Shigesato Itoi: Advertising, Tomatoes, and T-shirts

There is no one in the Japanese advertising industry who doesn’t know copywriter, Shigesato Itoi. Most people know him for his excellent catch-copies, but in fact Itoi is also a multi-creator who is involved with the production of videogames and vegetables, and also runs an international T-shirt project, “T-1 World Cup” (PingMag is working on this project, too!). We had an interview with him at his office in Aoyama, Tokyo.

Interviewed by Chiemi
Translated by Junko

Could you first explain what you actually do?

I do a lot of things, but I would say my job title is still copywriter. I’ve been involved with advertising

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copy for a long time, and been a creative director in my later years. More recently, I work as a producer, a planner, or an organizer. What I mostly do is to maintain my website, “Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shin-bun (Itoi’s almost daily newspaper).”

Itoi’s “Hobo Nikkan Iton Shin-bun” , called「Hobo-Nichi」for short. Its topics range from vegetables to architecture

You have always been a leader in the advertising industry. What brought you to the place where you are now; having your own media platform, and producing videogames?

In short, what I do is all based on an idea of “self-judgment.” I feel lost when people give the final judgment about my work. I’ve done all the persuasion, presentation, and negotiations myself, but then the judgement makes it feel like “my life is over!” kind of thing. That isn’t productive for either side, my clients or me, so I wanted to do something where I could make the judgment about my own ideas. And I wanted to learn from my own mistakes.

MOTHER3”, and the Game-Boy Micro special version, both produced by Itoi. “MOTHER2” is known as “EarthBound” in the U.S.
”Somewhat strange, amusing, and sad.” Role-playing game “MOTHER3”

Don’t you have even heavier responsibility then?

The responsibility I had before was not little at all either. Advertising means creating something as a representative for someone else. I was once been asked to work for a political campaign. I didn’t take it on, though. If I was involved in the campaign and somehow affected which party wins, I might be accused of being responsible. Thinking that way, the “responsibility” that I have now might be different from what I used to have. Now, I can say for sure that I will take responsibility for what I do. In other words, I only do what I want to take responsibility for. I wouldn’t say my responsibility has been reduced, but now my responsibility isn’t as unpleasant.

You still do “writing” work, like the catchcopy for Ghibli animated film and projects with rock musician Eikichi Yazawa. It seems you receive a variety of job requests. What makes you decide what to take and what not to?

I take things what I would ask someone to do for me, if I came up with the idea. For instance, I try to imagine “who would I ask to do this task if it was me coming up with this idea?” when I receive a request. If I can’t think of anyone to ask, then I don’t take the job!

Recently I often get requests like, “Please write an 800-letter article about women I think are attractive…I don’t take those on, though (laugh). When this kind of request comes, I ask myself whether I would have thought of the same idea even if the request hadn’t come. … if I don’t think so, I don’t take it. That’s all.

In fact, though, I’m really fortunate to be able to work like that (to be able to choose requests). People say, “It is possible for you to say that kind of stuff because it is YOU!” But, I want to do only what I can do now. Then, I am totally okay even to do something for free.

It should be a big decision for your company if you really work for free. What factors exactly would affect that decision?

It happens when everyone in my office applauds. So, it is my decision, but also all the other members’ decision too. I ask them what they think. I care about even one member’s objection. I usually know what their response would be without asking – I can feel it. It is risky, however, that everyone in my office thinks alike. It doesn’t make for good profit!

But, isn’t it inevitable that similar ideas come out of a group like yours, which has such a strong fellowship?

Exactly. That’s why our company is not making a lot of money considering how hard we work! (laugh) It is okay, though…because our company is still young!

You are working on a vegetable project. How did that come about?

Tomatoes grown by the Nagata family, in Shizuoka, where Itoi frequently visits

I’ve always liked “eating!” (laugh) Plus, I came across these incredibly delicious vegetables. I then found out that they had been grown by a certain process invented by a certain person. “Why aren’t all vegetables in Japan produced this way?” I wondered. That person was putting the vegetables through a very thorough managment program.

The vegetables?

In a word, “to leave something alone” is not just “to leave something alone”. It is a management decision. For instance, you might decide it is good for your children to grow up in the countryside surrounded by nature. But, it demands a serious cost to move your children to that environment, and set everything up. So, it’s a kind of “Management,” isn’t it? True freedom is just to “let it be”. It becomes a question of “management” when it is done intentionally.

Where did you find these vegetables?

It started with some tomato juice I drank at a friend’s place.

This is THE tomato juice: very sweet without any additives. Shockingly good!

There are many young people in your office. Aren’t there any who puzzle, “Why vegetables!?” when they start working here?

Most of the work we do is like that. It is great that each employee has their own idea or plan to do. But there is certain timing for each work, and you’ve got to grasp it at all cost! Even if it isn’t profitable in terms of money, it is great pleasure to be told, “That was a big help,” or, “You really encouraged me.” You can’t buy that with money.

There are various ways to make a profit out of agriculture, but we wanted to do something we are good at. So we created a set of DVD teaching manuals that gives instructions easy enough for anyone to grow vegetables. Actually, it took almost a year. I guess we are in the red if we calculated it accurately, considering the time and expenses we’ve spent on it. Before I didn’t have to worry about that stuff, but it wasn’t as fun either. I enjoy worrying about these little problems now (laugh).

Wow, I am jealous! Must be really happy to work like that.

Yes, I really think I am. But I have no days off! Maybe it’s partly because of the progress of computers. You used to do only a single task at a time, but now you can do loads. You can download something on a computer and do something else at the same time. You may also talk to someone. People take it for granted, but…you shouldn’t! I’d like to be able to make it so people didn’t have to do that. As an editor, your job definitely requires you to do multiple tasks, right?

