Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: email@example.com
Ian Chun (USA)
My Eyes Tokyo welcomed the 2nd guest speaker for MET Morning Interview at the end of 2013. Ian Chun is the founder of Match Latte Media, and has introduced Japanese tea to people in about 50 countries around the world.
We met him at a small entrepreneurial event in Tokyo in 2012. There were many entrepreneurs from overseas and he was one of them. We exchanged business cards and heard about his business. We immediately got interested in him.
In 2013, Ian joined our presentation event called “Mechakucha Night” twice. He joined us as an audience, and then as a presenter. So finally we decided to have an interview with him in public at our new project called “MET Morning Interview” as an expression of our gratitude.
Why did he choose Japanese tea as a product which he would spread around the world? We bring this interview to those who are interested in Japanese culture or business related to it (And of course in Japanese, too!).
Business began with an encounter with a Japanese tea farmer
I’m a tea merchant. What I’m doing here in Japan is buying tea from other places in Japan, then exporting from Japan to around the world. I started as a consulting company to spread Japanese tea around the world over the internet, because my friend introduced me to a man.
His name is Yasuharu Matsumoto, a Japanese tea farmer in Kyoto. He owns a tea farm called “Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms” there. He had been traveling to various countries over the years, and would hold lectures about Japanese tea at tea shops and people’s homes. You tell your customer, “I’m teaching foreign people about Japanese tea”. And they say, “Oh, that’s great! I wanna buy some, too”. Matsumoto-san is very fascinating, a lot of charisma, much more than me. But actually his overseas sales were very tiny. So when I met him, I decided to help them out. I can do marketing, I can make websites.
I set up the internship program and invited people from outside of Japan to come to a small town called Wazuka-cho in Kyoto. I operated their website and got commission on sales. Then I decided to do this for more companies.
Something that even those who are not interested in Japan are interested in – TEA
Now, I operate “Yunomius”, a Japanese tea marketplace which sells multiple tea brands. There are tea farms, tea brands, tea-ware suppliers, herbal tea and so on. Basically, you can say it’s an “Amazon of tea from Japan”. Tea is easy and it actually matches my interest in Japanese culture. I love Japanese culture and Japanese tea is a central part of it.
My idea is that we focus on tea because tea is a large market. Even people who are not interested in Japan are interested in tea. If they are interested in tea, maybe they would be interested in Japanese tea. So my customers are tea lovers around the world. Many of them are specifically Japanese tea lovers, but they are not necessarily interested in Japan. The market is bigger, but there’s overlap between the Japanese-lovers market and the tea market. The bigger the global tea industry becomes, the more tea enthusiasts become interested in Japanese tea. Because only 3% of Japanese tea is exported from Japan, 97% of Japanese tea stays in Japan. It means there is a much room for growth.
In America or in Europe, the idea of buying from a small farm is very romantic. I was in Seattle last week and there was “Wholefoods”, a big supermarket chain in the US specifically for organic products. There was a box of Chocolate for $10, but I went to the drug store next 2 minutes away, it was $5! Exactly the same one, but the people who go to Wholefoods like high quality, organic, small local farms. So we say we can help you if you want to buy directly from Mr. xx with their stories.
We also want you to be able to have special teas like asamushi-cha (light steamed tea) or fukamushi-cha (deep steamed tea). There are a lot of repeat customers. The most expensive tea sells better because we can’t get it in America. So there are a lot of things that we can do to grow.
What got me interested in Japan
Originally I was not interested in Japan at all, but I was surrounded by lots of Japanese Americans growing up in Hawaii. So when I came to Japan for the first time, it wasn’t so foreign. Things like you take off your shoes in the house. I don’t know why, but we all have kadomatsu (traditional Japanese decoration of the New Year placed in pairs in front of homes) on New Year’s Day in my Chinese family. I think because every store in Hawaii, supermarket, drugstore, they all sell kadomatsu. So my family always bought it and put it by the door.
My mother liked to cook tempura. And sushi. And shabu shabu. And nishime (simmered Japanese vegetable). So there are lots of Japanese influences in my history. But I mean there’s also American influence, there’s also a lot of Chinese influences.
What made me interested in Japan, what made me decide to focus on Japanese culture was literature. When I was a kid, I watched “Dragon Ball Z”, “The Super Dimension Fortress Macross“, “Star Blazers” (Uchuu Senkan Yamato)… all that’s in my past. But it doesn’t mean I want to make it my job, or move to Japan.
When I was in college, my friend introduced me to Japanese author Murakami Haruki. I read his book called “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”. On one hand it could have taken place anywhere, it didn’t have to be set in Tokyo. It is not very Japanese, it’s universal. But on the other hand, Murakami’s literature is very Japanese as well. It expresses contemporary Japan, and has an ambiguity that is quintessentially Japanese. That combination of universality and Japanese-ness of Murakami made me fall in love with Japan. I fell in love with Japan, but Murakami’s Japan is not traditional JAPAN. I started reading Kawabata Yasunari and Natsume Soseki in English, then I really fell in love with Japan.
