How Discovering Japan Changed My Life
Today I'm going to talk about how I discovered Japan, how I learned Japanese and how I ended up in the land of the rising sun after finally starting to live a passion that I only discovered in my twenties.
I will share my experiences of learning Japanese and many of the things I did to build my career before and after I arrived in Japan. Wasn't too sure where to begin but thought that "day one" would be a good start.
The post is a bit long so you may want to read while you having a poo or something. When I get a wee bit of time, I'll pull out all the bits about how I learned Japanese and stick that in a separate post.
This article is split up into the following events in life.
- Day one
- How I discovered Japanese Culture
- How I started to self-study Japanese
- How I started to earn myself money
- Setting my first destination in life - living and working in Japan
- How and where I met my wife
- My first full time job at Japan Airlines
- How I made it to Japan
- How I began my career in Japan
- Why being comfortable is dangerous
- Life at Amazon Japan as Website Manager
- How I started to make money online
- Why we moved to Seattle for 5 months
- How dannychoo.com started to gain readership
- How I started a side business
- Why I left Microsoft to start up my own company
- Living with illness
- What my company "Mirai" does
- The best thing about my job
- Its still day one
Was born and raised in the East end of London - this photo taken in Victoria Park Hackney while I was still living with both parents. Parents are both Malaysian Chinese.
Later on in life during my early years, times were tough for my parents who both worked hard day n night. As they were both busy trying to make ends meet, they decided to put me in various foster homes which I lived in for most of my childhood. In some of the homes, I wasn't treated incredibly well but didn't say anything to my parents as I knew they were having their own financial and other problems. I ended up living with a white, black and then with an Indian family for what seemed like an eternity.
As luck would have it, one of the foster homes had guardians who would take my clothes and consider it theirs while their kids would constantly bully me - was easy to pick on the boy who had no parents. I was made to feel as unwelcome as possible in their house.
I remember a particular evening where we came back to the house to discover the front door open. We walked in to discover that the place was a mess - burglars had got in. I was scared and started to cry. The eldest child of my foster family shouted at me:-
"What are you crying for?! This isn't even your house!"
Other memorable moments in one of the homes was when I was strangled until I had red patches around my eyes. When asked the next day at school, all I could think of was saying that I put cups on my eyes ^^;
Another unforgettable time was when I was beaten with car racing tracks - a bit like these ones but were made of rubber with an orange strip down the middle. Was left with lovely bright red marks all over. Remember looking in the mirror after the beating session and still remember exactly what I looked like back then down to the green jumper that I was wearing.
The only thing I had in life back then were the occasional weekends with my parents. Dad would come to pick me up for the weekend and I would either stay with him or he would drop me off at mums. But at times he was just swamped with work and couldn't make it. The phone would ring and my foster parents would pick up and hand me the phone.
After hanging up I would sit crying on the stairs looking out at the small window above the door. I couldn't even go out to cry because I wasn't allowed out on my own apart from going to school. All I could do was go back to my room which was a small stock room with a bed. I would have dreams of my only friend Buck Rogers coming to visit me with his trusty robot Twiggy.
Mum and dad were paying my foster parents to house and feed me and not to particularly care about how well or bad I done at school. My childhood was school > go home > eat > occasionally watch TV > go to room > repeat.
The TV was my first encounter with Japanese anime where I watched Gatchaman (called G-Force in the UK). I didn't particularly know it was Japanese - not that it was important at the time anyway.
This photo was taken during the time I was staying at one of the foster homes. Didn't have much fun in school either. Was constantly bullied and most of my memories were of being dragged through gravel, gang beaten up, having my possessions burned, football constantly aimed at my face, and having the big guy in the school playground say to me "If I smash your head with this bat and kill you then I would go to jail. But it would be worth it." I remember having to ask the same person to punch me so that I could be part of his posse.
Memories attached to emotion are easy to remember as the brain releases a chemical which helps the memory to be stored for longer. This is why we easily remember moments of joy, sadness or embarrassment.
If you think back to your childhood, many of your memories with either be a mix of these emotions. I have no memories of happiness during my childhood apart from one of when my parents still lived together. It was Christmas and we were sitting in front of the Christmas tree in the living room back in Blurton Road Hackney.
Used to be quite depressed when I thought about my childhood until I started to think about what some other kids go through as a child - I had it easy compared to them.
Completely unmotivated throughout my school term, I ended up taking subjects because of what others in class took - I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do in life. With no destination in life or passion for the subjects that I studied, I didn't do well in school at all with average grades of D or E. Now you know why my English grammar is terrible ^^;
Cant remember at which point in life but I started to live with my parents again - with dad for a couple of years and then with mum until I moved out. This photo taken with mum last year. I want to be able to buy her a house somewhere so that she doesn't have to live in that council flat anymore. Love her to bits but she's as stubborn is as stubborn does and wants her own place and not one where I pay the rent for her ^^;
Don't have the cash quite yet after I nearly went bankrupt in 2009 but have been able to recover a wee bit of late. Getting a place for mum now would pretty much use up all of our savings and also mean that I would not have enough cash flow to continue to run the company which is not a good thing.
This is mums place in Hackney. Lived here until I moved out to live with wifey. Was veeeeeeeeery depressing living here. The neighbors would play thumping reggae music all day and night. The floor boards literally shook.
Mum got mugged in Hackney 3 times - once she was left unconscious after somebody hit her head. After getting a call, I ran to the hospital to find her with dried blood down her face and bruises on her arm where she tried to hold onto her handbag.
I started to make real friends outside of school by meeting other folks who also loved Kylie Minogue! I made friends by waiting outside the BBC or Kylie's recording studios Stock Aitken and Waterman. More photos of my groupie shenanigans in the Kylie Minogue post.
And this is what my room looked like back at the time ^^; I bought nearly every magazine or newspaper that Kylie was in and plastered her all over the walls - and yes there are some Jason Donovan ones up there too ^^;
How I discovered Japanese culture
Somewhere in between, I discovered the Sega Megadrive - a Japanese 16 bit games machine on import. I wanted to know more about the up n coming games for the machine and sought info through magazines at Japanese bookshops in London.
Without the Internets back then, these shops were my only gateway to getting hold of Japanese material. The Japan Center was one of the book shops that I went to where I would discover more Japanese culture on each visit - culture like manga, anime and idols.
At this point in life, you can see the transition from "Kylie" to "Japan" - Kylie posters on the walls with a small bunch of Megadrive games.
You can just about make out Macross on the TV screen here - t'was the Cantonese version that I picked up from China Town in London. Was the first time I saw anime with the awareness that it was Japanese. The animation quality, story, music, mecha and cute girls overwhelmed me - I needed to watch more of this.
To make money at the time, I did things like make and sell laminated cards of Kylie and Jason which I put together from magazine cut outs.
How I started to self-study Japanese
The discovery of Japanese culture captivated me and I started to feel a passion and desire that I've never felt in my life. I wanted to deepen my knowledge of Japanese culture and in order to do so I knew that I needed to be able to understand Japanese and so decided to start learning on my own.
I didn't have an opportunity to attend Chinese school when I was younger so had to learn the Japanese language from scratch. I got myself dictionaries and text books like "Japanese For Everybody" where I picked up much of my basic grammar.
Started to pick up a lot of Japanese from manga like Ranma 1/2 and Crayon Shin-chan. What I would do is read them on the train and when I came across some word I didn't understand, I would fold a dog ear in the corner of the page.
After getting back home, I would look up the word but keep the dog ear folded. When I read the manga second time around, if I remembered what the word was then I could unfold the dog ear - if not then I would have to keep it folded and repeat the process until I understood the whole manga.
No Internets at the time = no YouTube either. I discovered a Japanese bookshop at St Pauls renting out video recordings from Japanese TV. I couldn't afford to be a member but the lady who ran the store knew how much I loved Japanese culture. She decided to sell me the old recordings that the local Japanese folks weren't watching anymore. It didn't matter at all that I was watching recordings a few months old - I just needed to hear and see Japan.
The TV shows included commercials too and whenever I was at home, I would just let the video play in the background - it was as if I was in Japan especially with those commercials in between. I watched TV shows like Naruhodo The World, Sekai Marumie TV and dramas like Hitotsu no Yane no Shita! I also recorded the sound from the videos onto cassette tape which I could listen to on the walkman while out n about London - constantly streaming Japanese into my brain - but I wanted more!
