Yoshio Yokobori and TOKYO 3.0: The Next Wave of Japanese Designers

If you’ve ever visited Japan or done business with Japanese companies, you know there’s a certain expectation of formality that often pervades meetings and conversations. But this isn’t what you get when you encounter international brand consultant, Yoshio Yokobori, who has a unique level of energy, innovative thinking, and pragmatism seldom seen in this part of the world. He’s about as untraditional as you can imagine, but at the same time he delivers results – which is one of the many reasons why fashion and lifestyle brands in Japan and around the Asia Pac region are clamoring to work with him.

The concept behind his newest initiative, TOKYO 3.0 The Next Wave of Japanese Designers, stemmed from Yoshio’s vision of raising the profile of rising-star contemporary Japanese fashion and lifestyle brands through an online+offline collaboration with an ecommerce site based in Singapore and a new concept store. And that’s just one of many innovative projects in development.

Yoshio himself is very 3.0; armed with little more than a backpack, cell phone and small Mac Air (with the most organized online filing we’ve ever seen), and in ubiquitous cap, white tee and shorts, he’s on the road more than 300 days a year, opening up opportunities and connecting the dots for clients. We talked to to him about the inspiration for Tokyo 3.0, his approach to building brands and businesses abroad, and what Japanese labels aiming to expand internationally can do to drive growth.

As an international brand consultant, what do you do?

I work with various companies as their buying office and I provide consulting services if they want to do business with Japanese brands. I also support Japanese companies that want to expand internationally. So my clients are in many different places: Japan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

How did you get started in this business?

A few years ago, I was helping a friend’s company to order Japanese brands. I realized that there are many buyers who are interested in Japanese products, but they find it very difficult to contact, negotiate and order from Japanese companies – it’s not just a language challenge, it’s that Japanese people are conservative and perhaps not so familiar with doing business abroad. So I decided to start a business to be the bridge between buyers who want Japanese brands, and the Japanese companies who want to be international.

What do you think are the main challenges for Japanese brands trying to expand internationally?

In my opinion, the first thing Japanese brands need to do is to go to a foreign market at least once and understand the difference between international and the fashion market in Japan. They’ll quickly realize there’s a huge opportunity for Japanese brands, but they need to think differently about how to fill that.

Which leads me to the second thing, which is that it’s very important to get a special partner, because it’s impossible to expand overseas by themselves. It’s just like making friends: you have to meet and get close to companies that have local operations.

Having a partner means a Japanese brand can engage in test marketing to see what works best – which is something that Japanese companies expanding abroad generally don’t do.

How do you help them?

What I do is explain business conditions and the market to Japanese companies, and help them negotiate with local partners. I also help to set up test marketing programs between the Japanese and partner companies in other countries. And I try to get them to actually go to the markets they’re interested in, so they have a better understanding of the local environment.

I mentor students as well, and even for them, I try to arrange a visit to an international market so they learn how to make their own way (sometimes without English!) and they have to be creative about getting things done.

I set them projects, like building social media content, or getting from one important place to another. This is a very critical part of their education – to see how things are very different from in Japan.

What have been your most important influences in building your business?

For my business, the most important thing has been building a network of people through introductions. And I also think it’s important to study a country’s history, economics, religions and culture – all of which leads me to a lot of different ways of thinking and approaching problems and opportunities.

What do you think your business will look like in say five years?

In the next few years, I’ll develop my company to cover bigger categories – beyond fashion. Fashion naturally mixes in with other industries, like lifestyle products, tourism, food, education. There’s lots of opportunity for Japanese brands in these areas to grow internationally.

What excites you about the TOKYO 3.0 collaboration in Singapore?

In the past, Japanese designers’ projects have been led only by Japanese people. Tokyo 3.0 is different: it’s been developed with Singapore retailers curating the brands and selections, and consulting with me. It’s really a pioneer project to take the perspective of the international company and lead the Japanese brands into a new market in this way.