When Yumi Matsuo declares that she’s a people-oriented person, it’s easy to believe.
From the moment we sit down over coffee during one of her frequent trips to Tokyo, she is chatty and warm, sharing personal anecdotes with the ease of someone who clearly loves connecting with people. It is no surprise that her business as a lifestyle and wedding photographer in New York thrives on her go-getter attitude and ability to create close connections.
“People have told me, ‘I would have paid just for that hour (to hang out), it was so much fun. It was empowering and I felt great,'” Matsuo says. “I love that. In my mind, it’s just as much about the experience as it is about the photos. I want people to feel great about themselves.”
Matsuo ventured on her own as an independent photographer when a serious illness in her family led to spending around three months out of each year in Tokyo. In 2015, she quit her New York marketing job at Guest of a Guest, a website highlighting high-society events and turned her attention to a career with a more flexible schedule, quickly landing on photography.
“Photography was always a passion of mine, but I never thought it would be a full-time job. I honestly never considered it,” she says.
Within a few years, she turned her one-woman endeavor into a full-time business with a collective of associate photographers working under her brand, and her work has appeared in publications such as Marie Claire, Forbes and InStyle. Recently, she has also started to consider expanding her business to Japan, where her family lives.
Matsuo spent her adolescence in Tokyo, but she always felt a strong sense of being American. She was born in New York to Japanese parents who, she says, “had no intention of raising kids in the U.S. or making a life there.” Her father had been transferred to the U.S. for business, and when his assignment stretched from three years to 14, Matsuo ended up living in the bustling metropolis until she was 11.
When Matsuo’s family moved back to Japan, she started sixth grade at the American School in Japan, an international private school in Tokyo. That experience left her feeling as though her life in Japan was an unusual bubble where many of her classmates were not Japanese.
When she was ready for university in 2007, it seemed natural to go back to the U.S. It was there, she explains, she could be the most independent and accepted for her outgoing nature, which, she jokes, can be mistaken for abrasiveness.
“My parents wanted me to go to ICU (International Christian University) or Sophia University (in Tokyo), but even after I moved back to Japan, I went to the U.S. every summer and I very strongly wanted to go back,” she says. “That being said, I did a semester at Sophia and had a great time. It was never like I wanted badly to leave Japan. I just ultimately thought I was going to make a life in the U.S. and I identified more with being American.”
Although the dichotomy of her identity can feel awkward at times, Matsuo is quick to laugh about it, finding the humor in straddling two cultures.
“My dad used to joke that since I was born in New York and my middle name is Margaret, I should just go by Margaret so that people would understand right away that there’s something different (about me),” she recalls. “Oddly enough, even though I’m very Americanized, when I’m in the U.S., I feel really Japanese, or at least like I can identify with it (being Japanese) much more. But the second I land in Japan, I’m so American. It’s such a weird thing.”
Matsuo admits that the idea of living in Japan as an adult sometimes seems daunting.
“I used to feel like the automatic answer to moving back to Japan would be ‘no,’ because before I had my own business, I couldn’t imagine myself working in a Japanese company and being able to thrive in that environment. From small things to very large things, I feel like there are reasons I wouldn’t fit in,” she explains. “But I’ve been slowly dipping my feet in Japan to see what the market is like here.”
Matsuo’s photography style is glossy but candid, capturing genuine expressions and moments in a professional manner that tells a story about who her subjects are, whether she’s shooting a new family or employees for corporate headshots. That style, she has noticed, is still unusual in Japan, although it seems people are shifting toward embracing a more laid-back image.
In fact, immediately after our interview, she rushes off to a photo shoot with a Tokyo-based client.
“In Japan, people want to present their very best, polished selves, whereas in the U.S., it’s more about showing their authentic self and what it’s like everyday so they can remember it,” she says with a laugh. “But it seems like people here are now gravitating toward looking more relaxed and lifestyle-esque than super put-together.”
Although Matsuo still does the lion’s share of photography for her brand, it’s her natural affinity with people that keeps her motivated more than the process.
“At the end of the day, I can’t really see myself holding a camera in five years. I like photography, but the editorial side is more like a means to connect with people, figure out how to grow a business and see what the next shift is for photographers,” she says. “When I first started, Instagram wasn’t as big and highly regarded as it is today … but now I get 90 percent of my business via Instagram. I like seeing that kind of shift and trying to keep up with it. (The business) definitely has taken off in a direction that I never thought it would.”
Years ago, Matsuo chose to leave Tokyo, but if her business pulls her back, who knows, she could well be up to the challenge, and return.
Name: Yumi Matsuo
Hometown: New York/Tokyo
Key moments in life and career:
2007 — Graduates from the American School in Japan and heads to the U.S. to study at Trinity College in Connecticut
2011 — Graduates college, moves to New York and starts work as an editor for Guest of a Guest
2017 — Quits work to focus on photography, living between New York and Tokyo
2018 — Launches Yumi Matsuo Studio in New York
Things I miss about Japan: “First and foremost, my family. Secondary to that — the food, the service and the Toto toilets.”
Words to live by: “Be kind. It shakes the world.” — Poet and writer Cleo Wade