Interviewed by Isao Tokuhashi
Edited by Emma Withro
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Anthony S Porter (Canada)
Photo by Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO
At the end of January 2016, My Eyes Tokyo was covered by Tech In Asia, the Singapore-based online media resource, which features startup and investor information in Asian countries. The article garnered plenty of likes and audience feedback and resulted in a new friendship with a particular individual who, of all the feedback, reached out personally to meet. The man we’ll introduce you to today shared advice on ways MET could strengthen its role and support in the online community.
Michael Anthony S Porter is a new media entrepreneur with business school chops and broad experience in Japanese media. He takes full advantage of his experience and knowledge to Japanese media startups and is launching a global streaming cinema platform here in Japan at the time of this writing. We decided to cover his story in return for his outreach, support, and friendship.
*Interview in Tamachi (Minato-ku)
Encountering Japan in School
I was born in Canada’s most western capital of Victoria, British Columbia to a Filipino/Chinese/Malaysian mother and British/German father – I’m a mixed kid like my parents. The neighborhood I grew up in, in the early 80’s, was a place where kids rode around on BMX and dirt bikes and wore heavy metal t-shirts. Few had exposure to people of other nationalities, so anyone with black hair, like mine, was considered Chinese. Maybe I resembled the Asian kid in the Goonies movie at the time; at any rate, it was easier to say I was Canadian and deal with confused reactions.
Growing up my mother sacrificed a lot to send me to a nice school she probably shouldn’t have, but I guess that’s what mothers do and looking back, I wouldn’t be in Japan now if she hadn’t done it. Through this nice school, I met another mixed kid who became my best friend and who’s half Japanese and Canadian. His mother as it were, was our Japanese teacher through grade school and with time became like a second mother. It was a requirement for the school to teach particular languages and from kindergarten we studied English, French, and Japanese. It wasn’t until after the 5th grade that we could switch the third language, but I chose to continue with Japanese and stay with it through high school.
Because of my childhood experiences I always thought I would visit Japan, but never imagined living here.
A chance to work in Japan
I graduated high school in 2000, and secured a soccer scholarship to a university known for journalism on Canada’s east coast. At that point, soccer was everything to me – my earliest childhood memories are of the 1986 Mexico World cup. Unfortunately, even in the late 90’s, a formal footy league didn’t exist, so a career in that track was risky. My love for football was strong, but my dream was to fly and although these plans didn’t work out, I still think about getting my license.
Soon after graduation, I was accepted into flight school in Seattle. I had family support, however a couple weeks before I was to begin training things fell apart and my mother apologized and explained flight school wouldn’t be feasible. It was simply too expensive and having already turned down the soccer scholarship, it was too late to take the opportunity back. This was my first missed opportunity and my first experience dealing with uncertainty; I felt pretty lost and didn’t know what to do.
To keep moving forward, I started interviewing for different part-time jobs and came across a Japanese company. Because they weren’t a local employer, I was curious to see if their hiring process would be similar or different to interviews I had been going to. The company was a publisher from Nagoya and was hiring for work on their children’s books. I didn’t have any expectations for that interview and a few weeks later they extended an offer to join them in Japan. Unfortunately, I couldn’t leave right then as I was still trying to figure out my situation. They were generous enough to give me time and to let them know if I decided to take up their offer.
After that I worked at Starbucks to earn some money and get a little work experience. I worked there for several months before contacting the publishing company again to politely thank them for their consideration and that I wouldn’t be taking the offer. I was naïve to think that if I were to travel to Japan, I should come to Tokyo and not Nagoya. Before leaving Canada, everyone thought I would be working for the publishing company, but in fact I hadn’t told anyone I had turned the job down.
A fool with a ticket in hand and no job, I made my way to Japan and arrived in May 2001. With some fortunate timing and luck a friend’s family was generous to take me in for a time while I got acquainted with Tokyo. Looking back, I can’t imagine what I would have done after landing at Narita Airport without that first connection.
For better or worse, as a teenager you don’t really know what you’re doing – you learn as you go. And though you don’t fully understand consequences of what you’re doing, you mindlessly do it anyway and somehow manage.