Studying Japanese on my own, I made a point of giving myself constant homework. These are the Kanji charts that I wrote out on A3 sizes of paper and plastered on the walls all over the house - mum not too pleased ^^;
Writing a language that one is learning is something that I feel to be very important. Humans have been learning language for centuries through conventional means such as writing and conversation.
The Internets have been around for normal civilians to use for just a wee bit over 15 years now. The brain has evolved to learn languages using conventional methods. While there are many websites where one can learn languages, don't rely on them completely and make sure to keep a healthy balance of language learning by using your body to learn through writing (with pen) and speaking.
When storing items in your memory, you need to let your brain know whether the information is important or not otherwise its dumped into your subconscious making it very difficult for retrieval.
The best way I found to learn kanji or new words was to give them a mnemonic - its like a label that you attach to stuff to help you find it later.
Just as an example, the word "Miru" [見る] means "to look." To remember the word you can make up your own label like "Look at this gorgeous Meal!" - "Meal" sounding similar to "Miru."
Some books may provide mnemonics to remember kanji but its always best to take a few seconds and be imaginative to think of your own - no matter how cheesy it may sound. When you say or hear something cheesy, you encounter an emotion where your brain stimulates a chemical reaction which can also help you remember words much more easier.
This is a photo of a place called Angel in London - took the photo last year. Famous for 20 buses coming in a row after you have waited an hour and also famous for the never ending roadworks.
After a while of self study, I wanted to be able to speak Japanese with others. I took a Japanese class at Angel which was once a week in the evenings.
After a while, I told the teacher that one of the things I wanted to do in life was to maybe live and work in Japan. He told me that it was not possible for a foreigner and that I should forget about trying to do so.
I was completely and utterly confused and bewildered as to why a Japanese language teacher would say such a thing to a student. Was wondering maybe he wanted me to stick around and continue to pay for his classes? @.@
My destination was clear and I wasn't going to stick around to let anybody demotivate me and tell me to give up my dreams. I quit those Japanese classes and sought alternative methods of speaking Japanese with others.
By this time I had collected a load of Japanese magazines from the stores and as you can see - a fair share of 2D and 3D girlies ^^; I didn't have a PC Engine at the beginning but liked the 2D girls on the cover of PC Engine Fan which is why I bought em ^^;
When I first started to learn Japanese on my own, I did so without a dictionary and worked out what the Katakana sounds were based on the English name of games.
I was completely confused about 1 katakana sound however and that was the sound "N" [ン] and "So" [ソ] which looked the same to me in print. I was absolutely sure the Katakana read as "Famikon" [ファミコン] but my self deciphering of Katakana was also telling me that [ファミコン] read as "Famikoso" ^^;
Got most of my magazines from the Japan Center. Back then they had a classifieds board - paid something like 3 pounds to stick up a message which was something like:-
Japanese and English language exchange partners wanted!
I'll speak to you in English and you speak to me in Japanese.
If you are interested please call Danny on 123 4567-8910
At the time it was OK for folks to leave their phone number around in ads like that ^^; Sure enough I got some calls and got to befriend and speak to Japanese folks for the first time. It was a great learning experience where I got to practice and improve my spoken Japanese. I remember my first spoken Japanese which I put together - I'm sure the grammar was correct but she laughed at me - must have been my pronunciation ^^
My heart leaped when I saw this magazine cover at the Japan Center one day - her name is and was the cutest thing I've ever ever seen!
I had to know more about her which meant that I needed to learn much much more Japanese! She was a singer too so I got all her CDs to sing along too. A great thing about Japanese CDs is that they usually come with a lyric sheet too which makes looking up words easy. Hikaru in action below.
While I was fickle and liked other idols too - Hikaru Nishida was the main girl of my dreams at the time. I cut up magazines and made large posters by photocopying sections of the cover onto A3 paper and sticking em together. As I was staring at the magazine covers all the time, I learned all the kanji and words off by heart too.
Studying on my own, I needed to set hard goals for myself. I applied for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and would self study for a whole year with the goal of passing that exam in December. I passed Level 4 and then Level 2 the following year.
This photo taken recently and is pretty much all that I have left back in the UK. Lingering in here are some Japanese language learning tapes called linguaphone that mum bought for me. I would set them to play on my cassette deck at early hours in the morning at a time when I thought I'd be having my light REM sleep. I noticed that various sounds around me could be heard in my dreams and the idea was to listen to the tapes during these periods of shallow sleep. I cant say for certain that this worked but am pretty happy with the speed that I picked up Japanese so maybe it did ^^;
To discover what times you fall into a shallow sleep, experiment with playing something to yourself at certain times throughout the night by using a timer. If you remember hearing the sounds in your dreams then that's probably when you want to try to continue to brainwash yourself ^^;
After having an exam for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test one evening, I saw two Japanese blokes standing outside the test center handing out leaflets. The leaflet was for some sort of language exchange club in the West end of London. I went along to see what it was all about and saw something like this - a class full of local and Japanese folks together in conversation.
The club was run by an English fellow married to a Japanese lady who were accountants. They had this office but they didn't need all the space to run their operations so they decided to use the rest of the office to run this language exchange club called Axel. They charged a couple of pounds per week which was too reasonable. You can see me in the middle of the photo.
Axel had a Japanese electronic typewriter that they used to process documents for their Japanese clients in London. I asked if I could use the typewriter to type out kanji charts for myself which I would print out onto A4 paper and then blow up to A3 size - and then stick them up all over the house ^^;
I also made miniature ones which I laminated and carried around with me.
You can see at the top of this chart that I've branded it with [西田ひかるちゃんの恋人] meaning "Hikaru Nishida's lover" ^^;
Also made this sheet of adjectives which I photocopied and also carried around with me all the time so that I could read it while waiting for a bus or train. I also had these in the loo so that I could learn Japanese while peeing and pooing too - just wanted to make sure there was no down time at all in the learning process.
If you think about it - it makes sense because peeing and pooing is something that you just have to do but don't necessarily learn much from the experience which is a waste of time.
I made many good comrades at Axel and we would often get together outside of club hours to mingle and have dindins. Meeting like-minded folks through sharing your passion will enrich your life with friendship and opportunities like it has done for me.
Language is based on culture. The more you understand a culture, the better it will help you to understand a language and why things are said in certain circumstances. By mingling with native speakers, you will learn more about the culture which will in turn help you pick up the language faster.
I dyed my hair brown because I wanted to look like a SMAP member at the time ^^; I also made my own T-shirts from scans of Japanese magazines.
My Japanese friends at the time were the best friends I ever had. We could often sing Karaoke while munching on snacks at my place.
By this time in life, I had a burning passion for anime and manga and really wanted to do some sort of work related to my interests. At the time, there was a company in the UK called Manga Entertainment releasing anime titles such as Ghost in the Shell and Project A-KO. I contacted the CEO and told him of my passion for anime, manga, the Japanese language and expressed how I would love to do something/anything for him.
The CEO decided to set up a fan club magazine called "Mangazine" which you can see pictured here that I was to write for as an editor.
Here are some of the tapes that I was sent as part of my work for Mangazine. I would watch and review these anime before they were released in the UK. My Japanese was still a bit fuzzy at the time which gave me even more motivation to study more. Even though I wasn't paid to write for the magazine, just having the experience to do so was priceless.
I come across many folks who want money for any little thing they do including fart. I've reached halfway point in my life journey and through the experience, I can say that in many cases doing things for free brings much more reward in the long term. Thinking long term is key to building a successful life.
How I started to earn myself money
This is the Metropolitan buildings in Dalston Hackney. It's an old hospital where my dad rented out some space to build his business. I met Kylie Minogue here!
The best thing that my dad has ever done for me was to let me achieve and earn on my own. He did pay for the foster homes to look after me and I did get a few pounds now and then but I was pretty much on my own since college when I started to live with mum - good thing college and university was covered by a government grant back then. If I wanted pocket money then I had to earn it and I did so initially by working for dad part time here at the Metropolitan.
Photo snapped last year.
While working for my dad, I learned everything about the shoe design and the manufacture process. I could design, cut patterns, stitch and last Uppers too.
I also worked with fashion journals such as Elle and Vogue to get them samples for their model shoots and attended many of the fashion shows. While the work was interesting, I knew that this wasn't something that I wanted to do in life.
As I continued to learn more Japanese and discover more of the culture through anime, manga, games and spending time with my Japanese friends, I found a purpose in life at last which was to pursue my knowledge of Japan - I knew that I couldn't do that while working part time for my dad. As I was living with my mum, I didn't see my dad for a few years after I left the studio.
