Technology is global, but ideas are local.

The same IoT technology is being deployed all over the world, but a small Japanese startup might be who helps us make sense of it all.

There is amazing work being done in user experience design, but most designers are operating with the contract of keeping users engaged. This is a fundamental shift from the traditional user-centered and functional design approaches.

Today we sit down with Kaz Oki, founder of Mui Lab, and we talk about user design can actually improve our lives and help us disengage.

We also talk about the challenges of getting VCs to invest in hardware startups, why Kyoto might be Japan’s next innovation hub, and what it takes for a startup to successfully spin out of a Japanese company

It’s a great discussion, and I think you will really enjoy it.

Show Notes

  • How Japanese design philosophy informs user interface design
  • How UI design got so bad
  • Who are the early technology adopters in Japan
  • Why VCs hesitate to invest in hardware companies
  • How to pitch corporate management to let you spin out a startup
  • Why you should run a Kickstarter even when you have corporate backing
  • Why a major manufacturer decided to outsource innovative manufacturing
  • The secret to making corporate spinouts work in Japan
  • How to convince Japanese employees to join a spinout
  • How to get middle-management on-board with corporate spinouts
  • What changed in Kyoto to make it one of Japan’s best startup hubs

Links from the Founder

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Welcome to Disrupting Japan, straight talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs.

I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.

If you’re a fan of Disrupting Japan, you know that I have a strong dislike for attempts to make Japan sound too exotic and this goes in both directions. On one side, we have consultants who claim that Japanese business practices are so unique, arcane, and confusing that the only way westerners can possibly understand them is by paying large sums of money to consultants such as themselves.

And on the other side, of course, we have people insisting that foreigners can’t really understand Japanese anime without a thorough and nuanced knowledge of Japanese language and history.

It’s all utter nonsense. I mean, there are differences, of course, and those differences should be acknowledged and respected, but whether an idea is coming from Japan or America, or Germany, one true measure of the value of that idea is its universality. The most important achievements might emerge out of cultural biases or sensitivities but they address something universally true, something deeply human.

Today, we sit down with Kaz Oki of Mui Lab and we’re going to talk about Mui’s radical rethinking of how we should interact with computers and the different contexts for that interaction. The Mui itself is a tactile and visual user interface that literally fades into the furniture when you’re not using it.

Now, this interface is clearly informed by Japanese aesthetics. In fact, some of the deeper issues Kaz and I talked about kept bubbling up in my mind in the week following the interview, and Kaz and I are going to do a follow-up later over a couple of beers in Kyoto, but there’s nothing about the Mui design that looks particularly Japanese. It’s tapping into a deeper and more human design sense, and that’s far more interesting.

Oh, and Mui Lab also represents a very rare kind of startup, a creature far, far more rare than unicorns. Mui Lab is an innovative and successful Japanese corporate spin-out. We talk about how Kaz made that work, his valiant battles against multiple layers of middle management, and how he managed to recruit top startup talent into that company, but you know, Kaz tells that story much better than I can, so let’s get right to the interview.


Tim: So, I’m sitting here with Kaz Oki, the co-founder of Mui Lab, so thanks for sitting down with us.

Kaz: Yeah, thank you for having us.

Tim: It’s great to finally have you on the show. So, Mui is a woodgrained control panel for the home but yeah, I think you can probably describe it better than I can.

Kaz: Yeah, Mui is originally, the concept is coming from like, Chinese philosophy. Mui Shizen is original concept, so Mui Shizen is talking about lifestyle without intention, leading naturally. So, that concept for the coming IoT world, so IoT world at the next year, 20 billion devices will be connected to each other and it’s more than the people or humans, so it’s like a tremendous, like the technology is coming very soon, but we don’t know what’s going on yet.

Tim: But you guys made really different choices than like, the rest of the world and I love people who are making different choices, so everything else is focusing on additional interfaces, additional functionality, additional features, but you guys really went the opposite way — you tried to scale things back.

Kaz: Yeah, we make the technology like a zen garden, so zen garden is like, expression of the world but the element is only stone, sound and like, plants.

