know enough Japanese to get themselves in trouble.” The products are something “that someone can buy and love.” And, he says, they are things he himself wants to have.

Much of his satisfaction as well comes from the sense of achievement gained in bringing said product to the customer. “Rather than just being a cog in the wheel, you can make a finished product and stick it in an envelope and send it to somebody, or, as in the case nowadays, have it delivered over the air, and people are like, ‘I’m really glad you made this.’ “

Another aspect of his work that motivates the recently married, father of a 1-year-old boy, is the attention to details. “Fine details, that’s what my life is about,” he says.

His dictionaries bring the original fonts and layout to the screen. The whole picture is what Northcott values and what he believes people will pay extra for.

“We’re coming full circle,” he says, referring to growing demand for high-quality mobile applications. “When a publisher creates a book or magazine, the look is a complete story. You can’t just take out the text and plunk in a graphic and expect it to be the same experience. But you can’t lose the usability for the sake of just keeping the format. It’s a tossup between functionality and usability, a balancing act. Our job is to take the old-school design and page layout and bring it into a full digital form that is acceptable to everybody.

“That’s the good thing about being in the business I’m in. We’re always on the bleeding edge of change. That gives us the ability to obviously break a lot of molds. What I like to do is grab some of the old skills and knowledge that might be lost but still have value. The extra work is being done and I think it’s that little bit extra that is all the value.”

Northcott’s diversity, which seems at first almost discordant, is actually quite a harmonious and natural mix. “Part of the reason I like Japan is because people appreciate the old arts. They know the value of and will pay for the extra effort the artist puts into things.”

Northcott’s love of karate stems from a similar mind-set. “The philosophical side of martial arts is something I crave. It’s more than just going out and hitting people. I was looking for something that I didn’t have elsewhere. It just happened to be in Japan.

“My teachers see me trying to appreciate and learn from them and say a lot of Japanese today don’t have this anymore. Coming from a Japanese perspective, they then say I’m more Japanese than other Japanese,” he explains. “It’s not the nationalism aspect, it’s the personal fortitude, to have something you believe in and have a line that you won’t back over.

“Basically, I’m a converted Japanese. I wasn’t a Japanese, therefore I can appreciate the Japanese-ness and see things in a different way. It’s not because I’m more Japanese. It’s because I’m a learner.”