So I came to Kanazawa and Kyoto in my 3rd year of university to learn the language. After I graduated university, I came back to Japan as an English teacher. Then I started to work for a publishing company. After that, I did completed a masters in literature at Sophia University in Tokyo.
After several years, I was introduced to a tea farmer, Matsumoto-san, when I was working at an IT company in Japan as a marketing specialist. Working at an IT company and tea is very different obviously. So I quit my IT company and I decided that I wanted to…
What’s the word for “Dokuritsu-suru (独立する)” in English? [Audience laughed!]
Translation of the context of culture
You can translate English words into Japanese words. But if you don’t know the context of each culture, certain products are very hard to explain. As for “Dokuritsu-suru (独立する)” and “become independent”, they have the same meaning, but in the context of culture, they take on different importance.
You can say the same for tea. If you look at explanation of Japanese tea, such as sencha, gyokuro, hojicha, they use words like umami, amami, shibumi, nigami, and tsuya-tsuya suru. That has no meaning in English. Even if you explain umami, the explanation means nothing to somebody who knows nothing about Japanese culture. Especially if you do not know nori (seaweed) or if you do not know sushi – a lot of people know sushi though – then if you hear that umami has a flavor like the seaweed that goes round sushi. Then you may think, “Oh wait, this tea tastes like sushi?”
It’s a completely different language because they come from completely different culture. Your background is Japanese food culture. Sushi, soy sauce, the beauty of umami… But from a Western stand of point, their background – I don’t know why this happened – people who like tea in America, their background for tea is wine. So what happens is “OK we want to describe this tea. How do we describe this tea?” The tea industry in the west borrows words from the wine industry. If you’ve ever studied wine in English, you talk about “Oh, this Cabernet Sauvignon has notes or hints of blackberry and oak, has smokiness…” That’s how they describe tea in the West, like “This sencha has sweet, vegetal, spinach-like taste with hints of citrus”. That’s how they describe things. And it’s different from how Japanese describe things.
So my idea for Matcha Latte Media, I don’t just translate but I change the words or even original meanings of those words. So it’s understandable for somebody who has different culture. That’s the basis of Match Latte Media.
Creating a marketplace for Japanese small producers
There is a lot of interesting products that you would call “Japanese culture” are made by small producers outside of Tokyo. Especially food products are made by them. They are not going to build a website like what I made, they are not going to be able to communicate with non-Japanese customers. And the last thing is international logistics. It can be very, very difficult for them.
So we want to build a company that allows the small producers that produce cultural products to access international logistics, shipping, international regulations, communication with international customers, and technology to take advantage of. If we can help large number of small producers in Japan, we provide marketplace for them to reach entire world.
We don’t have to stop at Japan. We can do this for multiple countries. Obviously you can domestically utilize services like Alibaba in China, eBay or even Amazon to reach potential customers. But tea farmers couldn’t do it. There’s a lot of businesses can’t find people they need. They can’t hire people to help them. But Matsumoto-san from Obubu Tea Farms in Kyoto, in a small town of 5000 people, tried to hire an IT person. But it’s hard to find good human resources, especially in a small region. So I thought, “Let’s help them out”. I want to do this as a business.
Let’s change the world with business!
I take the risk now. What I learn from doing the business is that I can take them to another company if I fail. The budget thing, how to make budget, forecast to analyze the market, how to manage people… all that I’m learning now, all that I can take to another company. The big difference is the scale. That’s the only difference.
My personal goal is… I really want to change the world. As a person, I want people to say “He helped to change the world” in some way when I’m 70 years old. Business is fine, or if I write a novel, that’s OK too. I want to have an impact on the world. If I make a lot of money at the same time, that’s good, too! I think for myself that I’m more interested in the idea that business can change the world. This person is working to make money to live, but his activity is going to affect other people’s life—that’s interesting to me.
What is TEA to you?
Tea is a way to learn Japanese culture and teaching about Japanese culture.
I want to have a job that is related to doing it. For example, many foreigners come to Japan and they go to Kabukiza. They are interested in Kabuki, but it’s not going to become part of their daily life. On the other hand, tea can become part of their daily life like iPhone. Actually many people are interested in tea, many foreigners are interested in Japanese tea.
You have many people who are practicing Zen meditation outside of Japan. They have taken something of Japanese culture into their life. You take something from another culture, you combine it with your own culture and you create something new—that’s why my company is called Matcha Latte Media. “Matcha（抹茶; fine powder green tea）” symbolizes Japanese culture and Latte symbolizes Western culture.
I believe bringing something into a culture creates a new culture.
What is JAPAN to you?
Japan is my home, not my 2nd home.
I feel more comfortable in Japan than I feel in Hawaii or America actually. I think it’s a combination of the food, people and lifestyle. I hate crowded trains, but I like the way people interact in Japan. Whether it’s foreigners or Japanese or kikoku-shijo (帰国子女; returnees), I like to help people to interact also. I like the fact that I can meet many people here in Tokyo. Some of you may become friends, and then not see you 3 years – that happens, right? It’s a big city. I like that.
And you can go outside even in the nighttime. The safeness of Japan is also a big part of it.
That’s why Japan is my home.