Tim: Yeah, and very much focused on touch.

Kaz: Right, right, right, yeah.

Tim: Whereas one of the things I felt was interesting with both Amazon Alexa and Google Home are really focusing on voice commands, but you guys very intentionally stayed away from voice, so what was your thinking in that decision?

Kaz: So, there’s a couple of reasons. One is synergy. We are a spin-out from a company called Nissha. Nissha is the largest touch panel company, and we also focused on visual aesthetics and the touch panel combination, so from that point of view, we focus on touch panel —

Tim: On the touch?

Kaz: Display system, and at that point of view, we focus on what’s the essential value for the people or human, and then these just two measures of  value from like, a user’s perspective, so that’s visual and tactile feeling.

Tim: Right.

Kaz: So, that really matched to our technology.

Tim: And I noticed, you’ve gotten — I mean, this aesthetic, this design sense has gotten you a lot of attention and award overseas as well. You won like, the most innovative at CES this year and a Best of Kickstarter award. Do you think it’s just because what you’re doing is so different from everyone else or do you think there’s like, something fundamental that we just want to interact with something simple?

Kaz: I think we probably visualized the hidden problem, which we describe as like the relationship between technology and the people. In other words, user experience. Sometimes, we get smart speaker or smartphone coming up but it’s always a technology-centered design, but our approach is human-centered technology design.

Tim: Yeah, and I guess you’re right. So much of design now is driven by the technology in that we have touch-sensitive displays, what can we do with this? We have smart speakers, what can we do with this? And as a result, it’s just, it’s a lot of innovation, it’s a lot of creativity, but it’s people just adding more and more and more, and more.

Kaz: Right, right, it’s like, more features.

Tim: And you guys are actually trying to take things away.

Kaz: Trying to remove from in front of us, but backend technology is actually the same. We use cloud or like the latest computing, but to deliver that technology to touch-based or certain like, a human relationship, we changed that delivery system.

Tim: Okay, so tell me about your customers. Who’s the target audience for Mui, is it homeowners or gadget geeks, or interior designers?

Kaz: So, actually, we started targeting interior designers or architects, so that’s our original concept, and in extension to that, we made a Kickstarter for the smart home or those like, those early adopter users, but in the meantime, we’ve been piling up our technology platform. It’s a very niche platform, but we have patent and we have like, UX system, we have like a cloud structure, so we make that a very small platform, and now licensing to other companies.

Tim: But most of the current interest, is it coming from Japan or from the international market?

Kaz: International market, yeah.

Tim: Why do you suppose that is? Because this has such a strong Japanese design sense to it.

Kaz: I think that wood material, it’s like common sense for everybody, so from that, like a traditional or authentic behavior point of view, sometimes, people love our technology.

Tim: Well, I think so. I mean, wood, we humans have been working with wood for the last 15,000 years. It’s pretty fundamental, but do you think it’s just the foreign companies have been more willing to try new things than the Japanese companies?

Kaz: I think Japanese are most of the time, we follow the concept from overseas, especially like, technology, but those leading countries like the US, it’s technology-driven but also, there is a certain amount of people focusing on the issue of technology.

Tim: Yeah. So many Japanese startup founders have told me that they first got interest overseas and when the Japanese companies saw the overseas interest, then they became interested.

Kaz: Yeah, it’s exactly that!

Tim: The same thing happened?

Kaz: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tim: That’s got to be a little frustrating though.

Kaz: Right, right, right, yeah, Japan is not a trendsetter, yeah. It’s actually more like a follower.

Tim: At least, the large companies. I think there’s a lot of really amazing things going on in startups and tiny companies.

Actually, is there a kind of data analytics or a big data component to your business as well or is Mui planning on being strictly a hardware and device manufacturer?

Kaz: Mui can be like, collecting some data but we care about like, privacy. We always focus on how might we make a better attitude of technology? That’s our focus, so we don’t think we take the user data for the advertising and so on.

Tim: Yeah, so just to be a pure hardware vendor to make the best hardware device you can.

Kaz: But there —

Tim: That’s refreshing, actually.

Kaz: Yeah, it’s like VC maybe hate.

