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Designer Yosuke Ushigome finds solutions to culture shock in English and humor

by

Special To The Japan Times

How do you solve a geopolitical problem like Kim Jong Un? Containment? Embargoes? Propaganda? Regime change? Synchronized baseball?

Yosuke Ushigome is a designer and technologist, and not a diplomat, which explains why his solution is a little unorthodox. He invented the hybrid sport of synchronized baseball, which combines the mass gymnastics heritage of North Korea with baseball, a national pastime in Japan and South Korea, as a way of settling the differences on the Korean Peninsula.

Ushigome’s proposal, which he developed into a video for a series called “Commoditised Warfare” as part of his MA project at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, has as its core the idea to replace war and conflict with spectacles that have a competitive and voyeuristic appeal to them. Hence, the giant model stadium ship he engineered, to be commandeered by the United Nations and moored in the Sea of Japan. On board the ship, the warring sides would battle it out for the prize of peace.

Other tense situations resolved in “Commoditised Warfare” pitch Britain against Argentina in a game of minesweepers on the Falkland Islands (with cameras operated by the colony of resident penguins). India and Pakistan face off in a silly walks contest aboard elaborately decorated dump trucks, with chauvinism diluted by theater ending in a handshake.

By 2010, the 25-year-old Ushigome had completed his studies at Keio University and the University of Tokyo graduate school, but he had grown somewhat disillusioned with the direction design was taking in his hometown of Tokyo. Ushigome says he was more interested in the implication of design than its application, which often felt like it was being straitjacketed into entertainment.

He was looking around for the next step and when he stumbled across a course in design interactions at the RCA — a postgraduate college of art that counts artists Tracey Emin, Chris Ofili and David Hockney as graduates, as well as industrial designer James Dyson and film director Ridley Scott — it “seemed like the perfect fit.”

Except at first it wasn’t, or at least at first attempt it wasn’t.

Ushigome says he “completely failed” first time round. He explains he hadn’t fully prepared for the interviews and getting funding. Looking back, he says he was let down by language ability and portfolio. However, he wasn’t disheartened by the rejection and resolved to reapply: “I thought I could just give it another try.”

He did and was accepted, and made the move to London in September 2011.

The move from one (very) big city, Tokyo, to another big city, London, did not prove untoward for Ushigome. Neither did being a student again: There was the structure of classes and projects, and importantly, there were staff and students, the possibility for friendship and camaraderie. There were also a few other Japanese students studying at the RCA, which was “really helpful.”

There was, however, one major obstacle that immigrants the world over will identify and empathize with: language — speaking it, hearing it, responding to it and using it in presentations.

Ushigome recalls that the first couple of presentations he had to give in his course were a disaster. So, as well as studying design, he had to go back to the drawing board and get his English up to scratch. From our conversation there’s no hint of those difficult days in the beginning. In fact, Ushigome has a slight trace of an English accent on certain words, such as “a lot.”

So how did he get to the point where he works all day in English, and routinely has to present some pretty hard-to-explain ideas in English? Language learners take note.

“Shadowing, but shadowing in real life,” Ushigome says. “As we speak to each other in my mind I repeat what you say, sometimes I would even say out loud what the other speaker said, which must have been supercreepy, but it was really effective.”

One other aid that really helped Ushigome — probably more than just with language, but also with culture and fitting in — was binge-watching on British comedy. A friend and colleague recommended him to watch “Peep Show,” a long-running sitcom on Channel 4 in Britain.

But Ushigome is likely to have watched Peep Show like no one else.

“Every episode I watched three times: First, just as it was, the second time with subtitles and the third time I stopped every time there was a punch line.”

What he did next is funny if you picture Ushigome in his flat in London pressing pause and play: “I Googled why it’s funny.” He had to do this every other minute, and admits that jokes delivered via Google were not funny, but he was taking note of every new word and phrase as well as shadowing throughout.

All that time spent with British comedy — Peep Show ran for 10 seasons — has wound its way into Ushigome’s work. The silly walks he imagined for Indians and Pakistani rivals in “Commoditised Warfare” is a homage to the Ministry of Silly Walks from the cult comedy “Monty Python.” And, as Ushigome admits, there is an undercurrent of black humor in much of his exhibition work. Ushigome has exhibited widely in Japan and Europe.

For a slice of these works, watch his project from 2014 on being a professional sharer as he runs madcap around Shibuya as a kind of precursor to a story line from Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi TV series “Black Mirror.”

After graduating from RCA, Ushigome wound his way back to a Japanese company, Takram, a design studio, which has an office in London. Ushigome has worked on and off for Takram since his days at Keio University, so in many ways it was an easy fit in a city he has grown into, even as Britain undergoes its next phase, a separation from Europe.

Since procuring full-time work, and also becoming a new dad, working on personal projects has become harder as time has become scarcer.

Design still preoccupies Ushigome, especially its intersection with technology and how much these two forces dictate our lives. These are serious subjects, but you get the feeling Ushigome will be able to wrangle some wry and witty understanding of them.

Profile

Name: Yosuke Ushigome

Profession: Designer

Hometown: Tokyo

Age: 31

Key moments in career:

2011 — Moves to London

2013 — Completes MA at Royal College of Art

2015 — Joins Takram, London

Things I miss about Japan: Crisp winter weather, Japanese food

Things I like to do on a day off: Watching and reading fiction, playing with my son

Designers/artists/brands that inspire me: Julian Oliver, Google, Jigsaw


●牛込 陽介

職業:デザイナー/テクノロジスト

出身地:東京

年齢:31

転機:

2011年 渡英してロンドンへ

2013年 ロイヤル・カレッジ・オブ・アート (RCA) 卒業

2015年 Takram London に入社

日本を恋しく思うもの:すがすがしい冬の気候、和食

東京とロンドンに拠点を置くデザイン会社Takram のロンドンスタジオで働くデザイナー、牛込陽介氏。今でこそ難解なアイデアを英語でプレゼンし、不自由なく英語を使うが、ロイヤル・カレッジ・オブ・アート(RCA)の学生としてロンドンで暮らし始めた当初は英語が大きな障害だったという。慶応大学理工学部卒業後、東京大学大学院に進学、2010年に修士課程を修了したものの、東京におけるデザインの方向性に疑問を感じていた牛込氏は、名だたるデザイナーやアーティストを輩出している名門RCAのデザイン・インタラクション修士課程に進むことを決意する。しかし、一浪して念願の入学を果たした後も、言語の壁は大きかった。ではその克服方法とは? 一つは語学学習者におなじみの「シャドーイング」。日常生活で実践し、時には相手が口にした言葉をその場で声に出して繰り返したので気味悪かっただろうという。さらに、友人・同僚推薦の英コメディ番組をひたすら見まくった。牛込氏の作り出す作品にブラックユーモアが色濃く反映されている一因がここにあるのかもしれない。