Japan World Cup 2002 Desperation
In Tokyo with no work, it was suggested I could try teaching English. Not knowing anything about it, I happened to apply to one of Japan’s more respectable language schools and worked there until the following year when my visa was ready to expire. Of course, as a footy fan and player, I wanted to stay for the World Cup, which was set to begin the following month in June 2002, but with my visa ending in May it wasn’t looking hopeful.
Adding to this, colleagues were convinced it wasn’t possible to upgrade to regular work permit from a working holiday visa. With a little hope, I wrote immigration a letter detailing my experiences in Japan and submitted it with my visa renewal application. In the letter I explained what I had enjoyed, what I had accomplished, and that one year was too short. I expressed my future goals if an extension was possible and asked for a one-year visa extension. It’s impossible to know for certain if the letter influenced my application, but when my visa notification was returned for pick up I had been issued a 3-year work permit. This experience became one of the most valuable of my life.
The lesson learned: it’s better to try and fail than never knowing what the outcome could have been. Prepare the best you can, make an effort, and ask because if there’s anything that appears unattainable you might be surprised. It’s cliché, yes, and so true: don’t ask, don’t get.
By my second or third year, I had settled into Tokyo-living and it was around this time my mother began asking when I was returning home to finish university. The reality was, I was doing well on my own and meeting all kinds of people, playing soccer and simply making my world as big as I could.
Stepping into the World of Media
Through footy, a teammate offered to set me up with an interview at his company, Aflo Co. a well-known photo and media agency in Tokyo. The interviews were successful and took the job.
Initially, my work was focused on re-launching the company’s English version website, but my responsibilities grew to include international partnership negotiations and channel sales. The opportunities and flexibility were incredibly fulfilling and I enjoyed expanding our global reach through collaboration with our overseas partners.
Due to the nature of the job, I began identifying inefficiencies within our digital production processes that could be improved and it was through this experience I realized I had an eye for process issues in overcomplicated workflows and designing efficient solutions. After raising the issue to my manager and proposing changes to improve the digital workflow, we were able to reduce content processing time from 3 weeks to less than a few days.
Aflo is the official Olympic photo team to the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) and between event years they focus on domestic editorial sports, news, and entertainment photography. At the time, our still photographers would cover events, but it was also in our best interest to document entertainment events by video because of the increase in motion clips online and our entertainment-focused partners overseas at the time. With a steady flow of inbound Hollywood celebrities to promote Japan film releases, I took charge of interviewing and documenting these individuals, editing the clips, and selling them to our overseas partners. These efforts helped jumpstart motion video sales in the company, which grew into a healthy revenue stream and continues today.
While at Aflo, a close friend and I would often attend private brand events across Tokyo for fun and meet new people. He worked for a well-known street fashion and culture magazine and with our combined access and time spent at events we decided to launch a side-project online to document our adventures. We achieved a noticeable level of success and were approached by large brands like Ralph Lauren or Reebok to cover their events. We were getting more attention, but unfortunately when difficult decisions needed to be made, it became clear that our small team wanted to keep it a fun project. Although another missed opportunity, it was a decision we could all be happy with.
Back to School
Following the decision to keep our side-project small, I committed to a university education. There were a couple of reasons for this: first, I fell in love and second, I wanted my mother to stop worrying. Everyone knows how tough things were after Lehman shock and it was even tougher to find work without university credentials. In order to move forward I needed to return to school.
To get my bachelors I knew it would be a 4-year commitment and at 28 years old, 4 years felt like forever. I was determined to get my credentials in less time and applied to graduate school instead to see how they would respond. Similar to the visa experience in my early 20’s, I asked and expected to be rejected, because that would be the logical outcome. Not long after my submission, I received a call from the admissions department – not to reject me, but to request proof I could perform at the graduate level.
Long story short, the faculty eventually accepted my application into the program and, about week prior to the 2011 Fukushima earthquake, I left Japan after 10 years. Faced with a new chapter, I was close to family again and working towards my credentials and couldn’t have imagined a better outcome. University became the only priority and I looked forward to graduate and return to Japan. Many of the subjects were typical of business school and came naturally due to my experience in Japan making the coursework enjoyable and engaging.