BTW, recently made a pair of sandals which you can see in the Black Rock Shoes post ^^;
Not working at my dad's studio anymore meant no more income which is generally a bad thing ^^;
I signed up to a talent agency called Richard Starnowski. Whenever Asian looking folks were needed, I would be given a call and have been in TV dramas, commercials and documentaries - although all the parts were minor, each job paid quite a bit of cash.
A memorable moment while on a shoot in the sticks for a documentary about fireworks for the Discovery Channel was when a bi-plane flew by the cast and camera crew at low speed and altitude. It was a clear blue evening and the sight sent a tingle down my spine. Was an inspiring sight that made me want to do something with this life.
This photo here is for a publication called "Let's Oshaberi" which teaches basic English phrases to Japanese families in the UK - I found part time work with the publisher to translate English to Japanese.
At this moment in life I was taking a business course at the Elephant and Castle - fees which were also covered by a grant.
I also started to work part time at a Japanese restaurant called Benihana. Not as one of the chefs who threw around knifes which occasionally hospitalized customers but as one of the waiters who ran around the halls taking orders and serving food. I chose Benihana for a few reasons.
One of the reasons was so that I could speak Japanese with the many Japanese customers that Benihana had.
The other reason was so that I could save enough moolah for a ticket to go to the land of the rising sun. I wanted to travel to Japan and absorb as much of the culture as possible.
I remember my first paycheck - worked a tough schedule only to see a couple of digits. But I knew not to expect too much at the beginning. It took a year to save enough cash for a ticket to Japan with some money left over to spend. I would come back to the UK and continue to work at Benihana to save enough money for a trip the following year.
And then I was in the land of the rising sun. I had seen it in anime, manga, magazines and drama and now I was experiencing it for the first time. My heart was pounding as the train left Narita and passed through some small towns. I could see Katakana, Hiragana and Kanji on signs. I was in Japan.
It was such an emotional time for me that I remember nearly every day of my first visit. Senses were overloaded - the touch of sensors on convenient store doors, the taste of tempura, the smell of the moist Summer heat and the sound of Japanese language everywhere.
I was lucky enough to have made a load of good Japanese friends back in the UK - they invited me to stay with their family in places like Tagmagawa, Saitama and even Hiroshima.
And this is where I would sit in Shibuya watching the Hachiko crossing all day long dreaming about living here while listening to the bustling sounds and conversations.
I wanted to take some of Japan back to the UK with me and some how preserve the time I spent there so that I could re-live it. Video cameras at the time were the size of rocket launchers and cost a bomb too. I got myself a Mini Disc (do they sell em these days?) and a microphone which you can see pictured here.
I would record the sounds of Shibuya and capture all the hustle and bustle of the crossing which included conversations of folks standing nearby waiting for friends.
Setting my first destination in life - living and working in Japan
Back in the UK, I set up speakers around my room and played the recordings of Shibuya and closed my eyes - I was transported back to Shibuya instantly.
I knew I could not be in Japan for another year until I saved up enough moolah through my part time gigs but listening to the sounds of Shibuya was so motivating and I would always play it in the background while I continued to self study Japanese. I wanted to listen to those sounds again real time instead of through a recording.
Pictured here is my first desk - an old speaker with a bit of glass on top.
By this time in life, I had been to Japan a couple of times. Living and working in Japan wasn't only a dream - but a dream that I just had to make into a reality. The poster on the wall is of a sunset over Shinjuku which I would look at and say to myself repeatedly everyday:-
"I must make it to Japan"
"I must make it to Japan"
"I will make it to Japan"
My kitchen wall back in the UK with some pictures of Nishida Hikaru surrounded by photos that I took in Japan. I wanted to be motivated for every waking second which meant that I had to see Japanese wherever I went in the house ^^;
Another photo of our kitchen. On the wall is a poster of a sunset on Hiroshima. Underneath that is another one of the kanji charts that I made.
In Japan, one day while waiting in line for a Nishida Hikaru concert, I saw a chap also waiting in line who was holding the concert brochure. I decided to reach out and introduce myself. We had something in common which made it easier to speak to him - we both loved Nishida Hikaru! We became good comrades and after he would introduced me to his comrades, my network of Japanese friends started to grow overnight.
The world is indeed small and I caught up with him many years after when I found that we were working in the same building when I was at Amazon Japan @.@
Some of the stuff that I bought while in Japan. The photos are called Nama Shashin [生写真] and can still be found in Harajuku.
I liked Hikaru Nishida *a lot* - drew this of her and I standing in a streets with shops of Tokyo as I remembered it - its got bits of Akihabara and Shinjuku.
Meeting Hikaru was also another one of my dreams. While in Tokyo one year, I waited for Hikaru at the backstage entrance of Kousei Nenkin Hall in Shinjuku and managed to pass her some presents of Marylyn Monroe that she liked.
That night, I got a bunch of flowers and waited outside the hall for her concert to finish. I had rollerblades on and the plan was to chase after her car and catch her at a traffic light to hand her the flowers.
However, the guards at the hall didn't like the look of me and just before her car came out, 7 or so of them rushed and pinned me to the ground until her car was out of site.
After Hikaru's car was off and away, the guards left me in the middle of the road. I got up dizzy after being hit and kicked. The flowers still looked decent so I nabbed them and skated in the direction of Hikaru's car as fast as I could. Fate was on my side and her car was stuck at some traffic lights. She winded down the window with a sorry look and accepted my flowers. I don't think it was her decision to set the guards on me - or at least that's what I like to think ^^;
I tried the same thing the following year at the same time same place but this time I hid well out of sight. Unfortunately this time round fate was not on my side and the traffic lights were greener than green - I remember chasing her car on my roller blades through Shinjuku in the middle of the road with this bunch of flowers until my lungs started to burst - my asthma got the better of me.
I retreated to sit in front of a pachinko parlor crying my eyes out until a lady came up to me and asked if I was alright. I said I was fine and offered her the flowers - this was the photo I took at the time.
I felt that I needed to go to university to learn academic Japanese as a step to get me closer to working in Japan.
Up until now, I had been learning Japanese on my own through self study. My Japanese speaking ended up being rather colloquial and I don't think I would have gotten far in Japanese society without having it polished up at university.
I took a Japanese language BA degree at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies - University of London). It was a 4 year course but my Japanese was proficient enough for me to pass an entrance examination that got me straight into the second year.
Listening to my partner Chris talk about how he's still paying back his student loan made me feel grateful that education in the UK back then was covered by a grant.
I also took a Korean language course at the same time. Had been fascinated with the language and as the grammar is like 90% similar to Japanese that I already knew, I decided to learn it at the same time.
This was some of my homework at the time. Its very important to write Japanese as much as possible and learn through writing rather than typing.
How and where I met my wife
During most of my term at SOAS, I was still working part time at Benihana although it did feel like full time work - worked from Monday through Friday and on many weekends too. Hours were from about 5pm through midnight at times. Still had to find time to do homework and study so would often do so during the staff meals where I also got to speak Japanese to other members of staff.
Benihana was also where I met my wife - she was working there as a waitress too. If it wasn't for my interest in Japanese culture, I probably would not have taken a job in a Japanese restaurant and probably would not have met her.
While my mum and dad spoke to me in Cantonese, I didn't get the opportunity to go to Chinese school as a wee lad so didn't learn to read or write Chinese. After meeting wifey, I decided that I wanted to learn Chinese to communicate with her family and I done that through more self study using Japanese language books on learning Chinese like these ones here.
Before getting married, wifey and I decided to live together and this was the place that we lived in at Earls Court. The place was so small that the futon took up most of the room when laid out so we had to fold it every day.
The room already had other guests in the form of bugs which would crawl through the floorboards and bite the hell out of me - funnily enough they didn't find wifey tasty at all and left her alone ^^;
The landlord didn't want to do anything about it and we were stuck in a contract for the year. We ended up paying for these other floorboards to cover the bug ridden floorboards underneath. Here I am hammering down the floorboards which we picked up from the home center down the road.
On the right was our kitchen where we also done the laundry in the sink and on the left was our shower room. The place was small and cramped but was all that we could afford at the time. The important thing was that we were together *^^*
I would study at SOAS during the day and meet up with wifey at Benihana after classes. We would work past midnight and then head home - she was on the bicycle while I held onto the back of the saddle on my rollerblades.
