Shiori Aiba is not sure what’s going to happen next in her life, but that’s OK. She has hung out her shingle in Berlin and one of the valuable things she feels she’s learned from living there is to be happy in the present. Through a combination of determination, skills and lucky breaks, things are working out well for her.
After graduating from the art and design department at the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture in 2009, for which her final project was an installation featuring dresses made with human hair, Aiba worked in Tokyo for a TV commercial production company.
She knew, though, that she wanted to continue making her own work, and her primary creative interests were fashion and textiles.
While attending a summer course in London in 2012, she was able to see a graduation show of the Central Saint Martins art and design school’s Material Futures masters course. The course’s emphasis on innovation and out-of-the-box thinking helped Aiba make up her mind about what her next step would be. “I wasn’t particularly focused on living in London,” she says.
“The main thing was that I thought it would be a good idea to learn some technical background to working with textiles and about how they can be developed,” she adds. “And the Central Saint Martins M.A. was ideal.”
The course, which she began in 2013, was nominally about the future of textiles, but Aiba found that the experience of living abroad prompted her to consider her cultural heritage, and put her in mind of how traditional Japanese craft may be able survive and prosper in the contemporary world.
She designed clothes and fashion items using washi (Japanese handmade paper) that she treated to make waterproof and more wear -esistant. Using this methodology, though now with more locally sourced paper from Germany, Aiba has gone on to create her own business, making jewelry out of layers of colored sheets of paper compressed into three-dimensional geometric shapes.
“The (Central Saint Martins) course was maybe one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, very intense, but it was good, I enjoyed it,” she says. “I was frustrated trying to adapt to the British education system — it’s totally different from the Japanese one. The process and the way of giving presentations … I struggled a lot. Plus it was in English, but the native-speaker students were very nice and helped me a lot.”
The multiculturalism was a plus point of living in London, and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union was a surprise. “Personally, I think it’s very sad. I still really like London and the U.K. and I was thinking I might move back there one day,” she says. “London is a melting pot and if Brexit happens it will not be my same beloved London. I think the U.K. will be more isolated and completely change as a country. I still hope that it might not happen.”
After graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2015, Aiba stayed in London for a few months, but no long-term employment solution appeared.
“I wouldn’t have minded staying in London, but it was difficult finding a job,” she says. “My visa was going to expire, so I moved to Berlin. As far as Europe goes, Germany is relatively easy to live in as a foreigner.”
Still, she admits that “it was tough at the beginning,” having arrived in Berlin without knowing anyone, and without a job. Within a month though, she had found work in the fashion industry.
“I never imagined that I would be so lucky as to get a job like that, but it didn’t help me with doing my own work,” she says. “I was just being told how to make someone else’s.”
Without the time to develop her own interests Aiba was open to other opportunities. “I’d done a bit of part-time work for a TV production company when I’d been in London, and it turned out that the owner (of the company), who is half-German and half-Japanese, was based in Hamburg. Now I work for them remotely here in Berlin,” she says. “It’s very similar to the work I was doing in Tokyo, so again it was a stroke of luck. It’s totally different from the creative work that I do myself, but it gives me time to build up my own business and make my own things.”
Having worked in a notoriously high pressure industry in Tokyo, and after the intensity of studying an M.A. in a second language, the pace of life in Berlin was a big change that she hadn’t expected.
“When I first moved to Germany I thought, like some other Japanese I now know in Berlin, that I should work hard. But then we were surprised at how slowly things happen here!,” she recalls. “Now I’m more relaxed about things. Leaving Japan made me more open to another world but also in myself. If I had only lived in Japan I wouldn’t have discovered this. It’s a very precious experience for me.”
As an example of the difference between life in Japan and life in Europe, Aiba thinks back to 2011 and the Great East Japan Earthquake.
“When I was living in Tokyo, on the day of the earthquake, I had no strong feelings or room in my head to think about what had happened,” she recalls. “I was just thinking about going to work as usual. It was kind of shocking; there’s a lot of unseen pressure in Japan.”
Despite this, Aiba remains pragmatic about where she’ll end up in the future.
“I do often think about whether I’ll move back. Japan’s nice, too,” she ponders. “I don’t really speak German — everybody speaks English really well — and I have no deep relationship with Germany, so I don’t think I’ll live here forever. Berlin is also changing, and my status is changing … but when I catch myself thinking about the future too much I always come back to experiencing life now.
“This is something Berlin has taught me: Enjoy life now.”
Name: Shiori Aiba
Profession: Materials designer and TV production coordinator
Birthtown: Niigata Prefecture, raised in Chiba and Ibaraki prefectures
Key moments in career:
2009 — Graduates with a degree in Plastic Art and Mixed Media from the University of Tsukuba
2015 — Graduates with an M.A. in Material Futures from Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London
2016 — Moves to Germany and starts jewelry business
Favorite foods: “In Japan motsunabe (offal hot pot); in Berlin ice cream at Jones (jonesicecream.com); in London Vietnamese food, Ottolenghi (ottolenghi.co.uk) and pub grub at The Duke of Cambridge (dukeorganic.co.uk).”
What I miss most about Japan: “Friends, food and family a bit. (Sorry mum and dad!)”
What I like most about Berlin: “Drinking and relaxing in the park, the lakes and having a beer by the river Spree.”