I wouldn’t trust other people at all for the rest of my life if I gave it up.

山口絵理子さん

Interviewed by Isao Tokuhashi & Hisa
Written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: itokuhashi@myeyestokyo.com

 

Eriko Yamaguchi Part1 Bag designer/CEO

We bring you the interview with Eriko Yamaguchi, a young Japanese entrepreneur who manages her own bag brand called “Motherhouse“. Her bags are made in Bangladesh and made from jute, a long, soft, shiny vegetable fiber. Jute bags are sold at other shops, too, in Japan but the features that differentiate her bags from others are cute, fancy and functional quality. Motherhouse declares on their brochures proudly: “We want to show to people that there are wonderful resources and possibilities in the places lumped together as the developing countries. That’s our mission.” “We will prove that we would create a better society through our business activities and offer a ray of light in the darkness called poverty.” This interview is divided into two parts. In the first part, we follow in her path. Then we tell you about her present state and future vision. *Eriko Yamaguchi (1981-) Born in Saitama, Japan. She endured fierce bullying as a grade school girl. She started practicing judo in junior high school and then joined a “men’s” judo club in high school. She placed 7th in the national competition of judo. Educated at Keio University to be a politician. She worked at theInter-American Development Bank in Washington D.C. as an intern and she wanted to look at the current situation in developing countries. She flew to Bangladesh and entered the master course of BRAC University as the first foreign student. Then she found jute and decided to make “cute” jute bags. After her lone battle, she established the Motherhouse Co.Ltd. in March, 2006 and opened her own shop in Tokyo in August, 2007. Now she manages several shops and sells their bags at major department stores. *Interview at Motherhouse Iriya Shop (Taito-ku, Tokyo)
*Edited by Daniel Penso 校正協力:ダニエル・ペンソ 日本語

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Yamaguchi writes her blog almost everyday. She wrote that she wanted to own her shop as soon as possible about eight months before the opening day. “I felt it would be wonderful to have my own shop. My friends and people whom I don’t know, everybody comes to my shop and sees our products. I will be really happy with that! I am eagerly waiting for that day to come.” (Dec.10, 2006) . What did she feel at the moment of the opening of her memorable shop?

I always wrote down my dreams and plans on sketchbooks. I wanted to sell our bags at our shops and also department stores, I wanted people to know about our products and activities. Every time we realized each dream, I felt happy so I thought we could take the big step at last. We opened this shop on August 21, 2007. It was a big challenge as a salesperson so I felt at first that we would have to move our motivation into full gear. After we opened it, we found many problems. This shop was the only place where we could interact with customers at that time so we could improve our products’ development capability. Also we thought a great deal about training for salespersons. This is because Motherhouse is a brand which values stories of our products and one of our assignments is to tell them to people. In that sense, I thought we should turn this shop to practical use for personnel training very much. A brand will change in a favorable way by establishing your own shop. We did all of carpentry work on this shop by ourselves. We established the know-how for inauguration by ourselves and opened a second and third shop. Then we realized that it was possible for us to establish shops by ourselves.  

She was immersed in the development study at university in Japan and worked at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington D.C. as an intern. IDB is the bank which gives economic assistance to Latin American countries but many co-workers had never been to the developing countries. She felt something was wrong. Then she typed “the poorest country in Asia” in a search engine and found Bangladesh. She flew there and stayed for two weeks.

I went to Bangladesh for the first time in September, 2003. I keenly realized the necessity of watching the nitty-gritty of poverty when I was interning at an international authority. People were poorer than I expected. Also I was really frightened. Everything was more than I could imagine.

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Photo by Eriko Yamaguchi  

She thought that two weeks was not enough for her to comprehend the actual state of Bangladesh. She entered a Bangladeshi graduate school to see more.

At that time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had looked for something I really would like to do for more than one year since then. But I didn’t want to go back to Japan until I found a way. That was an issue of my pride. I brushed aside everybody’s objection and went to Bangladesh. Everybody worried about my safety and I missed my home. But I abided there. I was suffering terribly enough to become neurotic. Sometimes I felt that I wished to die in an accident. I was suffering that much. I didn’t know what I want to do but I should do something, because I have been in a lucky circumstances in Japan. I had a really tough time in Bangladesh because of such conflict. But I couldn’t cry on someone’s shoulder because there were no one in the same generation people around me and there were only a few hundred Japanese people in the country, not in the city. I couldn’t get through and couldn’t receive any airmail so I had nothing to do but conduct inner dialogues with myself. Of course I had daily cares of life because of the lack of lifelines such as contaminated water. But I suffered much because I didn’t have a vision. That’s why I suffered. I think you’re great if you’ve found your dream or what you want to do. I feel so every time I interview applicants for our part-time staff.  

