People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Yuichiro Hori: Designing a new life in China

by Kathryn Wortley

Contributing Writer

Each year, thousands of Japanese people repatriate to Tokyo at the end of their company placements overseas, but for Yuichiro Hori, the experience of coming “home” became the trigger to leaving it permanently.

The Nagoya-born designer had completed a three-year stint in Shanghai managing interiors on a residential project for investment business conglomerate Marubeni Corp. It was a task he had not chosen; he knew nothing about China. His bosses, however, said that, at 25, he should experience working both overseas and on a big project. Going to Shanghai would kill two birds with one stone. Buoyed by his colleagues’ encouragement that the country had great potential, he agreed to go.

Arriving in 1999, Hori was shocked by what he found. His first meal was in a McDonald’s where more than half the customers were wearing pyjamas and there was no queueing system for ordering. “People were always cutting in and foreigners were served first,” he recalls, adding that a mom sitting beside him gave her child a cup to pee in rather than take him to the restroom.

On another occasion, Hori spotted a trash can behind the counter of a shop he was in, so he asked the cashier to dispose of some of his trash. The cashier agreed and threw the trash onto the street.

He insists though, that whatever everyday difficulties he faced, Shanghai had unprecedented business opportunities at that time. He focused on his work, designing commercial and high-end apartments and says his placement in the city changed his life.

“In Japan, my job was designing tower (block) apartments on small pieces of land. Making one room bigger to do something creative simply meant making another room smaller. It was always the same box,” he explains. “In China, land was cheap, so whatever I wanted to do, I could do. I had freedom.”

Hori returned to Tokyo in 2002, inspired to quit Marubeni and start his own business designing furniture, but soon felt he had been wrong to leave China.

“In China, my vision was wide because the way of business and way of thinking (there) was wide,” he says. “I felt like I’d come back to a small world, that my future would not expand in Japan.”

Shanghai’s diversity was Hori’s biggest personal and professional loss. He had become accustomed to interacting with people from every corner of the world, living as a global citizen and learning about opportunities and contacts in a wide range of overseas markets. Back in Japan, he felt pressure “to adjust to the Japanese way” of doing things and found that people used mostly domestic vendors.

A feasibility study into his business idea revealed difficulties in finding a sufficient number of skilled young craftspeople in both the short- and long-term in Japan. Most woodworkers and metalworkers were already in their 40s or 50s, while those in their 20s were keen to set up their own workshops after gaining the skills they needed. Often, they were experts in machine work but not handcraft, and the mind-set was problematic, too.

“When I communicate with a Japanese technician (about what I want to create), the first response is ‘no’ or ‘I can’t’ but, with a Chinese technician, it’s really positive. They say ‘let me try’ and are really easygoing,” he says.

There was also a wealth of young talent in Shanghai as many craftspeople start working at age 15 or even 10. Hori recalls one 25-year-old man building an exact replica of one of his wooden chairs from scratch thanks to knowing the nature of wood so well.

Thinking back on his time in Shanghai, Hori felt the city offered the human resources, raw materials and logistics necessary to make an international furniture design business successful. And so he returned in 2004 to build his life there.

He passed his designs to local factories to turn them into reality but, although the caliber of the artisans was high, he found factory owners would cut corners by switching to poor-quality materials or producing the items too quickly. The 300 chairs for Hori’s first order from a restaurant in Japan, he says, broke within three months.

Even investing in a factory did not guarantee him the quality he wanted. With a stake of only 30 percent, Hori found that the main investor ultimately ran the company, and after one Lunar New Year holiday — when people traditionally visit their hometown — only 20 percent of its staff returned. The others sought work elsewhere, resulting in a huge loss of talent.

Undeterred, Hori sold his investment and teamed up with French manufacturer Laval to launch Furniture Labo, a joint venture based in Shanghai. For Laval, the partnership made sense. Though a globally renowned furniture maker, it was struggling with less access to skilled workers following a massive depopulation of the area in France in which it is based and was interested in the respected Japanese approach to factory management.

Furniture Labo now marks 10 years of operations. It owns and runs its own factory in Shanghai to produce furniture combining Chinese craftsmanship, European and Asian design, and Japanese management. And in 2012, Hori established Stellar Works, a high-end furniture brand.

He admits the journey has not been without difficulties. At first, some Chinese staff refused to work with him because he is Japanese, and there were cultural differences to overcome, too.

“In Japan, people work more independently and are ultimately responsible for their work on the product, but in China we need visible management. A quality control team checks everything produced in the factory,” he says, pointing out that a quality control team would not be needed in Japan.

Other problems, however, are not so easily resolved. While Hori says that he himself can resolve personal or professional difficulties in Japan, he still often needs a third party to do so in Shanghai.

Though Hori misses things about Japan and often takes the short trip from Shanghai to Fukuoka for a weekend of nostalgia, he likes living among Shanghai’s vibrant foreign population, which includes many thousands of Japanese citizens.

“Every month there are new shopping malls and luxury hotels popping up, and we can enjoy new restaurants. It’s an amazing, advanced city,” he says.

What’s more, the future looks bright. Hori has noticed a growing love and appreciation for all things Japanese in Shanghai since the boom in Chinese tourism to Japan. And, using the history of design as an example, he says China’s thriving economy heralds even greater opportunities within the design industry.

Profile

Name: Yuichiro Hori

Profession: CEO and founder of Stellar Works (www.stellarworks.com)

Hometown: Nagoya

Age: 44

Key moments in career:

1999 — Departs Tokyo for Shanghai as project manager for Marubeni Corporation

2002 — Returns to Japan, leaves Marubeni Corp. to become an entrepreneur

2004 — Returns to Shanghai and sets up a furniture design company

2005 — Invests in a local company to manufacture his designs

2007 — Sells investment due to product quality issues

2008 — Establishes Furniture Labo, a joint-venture company with Laval, and starts working with a factory entirely under his control

2012 — Establishes high-end design brand Stellar Works

Words to live by: A Chinese saying: “If you meet one new person today you can get one new road in your life.”