Tim: You know, I think that’s it. I think that’s it. I think there is a real beauty and importance to designing hardware, to making just wonderful devices, but VCs, the first thing they’ll ask you when you show them, it’s like, “Okay, well, how can we use this to push ads at people?’

Kaz: Yeah, it’s an easy concept.

Tim: I don’t think anyone really wants that.

Kaz: Yeah, I think so. Consumer would like to keep privacy as much as possible.

Tim: You mentioned before that Mui Lab is a corporate spin-out and I want to talk about that in some detail later, but since you have corporate backing, why did you run a Kickstarter and an IndieGogo campaign?

Kaz: Yeah, when I started Mui as a project inside the company called Nissha, I was in Boston and I was at a parking space just by myself, and then we build up team in Japan. First, we started with like a designer, and then adding more people, like engineers and so on.

Tim: So, the idea for the project and the leadership was in the US?

Kaz: Yeah, in the US.

Tim: The actual project team and designers were here in Japan?

Kaz: Yeah, I was the assigned person for working overseas subsidiaries and I was in charge of business development, and one of the ideas of business development in Boston was that Mui — in the meantime, like Boston was like, a startup big ecosystem there, so I thought maybe making new business as a startup, like as running startup is like, making sense to me, so I started Mui, but I didn’t know exactly what a startup is.

Tim: That’s okay, well, most startup founders don’t really know until they go through it. So, did Nissha start this innovation project and put you in charge of it, or was it more of like, you wanted to start the project and …

Kaz: Yeah, we wanted, yeah, yeah.

Tim: You could say Nissha management.

Kaz: Yeah.

Tim: Really? And what was their reaction?

Kaz: At first, people don’t know what’s going on, and still maybe not know after a number of years.

Tim: Well, we’ll talk about that later. I think that’s pretty typical at all big companies.

Kaz: But I got somewhat approval, so I made a team under.

Tim: How did you convince them to let you do that? Was it just going and say, “Look, this won’t cost much money,” or how did you make that case? Because I know there’s a lot of people working at big companies who have great ideas for innovative products or services that a company could do, but it’s really hard to get support.

Kaz: Yeah, it’s very hard, yeah, but I was confident so much for Mui without any evidence, but that makes me, I don’t know, creating the business plan, but from that approach, I met with many Japanese startup founders and they’re so, I don’t know, motivated and they’re great people. I think they’re inspiring me, also I could reach out to those people to ask what a startup is.

Tim: Yeah, I got to say, I mean, so many big Japanese companies send hundreds of staff to the US every year to study innovation, and I think you’re the first person I’ve actually met who has like, created a startup from that program.

Kaz: Yeah, they’re a very rare person.

Tim: It is! So, what led to the Kickstarter and the IndieGogo?

Kaz: So, after we started and we created company, it’s Nissha company, that assignment made me come back to Kyoto, and then we met some business development, but not working well because we didn’t launch the product, so for launching the product, I think the best way to do is, I don’t know, I was so confident to do Kickstarter because my friend does.

Tim: Well, it worked out well for you. You’ve raised a lot of money, you got the Best of Kickstarter Award, but was your goal with Kickstarter, was it to raise funds? Was it to do marketing? Was it to do kind of product validation? What was the goal?

Kaz: Goal was actually convince ourselves.

Tim: Okay, so product validation both from the market and for the team?

Kaz: Team, yes.

Tim: Yeah.

Kaz: How we can be confident ourselves by reaching out to like a global audience and to get actual support from them.

Tim: So, was that something that was most important for the team itself or did Nissha need that validation too?

Kaz: Actually, until last minute, it was a secret project for us, but somebody found us, we are ready for Kickstarter, so…

Tim: So, was Nissha opposed or confused?

Kaz: Yeah, Nissha confused last minute.

Tim: I could see that, yeah.

Kaz: I persuaded.

Tim: Because it’s a very traditional Japanese company.

Kaz: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, corporate didn’t know which one we’re going to take or I didn’t explain until last minute.

Tim: I can understand that. That could be very long conversations.