She was interning at the Dhaka office of a Japanese trading company. She inspected a small business convention under the order from her company and found a tattered bag which was made of “jute”. She looked into that material and learned that it was very strong and eco-friendly. “I want to make a cute and fancy bag with this material.” She found her dream at last.

I was looking for ways to revitalize the Bangladeshi economy or daily lives of people other than almsgiving. Then I found that business activities should serve as the driving force for economic growth and lead to better lives. But I didn’t know what to do. So when I found a jute bag, I thought it could be the answer that I had been looking for. Actually fair trade has been established as a method of assistance to developing nations, but its products weren’t attractive very much for me. If I buy one, I would pay at most 1000 yen (about US$10) for it. I thought that it would be sound and healthy if we could make many attractive products for young girls in developing countries. Also I wanted to be a buyer for those products.

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A simple jute bag in the Iriya shop of Motherhouse. It might remind her of the inspiration she felt when she first encountered it.  

She had strong aspirations to make cute and fancy bags. But she had no experience of bag designing at all.

But I really wanted to create cute ones. I don’t think you need to study designing at school in order to be a designer. I don’t care about common sense or precedent. I usually take those with a grain of salt. If you want to discover your or someone’s potential, you need to abandon your limited view. As for me, nobody believed that I would be able to realize my dream, “Establishing a brand in developing countries.” So I didn’t care about such a small thing like “a person who designs something should be a designer”. I wanted to give it a go.  

Then her days of trial began. She drew bag designs and showed them to factories everyday.

The hardest thing for me to set up my own business in Bangladesh was to build relationships of trust with people. It was difficult to be trusted by factory workers or a factory itself. “If I’m full of eagerness, they will respond to it.” I thought like that. But things didn’t go well because I was too self-conscious about how much I was doing good things for a factory. I learned that I had to get the credit or deliver certain results in order to be trusted or obtain the trust. So I had to make and sell bags all by myself. That was the only way to earn their trust. So I sold bags for dear life and made sales pitches for our products to any department store by myself. If I didn’t do those things at all, no matter how much I asked them to trust me or make good things with me, they wouldn’t have responded to those requests. Those would have sounded really spiritless for them. Many people in Bangladesh are living from hand to mouth. So things happening on the following day are much more important than things that will happen one year later for them. They have to survive on a day-to-day basis so “Bags are sold out!” are the only words that make them happy. No matter how much you tell them that they should take a long view and live positively, it’s worthless and the wrong advice for them. We and people in the international authorities tend to give them such kind of advice but it’s really wrong. If I’m asked to live on a dollar a day, I would think much more about the next day than the future. I accepted their circumstances, points of view and sense of value. Then I was able to start communicating with them. Japanese people generally have leeway. Many people aid us and they give us big help and advice without compensation. On the other hand, people don’t do that in Bangladesh. They cannot afford it at all.  

One day, her passport was stolen at a factory which made her bags. She trusted everyone so she really got shocked by that and suspected someone was involved in that case. She split with that factory and found another one. Then one day later on, that factory was gone.

I was driven to the wall many times but I didn’t want to quit my business. But when I was betrayed by a factory, I almost gave it up. I didn’t care about my public image at all when I started business in Bangladesh. So I wasn’t concerned about the cold looks from others even if I went home as a loser. All things aside, I would be dehumanized if I didn’t quit. I couldn’t believe even myself and I really felt that it was very difficult to believe others. I was afraid of being dehumanized and being mistrustful of others. Also I thought that I would have to believe people. So I thought I had to quit everything before I became a mental and physical wreck. But on the other hand, I thought that I wouldn’t trust other people at all for the rest of my life if I gave it up. So finally I thought that I would believe in myself, someone who worked hard to realize a dream. I decided to make one final push towards my dream of establishing a brand in developing countries. It’s really sad if you don’t believe in yourself. When I was practicing judo in high school, I wanted to make a step forward, one more step forward even if I got defeated. As well as that, I had nothing more to lose in Bangladesh when I almost gave up my dream. My money was stolen and I had no materials to make bags so I wasn’t concerned about putting an end to my business career at all. I had to do something without inhibition there. I cried for one week.  