One night while blading home with wifey, an old man suddenly grabbing me and pushed me to the floor - "You menace!!!" he shouted. I was left trembling with anger but I knew that it wasn't worth following up.
After a year of living at Earls Court, we decided to move out and get a cheaper place. It was nice to have our own crib but it was costing quite a bit so we rented a room in one of our friends house in Whitechapel London. We shared the kitchen, bath and toilet with the other folks that were also renting rooms in the house.
With the cheaper rent, we could afford to take out a loan to get a computer pictured in the back - it cost something like 1600 pounds!
It was a Windows 95 machine with a 4GB HD and a 56K (or 256K - me forgets) dial up modem. This is where I picked up my computing skills. I did take computer Science back in college but failed it.
At the time, I wanted to use Japanese but there was no multi-lingual support. I had to learn how to partition the HD with FDisk and install Image Magick so that I could use English and Japanese Windows. If you are using a multilingual system, you may want to set the systems default language to the language that you are trying to learn. This forces you to learn new words as you go about your daily computing life.
I also installed Chinese and Korean windows 95 in different partitions too which helped my study of these languages.
It was the first time I had access to the Internets and was able to discover and learn a lot about Japanese culture including moe 2D girlies- our first phone bill was scary ^^;
During my later years studying at SOAS, I quit Benihana and got a part time job at another restaurant near Oxford street called Ikeda. I only worked there for a few months before moving on but had memorable times - such as the one where the boss screamed at us saying that she would deduct the cost of a plate if we didn't handle them properly.
I also remember that we had to scoff down staff dinner in 5 minutes flat before opening time. Seriously though, restaurant work is a great way to prepare oneself for society. It can be hard stressful work with more politics than you can imagine. There is also however a lot of fun to be had at the same time and is a place where you can meet new people.
These days after I eat at a restaurant, I usually wipe the table and stack up the dishes for the waiter/waitress as I know exactly what it's like to serve in the halls.
This photo taken at the bus stop where I would catch the night bus back to Whitechapel.
After Ikeda, I managed to get a part time job at Japan Airlines. One of my teachers at SOAS was handing out leaflets at the end of a lesson - the leaflets were from Japan Airlines who were looking for students who had a good command of Japanese and English that could guide Japanese passengers around Heathrow Airport.
I went along to the interview and got the job. As I was still at university at the time, I would often wear my uniform to class and then head to Heathrow straight after. Kinda liked the suit as I didn't have to think about what to wear for the day.
I learned so much from the experience and met many Japanese folks who I would chat to while leading them from one terminal to the next. They would use new words that I looked up in the electronic dictionary that I stuck to my clipboard. The journey to the airport was long but enjoyed reading manga like Crayon Shin-chan that you can see in the photo.
This lady here is Reiko. We hated each other at the beginning but became good comrades after. The key was communication. A lack of communication always leads to misunderstandings and when folks become stubborn and refuse to communicate - both parties loose out on a friendship that could enrich our lives.
I remember shouting "Woooo Hooo!!" and jumping around in the corridor with excitement. Wifey and I went to SOAS to check the results on the board which I had to double check to see if it wasn't some mistake.
Wasn't too sure what to expect as I'm sure I did bad on my last assignment! Also heard that only 10% of graduates in the UK achieve the First Class Honors.
One of my teachers told me "you've got the First Class Honors - you don't need the JLPT level 1."
Looking back into the past, I think I tend to perform a wee bit better while under the pressure of time. Throughout my term at SOAS, I'd been working part time at restaurants or the airport which didn't leave a lot of time for study but also helped me to want to work/study more efficiently and thus get more done. I think another important thing was that the part time jobs I had enabled me to learn Japanese on the job.
No job is better than the one where you get to live and practice your passions. If you are looking for a part time job while studying, try to seek one where you can also do the stuff that you like - the money will feel like an extra perk.
My first full time job at Japan Airlines
After graduating from SOAS, Japan Airlines offered me an interview for a full time job. They knew of the computing skills that I had been self teaching myself and asked if I would like to join them as a Computer Engineer for their computing division called JAL Avionet.
Went for the interview and got the job. Was over the moon but remember being very nervous as it was my first full time job in society as a salary man.
This is a photo of the office in London Hammersmith - you can see my workspace in the bottom left corner with the Empire Strikes Back Probot on the desk.
My responsibilities at JAL Avionet were to maintain Japan Airlines booking systems across Europe and also look after other Japanese clients that they had including Marubeni, Mitsui Kaijo and NTT Data.
During my spare time at work, I took the initiative to learn HTML and started to create an Intranet site. Needed to learn how to do buttons so learned how to use graphical packages like Paint Shop Pro.
This photo was taken in Italy where we spent a few days maintaining some JAL equipment. As you can see, the terminals were retro! Some of them had been running for many years and were filled with black electrical soot. Opening the unit was incredibly dangerous too where we had to wear rubber gloves.
How I made it to Japan
I was content at JAL Avionet. T'was my first job and it was with a Japanese company. Some of the staff were Japanese and I got to speak a lot of the lingo too.
But I still wasn't in Japan and I never let go of the Japanese Dream that I had which was to live and work in the land of the rising sun.
I started to do the milk rounds looking for jobs online and I found something that caught my eye on a recruitment site called Peoples First. The job was based in Tokyo and the description was something like "Web marketing in SE Asia. Require native English speaker with good command of Japanese/Chinese and who could do the Internets."
Hmmm. I can do a bit of the Internets! I immediately applied for the job and ran home all excited. I told my wife when I got home "we are moving to Japan!"
Wifey gave a smile ^^
A few days later, I got a call to meet the general manager (David Swinbanks) of Nature Japan who had come to the UK to do interviews. I met with him for an hour and the interview included a task to read a scientific article in Japanese ^^;
David didn't expect to find somebody who could also speak Korean which was rather handy as Nature Japan covered Korea in their marketing too.
After the first interview, I went home and stayed up through the night to make a mock up of a simple Nature Korea website which you can see here - they didn't have one at the time and during the interview I discussed how it would be strategically important for Nature to have one. I saved the files on a floppy, printed out a screenshot and found out which hotel David was staying at through the recruitment agency. I got to the hotel, slid the goods under his door and left.
That night, I got a call from the recruitment agency who said that David wanted to meet me again and that "he was surprised by your delivery."
Met up with David who said that he wanted to send me to their Tokyo office for a week of tests and interviews but that he wasn't guaranteeing me a position just yet. He was going to pay for just the ticket and hotel and leave the rest to me.
Headed to Tokyo and spent a week at the offices of Nature in Ichigaya. I was doing forecasting which I had never done before and had to think of an algorithm that made sense. I used excel to plot some forecasts based on previous years data but I didn't take into account external factors.
Without the experience to understand how things such as seasons affect sales, my forecasts were off but I tried my best to come up with the numbers.
Luckily David was looking for somebody with the willingness to try rather than somebody who knew it all.
I was also doing translating of scientific articles which they don't quite teach in university ^^;
A week packed with intensive tests and interviews had come to an end and I was sitting at Davids desk. "Thank you for coming to Tokyo. We will give you a decision after you get back to the UK."
I started to imagine the pain of sitting on a plane for 12 hours worrying about his answer and said "I probably won't have any finger or toenails left after biting them all off through worrying about whether I got the job or not - I would love an answer before I go back ^^"
David laughed and told me that he will call over the weekend.
I went back to the hotel and was distraught with stress but knew I done absolutely *everything* I could. Everything. I had prepared for a chance like this for the past few years learning not only Japanese but also the technology. I was given the opportunity and did my best. I wanted to be in Japan so so bad. I just had to be in Japan.
That night, I broke down and cried myself to sleep ^^; lol
The hotel phone rang on a rainy Sunday morning - it was David.
One Way Ticket
The result of that call was that in July 1999, wifey and I packed up stuff from our friends place to dump at mums place (^^;) and picked up our one way tickets to Japan.
My dream came true. I was going to live and work in the land of the rising sun. All the hard work over the previous few years paid off. Discover and live your passion and the rest will just follow - it always does. Never give up. Don't make barriers for yourself and especially don't let barriers that other people put in your way stop you. Listen to your heart and forge forward.
We had saved enough money in the bank to start out our new life. All we needed to do now was to pack a couple O suitcases and goodbye to dad.
Photo taken with dad, his wife and my younger sister at his studio in Connaught Street London just before I moved to Japan 13 years ago.