Kaz: Yeah, because it’s hard to make the consensus.

Tim: That would be so many meetings. But I love the idea of crowdfunding sites for like, corporate innovation because you weren’t using the brand, so you weren’t risking the brand at all. It doesn’t really cost much, and it lets you get that product validation much cheaper and much faster than like, focus groups or market research.

Kaz: Yeah, and we can reach out to global market as quick as possible, and then why we choose Kickstarter is it’s like all or nothing, so if you couldn’t get funded, you couldn’t get anything.

Tim: Yeah, it forces you to be really clear about this is the experiment?

Kaz: Yeah, that was my, like, betting. So, if it will not work, I thought I should quit.

Tim: Yeah, that’s good, you need that. I think too many — not so much startups because startups are always restricted by the amount of capital they have, but too many corporate innovation projects, there’s no clear end.

Kaz: No, no.

Tim: People like to make kind of big fuzzy projects with no clear ‘if we don’t get this result, we’ll stop and do something else.

Kaz: Yeah.

Tim: So, now that Kickstarter has been successful, where are you doing your manufacturing? Are you doing that within Nissha or is that also independent?

Kaz: Independent, yeah.

Tim: Really?

Kaz: Yeah, we still get support for the engineering from Nissha. It’s like, we are paying but for the manufacturing, we are working with outside companies.

Tim: Why or what led to that decision? No, that’s really surprising because with their expertise in manufacturing…

Kaz: Yeah, but Nissha is not like a full component manufacturer, they are like device manfacturer, like for touch panel, but for large scale, in a not small scale.

Tim: OK, so where are you doing your manufacturing? In China? In Japan?

Kaz: We’ve been struggling to find the best partner. Now, we’re working like a Kyoto-based Maker’s Bootcamp, and they support us to find supplier of component or assembly, yeah, and final assembly, actually, is in Kyoto. It’s made in Japan.

Tim: Wow. Yeah, no, that’s great. So, your original plan was to shift the first batch in September or October of this year, right?

Kaz: Yeah, yeah.

Tim: So, how is that going? It slipped a little bit.

Kaz: Yes. Now, we are targeting January in 2020 and I think it’s on time.

Tim: Yeah, a couple of months late, that’s on time for Kickstarter.

Kaz: Yeah, on time. Yeah, we are struggling to make the software and hardware, like both sides are very new, so if you make smartphone now, you can refer to iPhone, but you won’t have a difference.

Tim: Yeah, creating something from scratch, from zero is always really hard, so in that process, what was the most suprising thing? What did you thing was going to be easy that turned out to be really hard?

Kaz: Human interaction, making better user experience is hard to settle in one place.

Tim: Ah, yeah, yeah, I guess so, especially for something like Mui which is really minimal and a very simple change to the UI could require big changes to hardware and changes to software.

Kaz: Yeah, so Mui is minimizing the digital experience at home, but if too minimalistic, people don’t know how it can be used, and also, it’s going to be blended into the environment because we use the material which is used for the interior decoration or furniture, so sometimes, people don’t need to use Mui all the time.

Tim: Yeah, it should become invisible when it’s not being used.

Kaz: Yeah, so how we could take balance? How Mui can be having meaning at home or for the family, or making hardware, it’s still very difficult but hardware has certain lead time or…

Tim: Yeah, yeah, if you’re building to spec or you’re building, yeah, I see what you mean, yeah.

Kaz: But experience is infinite.

Tim: Right. So, there’s so many great new hardware startups in Japan now, so what would be the best advice you could give a hardware startup founder who’s just starting out?

Kaz: Don’t do it. No, think about — differentiate yourself from large corporations. That is best. If you just like leapfrog another product, it’s not nearly what you put your life.

Tim: Yeah, but I guess it’s back to that’s why it is so hard. If it’s small improvements from what we have now, big companies are really good at that.

Kaz: Yeah, they are really good.

Tim: Okay, now that you’re starting manufacturing, what is your marketing strategy? So, so far, you’ve been getting a lot of attention from events and Kickstarters, but those kind of one-time events are good for quick attention, but what’s your plan long-term for marketing?

