In 2003, Junya Suzuki visited three different Legolands — all in Europe and all during the same trip. That was his honeymoon. The Legoland marathon was all the more remarkable given that Suzuki’s new wife was not, he says, a “huge fan of Lego.”
To makes things fair, or perhaps as a compromise — an essential brick in any marriage — the newlyweds also visited Holland, paying a visit to the Miffy Museum, which was much more to her liking.
Suzuki’s love of Lego is perhaps not surprising. As a child growing up in Saitama, he shied away from sports and outdoor activities.
“I loved to draw, sketch and make different things,” he says. “Playing with toys was always my favorite way of spending time.”
Lego, however, is a toy that he got hooked on early. The simple plastic bricks and their invitation to infinite creation were his favorite playthings — and he never grew out of it. A honeymoon that included a trip to the Legoland Billund, Resort in central Denmark, was in a way a type of homecoming.
Once back in Japan, Suzuki returned to the design studio he had worked at since graduating from Toyo Institute of Art and Design in Tokyo.
“I knew that I wanted to create things,” Suzuki says. “But I wanted to create something that had a function, so I chose to take a course that would enable me to learn about product design, instead of going to university to study art.”
As he mastered product design, his love of toys — conjuring up ideas for new ones as well as playing with them — remained strong. When the opportunity arose to work as a product designer for a small studio working with different Japanese toy brands to create new toys, he jumped at it.
Though he was happy at the company and likely would have stayed long-term, one day in 2006, a comment from his wife helped change the course of his career. She told him that she had heard that The Lego Group was looking for a designer for its studio in Japan.
Suzuki had not even been aware that Lego was operating in Japan but, encouraged by his wife and spurred on by a lifetime of playing with the bricks, he applied for the job, and got it. For the next six years he was a concept designer for The Lego Group, working at its Japanese hub. It was a role that involved generating new ideas for Lego toys, through either old-fashioned drawing or working with computer models.
In 2012, however, The Lego Group announced that it was shutting down its design operations in Japan. Though it was sad news for Suzuki, it also brought about another opportunity: Suzuki was told that he could stay working with Lego, but he would need to move to Billund in Denmark — the birthplace of Lego and the company’s global headquarters.
“It was my dream job,” says Suzuki. “So I thought, ‘Why not?'”
Suzuki has now lived in Billund for just over five years. Up until that turning point in 2012, he says he had never even imagined living or working overseas. But the opportunity to work at a family-owned outfit that happened to be one of the biggest and most beloved toy companies in the world was simply an opportunity he could not pass up.
Neither Suzuki nor his wife could speak Danish, and he admits that his grasp of English was shaky. “But my wife knew it was my dream to work at Lego,” he says. So, in 2013, the couple packed their belongings and made the move to Scandinavia.
Once in Denmark, Suzuki’s role at Lego changed. He moved from concept design to creating new Lego products. “This also means I get to play with Lego bricks everyday,” he says enthusiastically.
Given the bricks’ universal appeal, The Lego Group attracts talent from all walks of life, says Suzuki.
“There are so many designers drawn from all over the world, so there’s a lot of cultural diversity,” he explains. “There are more than 30 different nationalities at the Lego HQ. People say it’s too stereotypical to define people by nationality, but sometimes it makes a difference,” he adds.
He mentions something he calls “Friday afternoon shock,” when The Lego Group office starts emptying out from around 2 p.m. Suzuki didn’t realize at first that the early leaving time was based on maintaining a healthy work-life balance ethic.
“Danes don’t work as many hours as we do in Japan. They really believe it is important to spend time with the family,” he says. “So on Fridays, many of my Danish colleagues leave the office around 2 p.m.”
It’s policies that allow flexibility like this that may help explain why Denmark consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world.
Suzuki jokes, though, that if he didn’t have a family to go home to, he’d probably never leave the office given that he now works at the birthplace of his favorite toy. He does appreciate, however, that working in Billund has allowed him more quality time with his son, who was born not long after he and his wife moved to Denmark.
The Suzukis try to visit Japan every year to see family and friends.
“We are really careful about the choice of dinner each night while we’re there,” Suzuki says, mentioning that they miss Japanese food. Culturally, though, Suzuki says there are many similarities between the two countries. “Both (nationalities) are very calm, kind and always try to avoid conflict,” he says.
But for now, the plan is to stay on in Denmark indefinitely.
Suzuki says his grasp of Danish is a work in progress, but his son, now 5, is growing up to be a “real Dane” and already knows words that Suzuki doesn’t understand. Meanwhile his wife is also studying Danish, as the couple need to reach a certain level of language ability in order to apply for permanent residency.
As for the perks of working in Denmark — one of them, Suzuki says with joy, is a season pass to Legoland.
Name: Junya Suzuki
Profession: Product designer, The Lego Group
Key moments in career:
1998 — Graduates from Toyo Institute of Art and Design
2006 — Starts working for The Lego Group in Japan
2013 — Moves to Denmark to work at The Lego Group HQ
Things I miss about Japan: “There are many things, but especially the food!”
Things I am grateful for: “My parents for giving me their blessing to work overseas.”
Best advice I ever received: “The Japanese proverb: ‘What one likes, one will do well.'”
My advice to others: “If you have a desire or want to pursue a dream, going overseas should not be a barrier. Just try it.”