My younger sister now lives in San Fran studying interior design. We occasionally Skype where I would tease her by speaking as loud as I can to wake up her room mate ^^;
And for the folks who are wondering - I have no intention of taking over dads business - I already have my own company and I love what I'm doing. Besides - could not bare the thought of working in a field that has zero 2D girlies! My company generates enough money to provide my wife and I with a comfortable life and to grow our business - that's all we need.
I have no idea if I'm going to inherit anything but if I do then its going to go to building schools for some of the less fortunate kids in the world. Actually, come to think of it, the money should go to developing cyborgs which shoots poo in the face of playground bullies. Did I mention I hate playground bullies?
How I began my career in Japan
This was where I first sat at the Nature Japan offices. It was such a great experience and I learned so much. I was given a Mac and I absolutely hated using it! I looked after marketing and also done tasks such as process subscriptions, build portal sites, check translations and launch journals in the region.
Unlike the JAL offices back in the UK, the Nature offices in Japan had a lot of visitors like the guy who delivers the daily post n parcels. I started to learn office terms that I didn't hear back i the UK like "Otsukaresama desu" [お疲れさまです] - a greeting to colleagues and folks from other companies.
The first place we lived in was a small apartment on the outskirts of Tokyo in a place called Higash Fushimi. As we didn't have much space, we used the cupboard as a table like this.
A year after moving to Japan, I set up the the domain dannychoo.com on some shared hosting service. The main purpose was so that I could have something online where I could experiment while I self study technologies such as MYSQL, HTML, CSS and so on. I also started to use a load of graphics packages such as Photoshop and Illustrator.
The Comfort Zone
Nature was a fantastic company to work at. It was the first Japanese working environment that I worked in which exposed me to many Japanese society terms, mannerisms and customs. I learned a lot about publishing, marketing and technology and was satisfied with the salary that provided me with a content life.
I achieved many goals for the company too and launched many scientific journals in the region which was also rewarding.
But then I started to realize that I had fallen into one of the most dangerous situations that one can ever be in - in something that I call the Comfort Zone.
Humans have basic needs such as food and shelter and being comfortable means that they are in a position where they can fulfill these needs. There are many folks out there who want to pursue their passion in life but end up not wanting to get out of the Comfort Zone because there is a risk associated that could take these basic fulfillment's away. The Comfort Zone makes it very difficult to change.
Humans act on necessity and if there is no need to do something, humans generally don't. If the basic human needs are fulfilled, there is generally no need to do anything.
But realizing that one is in the Comfort Zone is a good start and that realization helped me to get out and do the milk rounds by talking to recruiters all over Tokyo. Went for many memorable job interviews - like running around in the rain wearing a suit during absolutely sweltering Summer days and also got laughed at in interviews because I didn't know how to write up a resume.
This leap out of the Comfort Zone was the first step to a career in Japan that would completely change my life within the next few months. I had reached my destination of being in Japan but I wanted more.
During my milk rounds, I found a Japanese recruitment site called Job Dragon where I chose what type of job I was looking for and submitted my resume. Got a call from the CEO of Job Dragon (Mark) who requested a meeting with me. Turned up for the meeting and was surprised to see print outs of my website that Mark had with him.
"Did you really do this?" Mark says referring to the designs. The above screenshot was what he had printed out. I was really embarrassed!
The blue objects were all made and rendered in 3D Max and the rest made using layers in Dreamweaver. It was this experience where I learned how important it was to have an online profile. To this day, my online profile is the one tool that I have used constantly to build my career and I recommend everybody to seriously consider making their own profile - even if its just a Linkedin account.
People are not going to guess your abilities if you don't tell them. Being quiet about your abilities is a bit like waiting for somebody to knock on your door and say "Hey! You are the person who has all the skills we are looking for - you are hired!" - Its just not going to happen.
The CTO (Nick) then came in to have a chat and then discussed the possibility of me working for them. Amongst the conversation, I suggested how a mobile site would be beneficial for Job Dragon to help increase usage of their service.
From 1999 through to 2001, wifey and I decided to save money and not get a mobile phone but then thought it was time to invest in a pair as I wanted to make a mobile site for Job Dragon - to prove to them that I could do the job. Don't have a screenshot of the Job Dragon site that I made but this was the dannychoo.com mobile version which I whipped up at the same time.
Nick seemed to like what I did but wasn't convinced until I did further tests online - he sent me a link to a site where I was required to take tests in HTML and Dreamweaver. Passed both tests and soon after I was offered a full time position working for Job Dragon as a Contents Producer.
It was tough, very tough handing in my resignation to the man who believed in me and brought me over to Japan - David. While I didn't have any experience in marketing, through the time I spent during that week in Tokyo, David thought I had the potential to do well at Nature.
I left David with increased sales of the Nature Journal in Korea, a Korean website, reduced costs and delivery time of the Nature journal to Korea, launched Nature Genetics, Nature Molecular Cell Biology and Nature Neuroscience in SE Asia and also launched Nature Immunology in Japan and Korea to drive subscription circulation to be the highest worldwide.
This photo taken at my desk in the offices of Job Dragon at Omotesando.
About 3 months after I joined Job Dragon, they hit a spot of financial bother and had to let me and a few others go. It was my first experience of being laid off. The CEO Mark lead 3 of us to a room to give us the bad news. Mark cried and I was pretty much in shock - I left a stable job at Nature only to be laid off a few months afterwards at Job Dragon.
But everything in life happens for a reason and every event is a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that one collects during their journey in life.
As Job Dragon was a recruitment agency, they also had many contacts in the industry and they weren't going to leave us strung high n dry.
My resume was sent to tech companies such as eBay Japan and Amazon Japan. Had a load of interviews and got 4 simultaneous offers ^^; Had a few interviews with Amazon at their offices in Shibuya and over the phone with various Program Managers at HQ in Seattle. At the end of the interview loop, my boss Anne flew over to Japan to make sure that I was the one to fit the role.
So here is a question I was asked when interviewing for the position - how would you answer. There is a correct and incorrect way of answering and you do not have to be technical to get it right. Just because you are in an interview, don't answer in a way that you think others want you to answer. How would you answer?
You are currently working on rolling out a site feature and your staff is all occupied with the rollout.
A business owner (lets say it was Marketing) tells you that they need a website feature built urgently and that they can expect thousands of incremental users leading to millions of dollars in sales. What do you do?
I ended up using that same question on everybody I interviewed at Amazon from then on ^^;
Anyway, after Ebay and Amazon offered me a position, my recruiters got them both in a bidding war - the more they paid, the more the recruiter gets which is about 30% of my annual salary. eBay ended up offering *much* more but I chose Amazon. I felt I was more familiar with e-commerce rather than auctions.
Job Dragon hired me, fired me and placed me - and the 30% that they made from introducing me to Amazon more than paid for the salary during my time at Job Dragon.
Amazon was the correct choice - one reason was because Ebay Japan folded and exited Japan. I kept in contact with the HR manager at eBay who ended up asking me to hire her staff - I took two on board.
Life at Amazon Japan as Website Manager
When my headhunter Rusty said "I'm sending your resume to Amazon for the position of Website Manager", I blinked several times and stared at him. I then replied "yeah right."
Within months of leaving Nature, I found myself on the management team at Amazon working with the General Manager Jasper Cheung to run the company. I was managing all aspects of website deployment and had a fantastic team of about 30 heads to help me.
A few months ago I was in a Comfort Zone and then all of a sudden I found myself earning triple my Nature salary with a load of AMZN stock options running one of the biggest websites in the world.
I joined Amazon as the youngest member of the management team as Website Manager. The new environment was a huge challenge. The Amazonian technology was incredible which felt completely alien. I learned that I was a people manager and started to learn new Japanese terms as I was working with many departments including Vendor Management, Buying, Merchandising, Finance, Legal, Retail, Marketing, Web Services, Public Relations, Human Resources, Supply Chain / Operations and IT. A list of all the shenanigans that I got up to in Amazon in the Working at Amazon and Microsoft post.
I did work in an international environment at Nature but not on the scale of Amazon where every quarter I would travel to either the UK, France, Germany or the US to meet the other Website Managers for our website planning process. I also got to experience corporate company politics too. Being the youngest management team member, some of the other members would question my people management skills. A few of the other management members even got HR to interview my staff to see whether I was capable as a manager.