Kaz: There’s two different strategies. One is like, B2B, we are targeting a hotel, like a hospitality environment to make hospitality technology work more human-centered. And also we are licensing technology to other hardware company, make Mui effect happen on device or on space in space.

Tim: So, you’re thinking of partnering with, say furniture makers and things like that?

Kaz: Yeah, furniture maker or automobile, so make digital product more calm.

Tim: Yeah, and so what is the most likely end game? Where are you likely to be in like, five or 10 years? Do you think that the Mui as we see it today is kind of more of a proof of concept, and is most of your business going to be integrating with other products, or do you think the future is in being a manufacturer?

Kaz: We are like a fabless company and we are using other resources to make our product, but by ourselves, we can make a system, Mui system, working for other product now, so our core competence is the software system and user-experience design. From that point of view, we are trying to make licensing technology to other company because 20 billion devices will be connected. So, we try to eliminate one screen away from our site because we are losing time, especially emotional time to technology more and more.

Tim: Yeah, I guess it makes more sense that in the long run, there will be much bigger opportunities for integrating with other products and being a pure technology vendor.

When you make that step to kind of a more of a mass market, a B2B mass market, do you think that’s going to become more integrated with Nissha or do you think you’re going to remain independent?

Kaz: Remain independent.

Tim: Really? Why is that? Because at that level, we would think like Nissha would be really useful because that’s like their whole business, is that kind of OEM.

Kaz: I think one of the big reasons, we knew Nissha very much so.

Tim: That’s a good answer, yeah.

Kaz: Yeah. If we are a startup, we are pretty much open.

Tim: So, you want to run it like a startup?

Kaz: Yeah, we like to be startup because we choose the way as a startup.

Tim: Well, let’s talk a bit about that spin-out process because Mui’s a rare example of a very successful startup spin-out from a large company, so most corporate spin-outs fail — in fact, most don’t even happen. For example, I’ve worked with a number of large Japanese companies who are trying to do this, and I’m curious about like, how you solve some of the big problems, so like one of the big problems faced at big companies is that the employees don’t want to spin out. They want to stay in the safety of the big company, and did you experience that as well or how did you get the team excited about leaving the parent?

Kaz: When I established subsidiary, it’s 100% owned by Nissha. There’s two other people who agree with me but it wasn’t happening, there’s no system, so if just by myself, I couldn’t make that decision most likely, but fortunately, I had a great team.

Tim: So, was the original team, were they all Nissha employees?

Kaz: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tim: Wow, and so how did you find them? Did you just say, “I want to start this company making this Mui device. Come join me?”

Kaz: Yeah. We started project with one of the co-founders who is a designer. He’s still with us as a co-founder, and the other person is, actually, after we started the project, he would like to join us. The mindset is they don’t care so much for Nissha. Also, their family, especially their wife was very helpful to understand what they do.

Tim: Yeah, that’s usually a big challenge.

Kaz: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yea.

Tim: And so, I guess they just kind of fell in love with the product? There is something that’s really motivating to be working on a small team that’s building something from scratch that most people don’t get to experience working at a big company.

Kaz: Right, right, right, yeah.

Tim: And what about as you’ve grown, the new employees, have you hired from outside or also recruited from inside?

Kaz: Yes, mostly from outside right now. When we came out, when that was happening, I persuade one very big great talent who used to work for MIT Media Lab, who is the CTO now, but he couldn’t join if we are under Nissha because he is not interested in working with enterprise, but he’s interested in startup.

Tim: Yeah, no, I’ve noticed that. A lot of people, it’s not necessarily they’re motivated like potential IPO or something, they just don’t want to work in a big company environment.

Kaz: Yeah, so that was a big reason for buy-out, because other than that, we just focused on Nissha employee, but it’s limited, even big company, it’s limited and the resource should be shared by many different divisions.

Tim: Yeah, and as you grow, you want to get the best talent for the job, so right now, what’s kind of the ratio. What percentage of the staff are original Nissha employees and what percent were brought in?

Kaz: Original Nissha employees right now, four, and five are from outside.

Tim: Oh, okay, so almost 50-50.