She never wanted to be betrayed by anyone. So she decided to hire a local staff member of Motherhouse. Her ideal person was someone who understood the Japanese sense of beauty and value, could have a good relationship with a local factory and knew a lot about making bags. She knew only one person who met those conditions. Atif Dewan Rashid, a director of a Bangladesh design school. He used to be a manager of a top-class leather factory in Bangladesh.

I really think that Atif helped me a lot. Also I had great staff members in Japan and they were concerned for my welfare instead of complaining to me. They gave me mails and international calls and encouraged me a lot. At that time, we had no production site. That’s a fatal situation for a manufacturer, right? Our buyers were waiting for our bags, Department stores were waiting for our products. But my associates didn’t blame me at all and they told me, “Are you OK there?””Hang on!””Return here safely!” How wonderful it was! They are excellent people. So I could put the tragedy behind me. Actually, I’d met him before that. I had already told him that I wanted to start my own business back then. But he didn’t believe that I would be able to do so. I had to get a result and show it in order to be trusted by him. So when I met him again, I brought a magazine that mentioned my activities. Photos of my bags also on it so he trusted me.

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Atif Dewan Rashid *Interview with My Eyes Tokyo… Click! (Director of the local corporation of Motherhouse)  

Atif introduced a factory to her and she re-started bag making there with a national top-class pattern maker. Motherhouse’s range of merchandise expanded a lot. Yamaguchi held a new-product-release exhibition in March 2007, which marked the restart of Motherhouse and achieved a high measure of success. Then she opened her first shop in August 2007.

We had a lot of product variety in March 2007. Then Nikkei Shimbun (Japan’s newspaper which specializes publishing financial, business and industry news) dealt with our bags last April. After that we got many distributors but I didn’t expect that. After that, I was increasingly unable to interact with all the customers. I didn’t expect that either. I understood why we would have to have our own shop. Then we began to look for a space from last June and we opened a shop in last August.

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Working with a skillful pattern maker.

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Motherhouse New-product-release Exhibition (March 10, 2007)

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Staff members of Motherhouse did all of the carpentry work on their commemorative shop by themselves.

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Their first outlet opened. (August 21, ’07) MH’s second shop opened in March ’08 (right).  

We were surprised at her prompt action and concentration. Even if she didn’t study at all in high school, she studied really, really hard for only three months and passed the entrance exam for one of the topnotch universities in Japan. But on the other hand, she might think that a span of life is very short in my impression. For example, she went to Canada after she entered a university and studied English really hard there.Also she slept only two hours everyday and studied English because she wanted to be fluent in English in only two and a half months.

But it’s natural for me. Actually I studied very hard but I didn’t expect that I would come down. But as you say I came down accordingly. When I was practicing judo, I did it really hard and I could participate in the national judo championship but I practiced it to cast aside my painful past and to acquire physical strength. And when I took an entrance exam for Keio University, I thought that I would fail it and sent for a catalog of a cramming school because Keio was a topnotch university for me. But I passed it. I do things at my own pace. So I have some more things that I want to do. Even now I think I could do a lot more things than before.

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The cyclone devastated Bangladesh in November 2007. Yamaguchi went to devastated areas and delivered emergency supplies such as blankets, hot-water pots and so on.  

More questions to her.

Q. Did you think that you would get even with guys who bullied you? (Yamaguchi) No, never. Q. But I’ve heard what drove you to fly to Bangladesh was originally your experience with bullies. You couldn’t go to school because of that but there are many children who can’t go to school because of social circumstances. I guess all of your actions were inspired by such an experience. (Yamaguchi) Generally our characters are formed during that period between 7 and 11.

Even if I fell on hard times while I was in Bangladesh, it was not harder than things I went through in grade school.

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*Provided by Motherhouse Co.,Ltd.  

Click here to read more!

 

Yamaguchi’s Links

Motherhouse (Japanese): http://www.mother-house.jp/ Motherhouse Taiwan (Traditional Chinese): http://www.mother-house.tw/ Motherhouse Hong Kong (Traditional Chinese): http://www.mother-house.hk/