Yes…Well, so what exactly is “Work” to you?

Half of it is things that I can’t help doing. It is hard to get involved in a videogame production even if you pay to do it. The nerves and thrill you get out of work is also a great motivation.

Itoi talking about T1 World Cup over various designs

Ok, now let’s change the subject to the project “T-1 World Cup” where domestic and foreign designers compete with their T-shirt designs. Could you tell me what “T-1″ stands for?

It is kind of hard to define, but I just wanted to invent something between art work and mass production, such as the craft goods in Japan. You’re very careful how you use a lacquered tray made by a master craftsman, but it isn’t something that goes to a museum to be displayed. The world feels like it’s heading to become a place where there is only “things to be used and then thrown away,” or “things impossible to get.” The real fun, though, exists in the between, I think. If you’re not sad when you throw something away, that’s no fun. So I thought about normal T-shirts, that are not so special that they go on display at a museum, but that people look after. And the whole system of the t-shirt designer, the t-shirt manufacturer, the person buying – it’s kind of like a mini model of how society works.

Maybe what “T-1” stands for, in short, is a place producing something to be cared for.

T-shirts designed by artists from all around the world. From the top left in clockwise.. Nando Costa, Kam Tang, Gugi Akiyama, Naoto Fukasawa, Ayumi Ohashi, Erik Spiekermann

Only Japanese artists joined last year, but the project has become worldwide this time with variety artists such as Stefan Sagmeister and Nando Costa. Is there any reason for that?

I wanted to have foreign artists in the last T-1, too. I just didn’t know how. When you do something for the first time, there are more things to learn than there is satisfaction. So, this second time the project is actually like first one for us. We are really lucky to get the project global – that’s what we always aimed at.

from the top left in clockwise… Mimi Son, Usuman Haque, Kinga, Punk Studio, Michihiko Yanai, Tom Vincent

How do you think the project will be different this time?

When there are only Japanese, we do things without discussing things deeply because we have a common knowledge and background. For instance, if someone says “Isn’t that cool?” implying some TV character or something that was once popular, others understand immediately what he is saying. That won’t work with a foreigner, of course. We need to watch our “grammar” – it’s less important in Japanese language to state clearly which is subject, which is the object etc.

I think that it is time to understand more about each aspect of languages. I want foreign language speakers to understand the vagueness of Japanese, and also Japanese people need to be conscious about “subject, verb, and object” when they speak. It’d be nice if our project could give an opportunity for people to notice these differences. I think Ken Watanabe) has succeeded with this. What he does as an actor is very Japanese, which is usually understood only by Japanese, but he tries to make it easier to be understood by people outside. In the process of any production, he is always aware that his work may be shown internationally. We’ll probably find the same thing with this project too.

But what about the song, “Let It Be”. Why did the Beatles call it that? “Let It Be” sounds strange. “What does it imply?” “How should it be?” A current version of “Let It Be” would be “Just Do It.” “What is it?” “Who is it addressed to?” It’s really vague, but people seem to understand the message without asking those questions.

Or, for example, Japanese people would think, “That’s so fake!” when they see the movie, “SAYURI.” But it’s not as simple as that when you know that Japanese actors are performing in it. Ken Watanabe said he’d like to export a Japanese film with no Ninja or Geisha. Just normal salarymen. We feel that way too. Like “Let It Be,” there is no need to say Zen or Haiku all the time. Just show what it is now and make them feel it!

from the top left in clockwise… Poledesign, Oded Ezer, Taku Satoh, Stephan Sagmeister & Bob Gryen, Silas Hickey, Jyun Aoki
from the top left in clockwise… Katsunori Aoki, Hamansutra, Shin Sobue, Kashiwa Satoh, Klein Dytham Architechture, Tsuguya Inoue

What was the first T-shirt you ever bought?

The T-shirt I bought for the first time clearly thinking, “I want this one!” was one that I found at the co-op store at Hosei University. It’s kind of funny that I was thinking, “I think this T-shirt is cool, but am I cool to think this is cool?” The design was an abstract illustration thing.

Was it one with the “Hosei University” logo on it?

No way! But it was cheap – about 690 yen. At that time, a pack of cigarettes cost about 120 yen. It seemed no one around me really liked that T-shirt, but I was still happy. For some reason, I don’t remember much about T-shirts I bought after that. There was a time when I didn’t know for sure what I should wear or what I wanted to wear. I think it was a fun time, lots of experiments… tye-dying a T-shirt, or rubbing my jeans against a wall in order to get a worn-out look. Maybe I should have enjoyed those times a lot more.

Ok, do you have any message to our readers all over the world?

Well… could be “Love.” I read a long interview with Michael John Crichton the other day. He recently wrote a novel about how the U.S. didn’t sign up to the Kyoto Protocol because the carbon dioxide problems written in the Kyoto Protocol cannot be proven. Anyway, he was asked for a message at the end of the interview “about his book,” but what he said was, “Love.” I get that – why “Love” is so interesting.

There are various types of Love, I guess…”

Exactly. But it’s all about “accepting.” The power of “accepting.” Recently, there’s a lot of the opposite. You can easily find so many books on “disclosure” at the bookstore. Like there is some kind of competition about who’s the best at disclosure or something… There is definitely no love in there.

Let me ask one last question. In the World Cup of “soccer” (not T-1 World Cup), what country do you think will win the championship?

That must be Brazil! Ronaldinho is great. Ronaldinho symbolizes this age. The World Cup shouldn’t be completed without him standing on top of the world with that charming smile! If there is someone else who gets ahead of Ronaldinho, that will be a historical moment! You know that TV commercial with him when he was a child. That’s amazing – he’s a chosen man, for sure. His wonderful smile has never changed!

It was really nice meeting you today. Thank you very much!

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