Kaz: Yeah, 50-50, but we are, I think, very unique.

Tim: I think so too and that’s what I’m trying to get — no, because it’s like there are so many companies trying to do this. I mean, it sounds like Nissha was really supportive, but what was the hard part? Was there something that was like, particularly difficult or a particular big problem that had to be solved.

Kaz: There are many problems, so one major issue is the middle management. Middle management will try to control the balance, the budgeting or everything.

Tim: Yeah. Well, that’s — yeah.

Kaz: That’s a big issue for many Japanese companies.

Tim: Yes, I think that’s also, I think, the reason why a lot of people don’t want to work at big Japanese companies, so yeah, the middle management wants to have the control but not take any of the risk.

Kaz: Yeah, also, they are not responsible for any risk.

Tim: Yeah, exactly, but that’s the big advantage of like, spinning it out, it makes people — in the same way like the Kickstarter made it very clear that we’re going to succeed or fail, spinning out is like, okay, you’re either joining or you’re not.

Kaz: Make a show and tell, so always there’s constraints or bottlenecks, or issues, but I always try to show and tell.

Tim: So, the way you are finally successful, did middle management finally agree or did upper management just say, “Look, we’re doing this”?

Kaz: I skipped middle management.

Tim: Yeah, that’s the only way I’ve ever seen it work, yeah.

Kaz: I skipped all middle management. It’s the only way to do, so that’s why I established Mui Lab inside the company because I can be CEO of that company, even like a salaryman person.

Tim: So, actually, the corporate spin-outs, you guys have actually raised funds recently and corporate spin-outs, it’s notoriously difficult to raise funds, so how did you do that?

Kaz: So, we made buy-out. We bought 100,000 from Nissha.

Tim: I’m surprised that Nissha would want to let it go.

Kaz: Because we are making Red inside of Nissha.

Tim: Well, yeah, but still, I mean, yeah, I mean, startups lose money at first — some, always, but I’m surprised that Nissha, if they have one of the very few examples of a successful startup spin-out that they’d want to let it — if you don’t mind saying, like, right now what percentage is held by the founding team and what percentage by Nissha, and what percent by VCs?

Kaz: The management team owns more than 75%.

Tim: So, you’re back to a cap structure that’s really very typical for startups.

Kaz: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tim: So, moving forward, it will be easier to raise money?

Kaz: Yes, yes, yes, that’s our original concept.

Tim: Alright. Let’s talk about Kyoto because I think Kyoto is one of the most interesting startup ecosystems in Japan. I mean, it’s small but —

Kaz: Yes, it’s small but unique, unique. Very unique.

Tim: There’s amazing things going on, particularly with like, hardware startups.

Kaz: We have Atmoph at MUI and it’s big but GLM. It’s very unique ecosystem, I think, happen in Kyoto.

Tim: So, why — I mean, even like five years ago, there was almost — there was no ecosystem in Kyoto or I mean, there might have been like buddies who would meet up in a bar, so what changed? What caused this to happen so quickly?

Kaz: I think Makino-san, the maker’s bootcamp is leading the scene.

Tim: So, Maker’s Boot Camp is really making a difference there.

Kaz: Yeah, they are also very interesting, they are also startup.

Tim: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I’ve been out there a few times, it’s tiny but it’s a great community.

Kaz: Yeah, community building is key for Kyoto startup ecosystem.

Tim: One thing I’ve noticed about Kyoto and it’s also true with Fukuoka, is that like the startup founders from Kyoto want to stay Kyoto, so they’ll open like a sales office in Tokyo or like you were saying before, you’ll come to Tokyo like, once a week, but they stay in Kyoto and let you build an ecosystem where too many startups from Osaka or Sapporo, when they start getting successful, like move to Tokyo.

Kaz: I think it’s very similar to traditional large enterprise in Kyoto too. They stay, headquarter in Kyoto, like Murata or Kyocera, or Nintendo.

Tim: Yeah, that’s true.

Kaz: They’re still in Kyoto because they’re targeting global market, but Osaka always tries to compete with Tokyo, and then Osaka has big market, but Kyoto is very small, domestic Kyoto market, so we shift focus on outside.