But it did turn out that I was a people manager and I continued to work hard to schedule projects so that my staff could go home at 6pm - while some of the other management members kept their staff back until the early hours of the morning. The turnover rate for the Web Production was the lowest in the organization with high morale too. We launched all projects that we committed to on-time and to-spec.
As a manager at Amazon, I drew a pie chart that my staff started to call "Danny's Pie" which if you say very fast could be made to sound like "Danny's Oppai."
The pie is divided into three - each piece is 8 hours. Presuming that you work 8 hours and sleep for 8 hours then you have 8 hours remaining which is one slice of the pie. I then start to cut up the remaining piece.
The 8 remaining hours is needed for things like personal hygiene, nourishment intake, health care (very important), cleaning, commuting and other chores which are important in life but generally don't contribute a whole lot to your career or personal development.
If you subtract the time needed for all the above from the final piece of the pie then all you would have left each day is 4-ish hours which you need to use on spending with friends/loved ones, entertainment/recreation and personal development - learning a new subject, beefing up current skills, researching etc.
Now imagine that you spent more than 8 hours at work. In order to do the other stuff, you would either have to sleep less or start to drop some of the other stuff. Some folks with long work hours drop "personal development" which I consider to be crucial to the development of an employee's life, career and well being.
Outside of work and sleep, if you are not getting your 8 hours then perhaps its time do something about it? Could it be the lack of your 8 hours that your Japanese studying is always put on the back burner?
The new and improved paycheck enabled us to rent a place in central Tokyo and this is what my work area looked like back then. I was still a Windows believer. My staff used Macs and I used to say to them "Apart from mail and web, what on earth do you do with your Mac?!"
As you can see, at this point I started to get influenced by Gundam and built a handful of kits.
How I started to make money online
In 2003, Amazon launched Amazon Web Services (AWS) - an API which allowed any developer access to Amazons catalog data in XML format. With AWS, one can build online shops filled with Amazon products.
I worked with the AWS teams in Seattle to localize and launch the service in Japan. In order to test the service efficiently, I took the opportunity to build in my time outside work the first AWS powered site in Japan called Mitsukatta pictured above. The top folks in Amazon liked the site so much that they decided to use it as an example in the press conference when the service officially launched in Japan. The service was still young and I wanted to work with AWS more to help improve it.
I started to learn things like server side caching and Search Engine Optimization - things that potential AWS users would be learning too. With permission from the Finance Director, he allowed me to place an Amazon associates tag in the links to products on the Amazon site - this means that if somebody purchased a product through one of my links then I got a commission from Amazon.
Initially I thought it would be cool to earn enough to pay for the phone bill which was about 6,000 yen per month. The more I started to learn from Google Sensei about the technologies that I needed to optimize the website, the more I started to earn. I fed these learning's back to Amazon and I went from earning enough to pay the phone bill every month to earning much more than I imagined.
The 28 million yen figure that you see above is how much revenue I generated for Amazon over the course of just a few weeks. As a "thank you", Amazon paid me 1,857,732 yen (about 23,090 USD at today's rate) as a commission for this period.
I started to realize that if I had more of these websites then I would automatically make more money so I built around 30 or so websites all running on different designs which all ran different experiments that I was trying out.
My job at Amazon was a management position - meetings > email > meetings > repeat which meant that I couldn't program at work at all. Hours outside of office was all that I had to work on the sites where I also picked up unix skills to manage the Apache servers.
Why we moved to Seattle for 5 months
I began to realize the potential of Amazon Web Services to be used as an internal tool too and started make working prototypes of the Amazon website running purely on AWS which I was able to do in my own time over the weekends. What would normally take months to do with hundreds of staff could now be achieved by a single developer over the course of a few days. The prototypes became an eye opener for many tech folks in the organization which proved just how powerful AWS was.
A direct report to Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) called Diego Piecentini took notice of my work within the organization and offered me to work under him in Seattle building internal tools. I accepted his offer and in July 2004 we packed up everything and moved to Seattle. Even though we love Japan, wifey and I felt that this was an important career move which is why we accepted the offer.
This photo taken outside the Amazon headquarters in Seattle at PacMed where I worked on competitive monitoring, selection analysis and ASIN (SKU) metric systems. Spent a lot of time working on search technology with the Alexa team too.
While I loved the work, I didn't quite get used to life in Seattle. I did try to get used to the way of things in the US but it just wasn't for me. Time seemed to have ground down to a halt - I guess I was used to the fast pace of life back in Tokyo.
The biggest factor about me not getting used to life in Seattle however was that It wasn't until I left Japan that I discovered just how much I loved the land of the rising sun. I remember watching the Japanese channel all the time in Seattle and watched Lost in Translation over and over again and again. I had to be back in Japan.
After many months of considering what to do next, I prepared to hand in my resignation and head back to the land of the rising sun with wifey. It was an extremely tough decision which meant quitting a senior position and paying for ourselves to get back. But life is not about being financially comfortable - its about living a passion which was not what I was achieving in Seattle. Time to take another leap of faith.
So what does my wife think about all this moving round from the UK to Japan to Seattle and back to Japan? Well its a question that many ask her and she always answers the same - it doesn't matter where we live as long as we are together. We've been together for 14 years now. My wife has lived in more countries than I - China, Japan, UK and the US.
This snap taken just before we left the US. We probably would have made much more of the time if we knew that we were only going to be there for half a year. One of the regrets I have is not documenting our lives when we lived in the US - hardly have any photos of our time over there. Now that I blog, I take photos regularly and keep a record of what I do in the A Week in Tokyo series. I do this mainly for myself but it also enables me to share what life is like in Tokyo with folks around the world.
I told Diego how I felt about wanting to be back in Japan and apologized for letting him down - I handed him my resignation and was going to prepare for our move back to Japan. Diego wanted me to stay with the company and Amazon was to look after us on our journey back.
My new responsibility in Japan was to manage a website that Amazon had just acquired - a Chinese shopping website called Joyo.com where I oversaw Website and Software development. I left Seattle with internal tools that are still used today by vendors and buyers.
Thank you Diego for looking after me at Amazon.
Wifey and I arrived back in Japan in November 2004 and it felt incredible to be back. I still remember the day we arrived as we walked to our new apartment that Amazon put us up in around the Azabu Juban area.
I and a few management members at Amazon remotely managed the teams in China with frequent trips to the Beijing office. Here I'm with a few colleagues who worked on the Joyo.com site.
How dannychoo.com started to gain readership
I built some blog functionality for dannychoo.com back in 2004 while I was still in Seattle but it wasn't until 2005 when I started to blog regularly. Back then, I mainly blogged about Gundam, figures and life in Japan - Otaku x Japan.
When I built the blog feature, I used the leanings that I gained from making all those AWS sites and made sure all the templates were search engine optimized which helped bring in many incremental users. I also invested in a digital SLR which I took on photo walks and to events like the Wonder Festival - the photos further attracted more users from around the world and readership started to grow overnight.
Used a lot of the Amazon affiliate earnings to buy a house with a wee bit of land attached. My daughter introduces some photos taken around the house in this post.
And for folks who constantly ask when I'm going to have a real daughter - unfortunately the good lord has not blessed us with kids yet.
How I started a side business - the beginnings of Mirai Inc
While working for the corporate companies, comrades would introduce folks who wanted me to websites build for them. Even though I was working with the web, I didn't think there was money to be made from making websites for others. I was also content with my current job (and the side income) which kept me busy so wasn't interested in the requests. So I threw back a "OK if you really want a website then its going to cost you X million yen."
To my surprise, the first company who requested a website said "yes please." I was not about to say no to a few million yen (1 million = about 10,000 USD) so programming until the early hours of the morning was the norm for the next few months where I was also able to beef up the PHP programming skills - thank you Google Sensei.
I banked a few million yen in the bank for a single website which was just shy of my annual salary at Nature. More requests started to come in which was proving to be a bit more for me to handle without it affecting my full time job. This screenshot is of one of the first sites I built.
With the help of Google Sensei again, I then started to seek developers in overseas countries and ended up with development teams in India, Romania and the US. Zend was a site where I found a few of them.
I would work remotely with them over phone, email and IM. I required half of the payment from my clients to be paid upfront which I used to pay my developers. I would then meet clients after work to understand their business needs which I then fed back to my developers.
Was my first experience managing my own remote staff where I had memorable moments like the developer who just dropped everything and disappeared ^^;
With all the extra income, I would have been crazy to declare just my earnings with the annual tax return - I needed to declare my expenses too as I was effectively running a company on the side so I founded my first business entity which was a sole proprietorship.