Of my cohort, I was initially part of a selection for an exchange at a University in Munich, which, through university bureaucracy, did not happen. Feeling robbed of an experience beyond my control, I responded by getting into Harvard Business School. This happened, very ironically, because I did not do the exchange in Europe.
Acceptance into Harvard Business School was and still remains a surprising unpredictable series of events. Since I hadn’t gone to Munich, I ended up in a negotiations class. My professor, a retired European businessman, took me aside one morning to ask where I had learned to negotiate since my approach was effective and I explained it was because of my role at Aflo.
This professor became a good friend and mentor and strongly recommended applying to Harvard Business School. The suggestion was laughable and I didn’t take it seriously because it wasn’t realistic. I wanted to finish school and return to Japan, but thankfully he was persistent. The application was no easy task, but was accepted and the rest is history.
By the end of my Harvard experience, 4 years had passed since leaving Tokyo and much of my time had been spent away from work. To get by I worked in healthcare as a business analyst on a large government-mandated IT project. Working in healthcare was an enriching experience, but I needed something more challenging and eventual conversations with friends combined with my graduate thesis clarified my passion to introduce a more effective technology-focused platform to the film industry.
It’s been almost 2 years since returning to Tokyo and I feel as if I’m looking at Tokyo with fresh eyes. My experience this time has raised more questions and been more introspective. I returned to media and then decided to leave in order to invest more time in launching a streaming cinema platform here. Thankfully I have met good people, supportive people, who have been eager to help with introductions or other means. Currently, I am on the path to raising funds and have been meeting with VC’s and other interested investors. Each meet-up and discussion is another step towards being able to support the distributed international team that has already dedicated much time to create a beautiful product people love. Although we’re in the early stages, we understand the depth of this opportunity and we’re prepared to go all the way.
So why launch from Tokyo? There are a few reasons. Japan has a very strong national brand that is recognized globally. The international community knows Japan as being very high-tech, high quality, traditional, modern, humble, honest, but also quirky and weird. It’s a reputation that is well perceived. In the greater cinema world, Japan has a unique historical significance – Kurosawa, Ozu, Miyazaki and many more. How different would Star Wars be without the influence of Kurosawa? The recognition and intrigue Japan maintains within the international film community is deep. In 2016, Mercari (Japanese flea market app) and the Pokemon Company have shown, Japan is capable of competing at a global level and Japanese people can be proud of this. Understandably, Japan is a risk-averse nation, but the entrepreneurs here see this as an opportunity and many unseen individuals are striving to prove their value.
What is Tokyo to you?
A city of opportunity.
With the ongoing battle for balance between traditional norms and modern ideals, I feel there’s significant upside potential. As many understand, change happens slowly here, but can shift in the blink of an eye once accepted and adopted. What’s more, the cultural aversion to risk means those who are able and willing to tolerate it, are at an advantage to create unique value.
Greater Tokyo is the world’s largest megacity at 38 million people according to the United Nations. In the year the Tokyo Olympics arrive, the downward population trend will become more pronounced, but Tokyo will remain a significant metropolis at 37 million inhabitants in 2030. Though very unlikely, the trend if left unchecked could see two Japanese people left in the nation in 1,500 years; a humorous thought.
Considering the targets for inbound tourism as examples: 40m by 2020 and 60m by 2030, if even 0.25% of those individuals decided to remain longer term, it could help counter the demographic trend. Admittedly, there are faster growing Asian cities without demographic issues and there is more depth to this subject, such as the transition of wealth, excessive money in the ‘system’, automation, technology etc., but the reality is few places share the uniqueness, size, and charm of Tokyo. My point is not to highlight immigration, but to bring attention to the changes that will happen. Simply, Tokyo will experience increased diversity and perspectives and this will create potential opportunities.
In my eyes, Tokyo is a city of opportunity. It’s a place you can learn, grow, and achieve in if you’re open to it. You can constantly challenge your comfort zones, test yourself, fail, and adjust. You can live as fast or slow as you want, be as private or public as you want.
Tokyo is a place where if you can survive the nuances and unspoken communication, looking back, you’ll be amazed with the story you have created for yourself.