Tim: Yeah, it’s got a very global focus but it’s still a very small friendly community.

Kaz: Yeah, that’s, I think, yeah, very unique, like walking distance, we are —

Tim: Yeah, everyone’s pretty close. It’s not that big of a city.

Kaz: Locating 10 minutes walk from Atmoph, for instance.

Tim: Yeah, I think great things are coming out of Kyoto, it’s one of my favorite places right now in Japan.

Kaz: And they’re very unique, service or product.

Tim: And I had a Hosoo-san.

Kaz: Ah, Hosoo-san, hai.

Tim: Which is not a startup — well, certainly not a startup, it’s 350 years old.

Kaz: Yeah, it has startup mindset.

Tim: Mindset, yeah, but I think that kind of collaboration is unique to Kyoto.

Kaz: I think so, yeah, very unique.

Tim: Well, listen, Kaz, before we wrap up, I want to ask you what I call my “Magic Wand” question and that is, if I gave you a magic wand and I told you that you could change one thing about Japan, anything at all — the education system, the way people think about risk, the way big company employees behave — anything at all to make it better for startups and innovation in Japan, what would you change?

Kaz: I think paradigm shift.

Tim: Like, what part?

Kaz: From samurai to Meiji, it’s big paradigm shift, right? Hierarchy or everything, the system, and the Meiji government is structured by huge amount of lower level samurai, not management of like large samurai countries, so for the corporate-driven startups, that paradigm shift can be very helpful.

Tim: But I mean like, the Meiji restoration was, I think, everything changed. I mean, like the government, the education system — I mean, everything, so do you think that we need that big of a change in Japan today?

Kaz: Other than that, we lost semiconductor industries. Now, we are losing automotive industries and we already lost computing.

Tim: I mean, Japan has done – I think one of the biggest myths of Japan is people say Japan changes really slowly, and I think that’s wrong.

Kaz: It’s wrong, it’s wrong, yeah.

Tim: Japan changes really, really fast. It just takes a long time, like getting ready to change. You mentioned the Meiji restoration where everything changed very quickly, and after the war…

Kaz: After the war, yeah.

Tim: Everything changed really quickly again, but on both of those examples, it only changed when there was extreme pain and risk. Do you think we’re going to have to get to that point?

Kaz: I think it’s happening now.

Tim: Yeah?

Kaz: Under how we live our life from now on to 40 years or 50 years is like older people don’t care so much but younger people care — need to care more and more.

Tim: What do you think they need to care about?

Kaz: For kids or for like the country.

Tim: Oh, you mean just kind of thinking of the future in general?

Kaz: Used to be like, large corporations keep employees’ life and it’s a very protected ecosystem for everybody.

Tim: Not anymore.

Kaz: Not anymore

Tim: But we need to know that happening now for Japanese second-largest industry like automotive. I think one of the reasons we’re seeing so many startups today is because this generation realizes that big companies aren’t going to take care of them, so they have the motivation to — well, I mean, it’s different, like some people, when they realize that big companies won’t take care of them have the motivation to run out and start new companies, some people just become like, NEETs, right? And just say, “No, I’m just going to live a simple, comfortable life.” So, I think maybe we’re already seeing that beginning of that change.

Kaz: But they’re highly-educated people, and they may be aware of that, but not everybody.

Tim: No, I agree. I think most of Japan still wants to be like middle management

Kaz: Yeah, or I think also, we need to focus, so Mui focus is on, in Japanese say, tatazumai. Tatazumai meaning many different meanings, but when we focus on that tatazumai, Kyoto is the best place, still many, many assets from old history, but we are somehow losing for the condominium or many things but they’re focused on essential thing, what we have.

Tim: Maybe this is one of the reasons I am so fascinated with what’s happening in Kyoto, is that, so we’re definitely seeing the kind of breakdown of that contract of work for a company for life, and so that’s going away, but there’s like, some older traditions and older ways of thinking that are actually being pulled into modern world, do you know what I mean?