A sole proprietorship enables one to declare not only their earnings but also their expenses too. For example, If I use 25% of my home as an office, I can declare 25% of my rent/mortgage. I use my Internet connection for 90% of my work so I declare 90% of the cost as an expense.
By declaring your expenses, the amount of tax you pay is reduced as you only pay tax on the profits.
If you make 1000 USD a year and don't declare your expenses then you will pay tax on that 1000 USD. If you declare your expenses as being 800 USD and assume that your total income was 1000 USD, then you only pay tax on the difference which is 200 USD.
Anyway, by this time I knew that I wanted to have my own company later in life and gave myself a goal of setting up a company by the age of 35. The sole proprietorship was the beginning of everything and it was to be our future. I called it "Mirai" [未来] which means "The Future."
Wrote up something simple about starting a sole proprietorship in Japan in the Japan Proprietorship post. Most countries have the same system and anybody should be able to start one - costs nothing to register and anybody making money on the side would be crazy not to have one - unless you like being taxed.
It is important to understand that this is not a form of tax evasion but a legitimate way to declare your expenses which you need to generate earnings. As far as I know there is no age limit to setting up a sole proprietorship.
In 2005, I left Amazon. Amazon was a fantastic experience where I was truly able to discover my strengths and weaknesses. Life is like building a jigsaw puzzle. As one goes though life, they will find pieces of their jigsaw puzzle and as they start to piece the puzzle together, they will realize why events have perspired as they have and why they met who they met. All these pieces are needed to be collected and pieced together to get a better understanding of the bigger picture.
I had collected all the pieces that I could find at Amazon and it was time to move on.
After Amazon, I spent some time helping some friends do some web development before I went for an interview at Microsoft Japan.
One of the reasons why they hired me was because they had interest in what I had done with dannychoo.com and how I had built an online community. They hired me as a CGM Product Manager where I took responsibility to manage Consumer Generated Media services like blogs, favorites, maps and so on - this photo is of my first desk.
Working in a corporate company is great experience. Most companies have internal politics and the ones in a corporate entity are the most challenging to deal with.
A corporate company will (depending on your self initiative) help you grow a great deal within a short amount of time. If you are going to join a large company, you and the employees already have something in common - you all work for the same company. Despite this, I see many people just going about their own business and end up only working with people in their own department.
Take the initiative to mingle with folks in all areas of the company.
An important thing about working in a corporate company (or any company for that matter) is to understand what opportunities there are within the company to help you grow. For example, you have been working in web development department for a while and now want new challenges - maybe in the supply chain? Are there positions available?
Also, never let yourself get too comfortable and fall into the Comfort Zone as it can be difficult to get out. Always have a grasp of your achievements and how much you want to grow within a company. If you feel there is no more room to grow then it may be a prompt in life that there are no more pieces of your life jigsaw puzzle to be collected where you are - time to move on.
To live one's passion means to be prepared to take a leap out of the comfort zone which is certainly not an easy thing to do. But there is a method which may help you do this easier. Take a look at yourself in the mirror. Now think about all the things that you could be doing. You are now looking at the one person preventing you from fulfilling your passion - how do you feel about that?
Many folks "wait for the right timing" before making a leap but there is never a right timing. What these folks are actually waiting for is a "comfortable exit" and there is no such thing. Living a passion is not an easy thing to come by and is only rewarded to those who take risks. Taking a risk willy nilly could be a bad thing but there is such a thing as a calculated risk.
The calculated risk that I took when I decided to leave Microsoft was simple - the moolah that I had saved up from my years at Amazon and Microsoft, the affiliate and the website development income was enough to enable me to incorporate a company in 2007. A foreigner in Japan needs to invest 5,000,000 yen in capital to be able to sponsor their own Business Investor visa.
I had the moolah but didn't necessarily have a load of clients lined up and didn't have a concrete vision at the time but knew I should start off doing web consulting - but that was enough for me to take the leap.
Work eventually came from the network of contacts which I had been building up over the years through attending tech meetups and connecting to other web folks in Japan through social media. Ended up consulting for companies like Disney Japan and Columbia Japan.
We used the room on the 3rd floor of our house as office space and this is what it looked like at the time.
Living with Illness
As long as we live, we will encounter illness. Some of these illnesses come and go like the common cold but some of us have to live with these illnesses for the rest of our life. And then there are some of us who are born with illnesses.
Not sure whether I was born with Asthma (both parents have it) but remember carrying around an inhaler as a wee lad. Hardly use the inhaler these days though. Also remember a time where I had my chest pumped to get rid of some sort of fluid which accumulated in my lungs.
The illness that I wasn't born with however was Spinal Hernia which I was diagnosed with back in 2008.
A few discs in my lower back region have ruptured and are sticking into the nerves which extend from the spinal cord. This causes pain which goes down to my legs. The pain used to come and go but for the past year its been permanent. The discs in the spine wear away anyway but mine are kinda already screwed ^^;
As you can see from my MRI scans above - most of the discs are dark in color where they should be white. As the discs wear down, the spinal cord starts to get affected which causes pain where in some cases it leads to the inability to walk.
I was devastated when I was diagnosed with the illness and remember being depressed about the prospect of not being able to walk one day. But then after brooding about it for quite a while, I made the decision to just keep living, working and playing as hard as I could until I maybe eventually end up in a wheelchair. If I've only got a certain amount of time left then I'd rather enjoy it instead of waste it being depressed.
I remain optimistic and am aware that not all Spinal Hernia leads to the inability to walk and many folks with the illness don't experience pain anymore after rehabilitation. My rehab however doesn't seem to work but its not something I get depressed about anymore as i've learned to live with the pain - but sneezing is a killer! I guess its like sailing a boat with a damaged rudder - still sails though ^^
Through continuing to share Japanese Pop Culture, many media folks in and outside of Japan started to pick up on my photos and writings and contact me for interviews. Was also invited to speak at conventions around the world on the subject of Japanese Pop Culture or Consumer Generated Media. Photo above snapped at Trend Day in Berlin back in 2008 where I was talking about social media and explaining what Otaku is to an audience of executive types.
Many folks mentioned that they like the photos I've taken but all I do is press the button! Nikon seemed to think otherwise and asked me to be in their commercial which featured some of my photos. Popular photo series are the "A Week in Tokyo", "Places to visit in Japan" and the "Living in Japan Guide".
I know exactly what it's like to be living outside of Japan and wanting information about everything Japanese. Not only do I love sharing Japan but also feel that its my duty to do so for fellow comrades who also have a goal of living in Japan one day. My writings on Japan up until now can be seen in the Japan category with the rest in the Japanese Pop Culture category.
What my company "Mirai" does
By 2009, I teamed up with fellow Brit engineer Chris Gaunt to continue work on a platform that I started to develop many moons ago called Mirai Gaia. Through my experience of having a bunch of different code for each and every website that I made in the past, I knew that doing the same thing was going to end up with us in a spot of bother which would require a load of staff and money to maintain.
My vision for Mirai Gaia was to have a single platform that could do everything from e-commerce to communities to publishing. This means that the only difference between client A and client B's site are a bunch of settings and some CSS and PHP templates.
However, things didn't go as smooth as I would have liked and before Chris came along, we spent a load of moolah developing Mirai Gaia which nearly left me bankrupt.
Apart from our own websites, we only had one client and in order to build the companies profile, I did a lot of work for free for high profile companies. While there wasn't much cash flowing into the company, I knew that one day it would pay off and would only do so if I continued to believe in what we were doing.
"Identify and live your passion and the rest will just follow - it always does" is something that I would preach to myself when I got down in the dumps and when I didn't know what to do, I did anything as "something always leads to something. Nothing always leads to nothing."
I think there could be something about optimism which brings about good fortune. After a while, we started to gain more clients and are now working with anime, game and figure companies such as Good Smile Company, Kadokawa, Bushiroad, King Records, Dentsu, Sega Sammy and Ascii Media Works.
Our job is simple - to share Japanese culture with the world and provide a bridge and means to do so. We use various media such as web, TV and conferences. We also help Japanese companies expand their business overseas which is another form of spreading Japanese culture. An example of the work we've been doing of late can be seen in the Summary of 2010 post.
Ah, another thing I nearly forgot to mention is that we do character development for companies like Sony. Our own mascot character is Mirai Suenaga.
Other bits n pieces that we do are listed up in my profile page.
While I don't actively study Japanese full time anymore, I'm still learning new phrases on the job and always make a point of looking up a word or asking the meaning when in conversation.
Being able to negotiate in Japanese without the need of a translator is an absolute key to doing successful business in Japan. So many nuance and feelings are lost in translation leading to lost opportunity and misunderstandings. If you are running your own business then being able to speak with your business partners directly also saves costs in many ways.
If you have that tingling feeling that you will be running your own business that will involve Japan in some way, I recommend to you remain completely focused on your goal and continue to study Japanese with a passion and just immerse yourself in the culture just like I did when I was back in the UK.
I only recently learned from a linguistics professor that the method I used to learn Japanese was called "Immersion" where one learns a language in the environment of the target language. In most cases, Immersion means to actually live in the country of the target language and study the language there.
Given my situation in the UK, moving to Japan to study wasn't an option for me at the time so I created what would be called a "Virtual Immersion."
I plastered the walls at home in Japanese, had Japanese TV playing whenever I was at home, read manga, listened to tape recordings of the TV when I was out n about and mixed with Japanese folks at Axel, at work or when we would get together.
There are so many things that you could be doing to immerse yourself in Japanese and hope that some of the things that I did will inspire you to think about how you can do something to fit into your daily workflow.
The best thing about my job
The best thing about my job is that I get to meet folks from all over the world and have mostly been able to do so through the communities that we run and through social media tools like my Twitter and facebook.
This photo taken at last years Anime Expo together with comrades and you can see more of our comrades around the world in posts tagged "meetup".
It also pleases me to know that through the web communities we run, many comrades have befriended others who share the same passions.
The important thing is to keep on sharing your passions because by doing so you will meet other folks who share the same interests - these new friendships will enrich your lives with new friendships and opportunity - just like it has done for me.
My line of work requires me to meet new folks everyday from all walks of life which makes this job so much fun ^o^ This photo snapped with some high school students during their after class Kyudo activities which you can read more about.
One of the most happiest moments in my career was when the Japanese government recognized my work and asked me to speak at one of their conferences. Spoke along folks like brain scientist Ken Mogi and AKB48 producer Yasushi Akimoto.
Since then I've been working with the government on various projects.
Sharing information about Japanese culture though the web and conferences has it limitations. I wanted a visual medium outside of YouTube and came up with the concept of a TV show which was to be aired not only on Japanese TV but also across the world. The show was to be called Culture Japan and would feature not only Japanese Pop Culture but also the more traditional Japan too.
Was a new concept so looking for sponsors to cover production costs did take a while but we got there in the end. We made a single pilot episode which was aired in Japan on Tokyo MX TV in June 2010 and was also broadcast across Asia on the Animax Network.
Trailer for Season 1 of Culture Japan below and you can read more about how it all started, how we made it and see all the shenanigans we got up to during filming under the Culture Japan category. Folks who have a Crunchyloll account can also watch the whole of Season 1.
Season 1 was warmly received and I'm in the middle of preparing to film Season 2 which will not only be broadcast in Japan and Asia but across the United States too. Am currently working to get it broadcast in more continents around za warudo.
And for folks who have a wee bit of spare time on their hands can watch a 1 hour digest version of season 1 below.
It's still Day One
For the previous fiscal year, the total gross income that my company managed to earn was still less than my annual salary at Amazon or Microsoft but why do I feel much more wealthier than before?
Wealth is relative to our values. Before I used to write about how important money was to do what you want to do and buy want you want to buy. I don't have much money but have learned how to fulfill these two needs.
Just like many comrades that work in the anime field, I get most of the stuff that I like and want for free as part of my work. But because I also work in the tech and TV industry, I also get much of the equipment that I need for work for free too ^^;
As for the "to do what you want to do" part - I'm already doing that and have learned over the years that you do not need to have heaps of money to do the same. As long as you have a computer and an Internet connection, you are already setup with everything that you need to learn and share and that's all I did - learn the tools and gain the skills that I needed to share my passion for Japanese culture - and the rest just followed.
It's still day one for me but what with all the new clients who came on board within the past few months, the profit and loss sheet for the next fiscal year is on target to look much better than before. The extra income will enable us to invest in growing the business and perhaps I'll have a wee bit more time to watch anime or play some Valkyria Chronicles 3 ^^;
For the foreseeable future, I want to continue to share my passion for Japanese culture. Discovering Japan has been the best thing that's happened to me. Certainly wouldn't have met my wife if it wasn't for the interest in Japanese culture.
I know that many of you share the same passion as I do for Japan and hope that the experiences and leanings that I've shared in this post will be of some use to you as you journey to your destination.
Your journey wont always been plain sailing but should not be deterred when you come across rough seas. Tackle those storms head on and you will be a much wiser and stronger person after the storm - and there is always an after-the-storm where the seas are calm and skies are clear.
What day of the week do you dislike the most?
I ask folks this question from time to time and more often than not, the reply is usually "Monday."
When asked the reason, most would say "because I have to go back to work or school."
Typical answer yet interesting. If one dislikes Monday because of school or work then why does one continue to go back to work or school? I believe that folks like this are probably in the wrong job or studying the wrong course and probably should look for something that enables them to enjoy Mondays - and every other day for that matter. Those who genuinely enjoy work or school probably wont give "Work or School" as the reasons they dislike Monday.
Quality Not Quantity
I watched an extremely moving documentary about a girl called Ashley who had a medical condition called Progeria where her body aged 13 times faster than a normal human being. The condition is said to affect 1 in 8 million newborns.
A person with the condition normally dies at the age of 13. She just had her 14th birthday and she knew that she was going to die any day. She said that she was prepared to die and that she had lead a great life up until now - it was all about her experiences, the friends she was able to meet and being happy. Living a longer life was not important. The quality of life over quantity was what mattered.
Death Is A Reality
We watch the news and see people dying left right and center - people being stabbed, run over or just plain dying in everyday accidents. Many folks who see/read about others dying don't usually think much about it - and the folks who died probably didn't think too much about it either.
I was talking to my estate agent at the time we purchased our house - I asked him how I should go about writing my will - he looked at me as if I started to grow horns and said that people don't usually write their will until they are about 60. I was thinking to myself "apart from being a liar, this estate agent is an idiot too."
This may seem the obvious but the thing is, none of us have been given a guarantee that we are going to live until we are golden. One could live in the "safest" part of the world, be healthy and still have their life cut short by a knife, bullet or drunken driver. None of us know when we are going to die but there is one thing that we do know for sure - we all will die someday - could be in another 30 years time, could be tomorrow morning. Death is a reality that we must all understand - its the final piece of our jigsaw puzzle that we all will collect.
The Jigsaw Puzzle
Life is a jigsaw puzzle. You don't know whats going to go where, you don't know where the pieces are but you do know that you need to keep looking for the pieces and figure out where they go. All events that happen to you is a piece of your puzzle. if you are stuck in a rut at school or work and keep asking yourself the "what if" question then its a sign telling you that there are no more pieces of the puzzle to be found where you are.
Time's nearly up
Given today's technology, one can put wo/man on the moon, split the atom and even replace the keyboard with a single wheel. But what humans have not figured out is how to sell bottles of time on the shelf. Just imagine - you walk into a store and say "Gimme the usual bottle of an hour."
Time is not on your side - its a friend for the duration for life but it never sides with you - never be under the assumption that time will favor you.
Taking the leap from safe comfortable steady ground into an unknown void is not something that comes easily. Humans basic instinct is to protect itself and places priority on food and shelter and taking risks could affect these necessities.
But life is not just about being comfortable - its about living your passion.
You can spend most of your life doing something you dislike to bring in the money which pays the bills which enables you to go back to work another day to bring in the money which pays the bills which enables you to go back to work another day to bring in the money which pays the bills which enables you to go back to work another day to bring in the money which pays the bills...
Life is short. One may not appreciate just how short it is while we are young but really start to understand as we get older. I'm in my late 30's now and am under no illusion whatsoever that I'm going to die at old age - I could die anytime like any of us. I want to ensure that I died while living a life doing what I love most. Don't want to live forever and am happy with the time I've been given - will make sure I make the most of the rest of my life and I hope you do too.
As for me - hopefully you can tell that I just love Mondays ^^
Ah, and details of how I built my career in Japan - all that is covered in the "How I started to build a career in Japan" post.