Kaz: Right, yeah, but like old concept is not always good. It should be transformed into current or present, or future.

Tim: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

Kaz: So, many big Japanese companies in Kyoto transform from old product to like a modernized product, so the Murata is a semiconductor company but they started from porcelain, or Nintendo started from like a gaming cards.

Tim: Right, but even what you guys are doing at Mui, it is taking it very traditional Japanese aesthetic and sense, and applying it to modern technology.

Kaz: To computing, yeah. So, how we make that happen one more in different area is very important, not just focusing on domestic market or feature.

Tim: Well, I think it’s interesting, but you’ve gotten the initial interest from overseas first that responded to this aesthetic. Only later did Japanese companies say, “Oh, wait, this is interesting.”

Kaz: Yeah, everything, like ukiyoe is firstly founded by American people.

Tim: Yeah, then became popular again.

Kaz: They make value for that and they make popularity.

Tim: I mean, if that’s the process, I guess that’s fine. If the end result is good.

Kaz: So, we could leverage global market to Japanese mindset is very, I think, important now.

Tim: I think so and I think it’s starting to happen again. It’s really good to see.

Kaz: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tim: Hey, well, listen, Kaz, thanks so much for sitting down with me.

Kaz: Thank you to you.


And we are back.

Kaz and I talked a bit about minimalism in the interview and a bit more after the mics have been turned off, and I want to talk with you a bit more about it now, not so much as a philosophy or a graphic design style, but as, well, an aesthetic.

Now, Kaz mentioned the famous rock gardens of Kyoto and these are practically the archetype, the universal symbol of minimalism, but there’s something that’s always bothered me about that, you see, when rock gardens were first designed nearly 1000 years ago, the world outside the temple walls was forested and green, and chaotic. It was unknown and dangerous.

The rock gardens presented a contrast. They were controlled, white, and ordered.

Well, today, the world outside the temple walls is controlled, made mostly of white concrete, and highly ordered. Perhaps a modern temple garden made of overgrown greenery would provide the same kind of contrast that the original rock gardens provided, but the aesthetic is deeper than that.

And here is where the Mui comes in.

The world we live in, the world we interact with is not just one of the buildings and trees, and physical objects. We live in a digital world and that digital world is every bit as scary and chaotic as in the forest over 1000 years ago.

In fact, anyone who has ever ridden the trains in Tokyo knows that this minimalist aesthetic is far from universal in Japan. We are constantly bombarded by ads and messages, alerts and signals all screaming for our attention I think this is why the minimalist approach is so common in Japanese homes and in hospitality. It’s an escape from the chaos, a chance to be alone with your thoughts or with your loved ones.

The Mui springs from that sensibility.

However, and it breaks my heart to say this, just because something is the best solution and just because it’s clearly better for the mental health and well-being, doesn’t mean it will succeed in the marketplace. There is an inherent conflict between minimalism which involves removing everything you don’t need and capitalism which involves producing and selling everything you possibly can.

The Mui interface is already seeing interest from around the world, so there’s clearly a need for and an appreciation of their approach, but the mass-market, that’s going to be more challenging.

Will the Mui change the market or will the market change Mui?

The market has already defeated minimalism many times in the past. Just a few years ago, Marie Kondo became world-famous, spreading the message that happiness does not come from the junk that you own and that we all need to minimize, but this year, she launched her e-commerce site selling random interior design objects, junk, and other knickknacks.

It’s hard to know if Mui’s quiet calls for less can win out over the market’s ceaseless demand for more, but I hope they will. We need it.

Mui’s approach and those like it are going to be what keeps us all sane in the chaos of our digital world.

If you want to talk more about Mui or about minimalism, or less about minimalism, I suppose, because and I would love to hear from you. So, come by and let’s talk about it. If you leave a comment, I guarantee Kaz or I, or maybe both will respond.

And if you get the chance, check us out on LinkedIn or Facebook, but even better, if you like the show, tell people about it. Disrupting Japan is grown not by social media marketing or advertising, but because listeners like you enjoy it and they tell their friends about it.

But most of all, thanks for listening and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups know about the show.

I’m Tim Romero and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.