Aw Wanping (Singapore)
One day we received a message on LinkedIn that said, “I came across one of your interviews and wonder if it would be possible to be interviewed.” This message was sent to us by an entrepreneur from Singapore. However, looking at her background, most of her experience was as a researcher in the medical field.
The website of her company, TokudAw, introduced not only her but also her co-owners, but we were still very curious about how she started her own business in the travel field with almost no experience there. However, after listening to her story, we were convinced – Seemingly unfavorable situations led her company to the blue ocean.
*Interview at TokudAw (Bunkyo-ku)
The land of the rising sun is a land of studying
Japan has a lot of tourism resources. It has four seasons, there are a lot of delicious food, nice onsens, and great nature. And you can enjoy shopping here. Japan has everything you want.
But don’t forget. Japan can be one of their choices to study something.
I was so shocked when I first told people around me that I would go to Japan for a master’s or doctoral degree and they wondered why. They do not see Japan as a place to study. But I feel Japan is more advanced technically than many other countries. Nowadays a lot of Japanese universities have created programs in English for those who come from abroad to study and hire international faculties. So I don’t think there’s any difference from studying at universities in other foreign countries.
I’ve been a researcher in the biomedical field for about 15 years and still work at university. However, I can plan tours that other people in the travel industry could not conceive of, like educational tours which take students from different countries to Japan, to gain practical knowledge about the advancements in the particular field in Japan and experience the Japanese way of life.
Also, I can use my background to organize wellness and health tours. Japan is a wonderful destination for those who care about their health. Apart from the advancements in diagnostic technologies for medical health checkups and various types of treatment, Japan is also really a good destination to explore complementary therapy. For example, there is hot spring therapy where each onsen has their own different benefits. I also have a strong background in nutritional therapy, so I can help them book accommodation that serves healthy meals, or I can ask them to create a new menu for those who are coming to Japan to recuperate themselves. I can also explain the health benefits of eating delicious Japanese food! In addition, I know the good hospitals or clinics because I’ve been in the medical field for a long time. We often help people with illnesses or disabilities through our tours. We try to make the best recommendations we can so that our guests can have a good outcome.
These are our unique strengths. But they are not the result of our strategy, they are just the result of various experiences in my life.
“Japan has no future”
I came to Japan in 2008, but I have been living away from my home country since I was 16 years old.
I was born in Singapore, but my family wanted me to go to university abroad because studying overseas was popular there. I went to Australia and lived in Brisbane for 3 years. I felt that life there was a bit boring, especially at night because I grew up in Singapore, which is a real metropolis. I wanted to go shopping after school, but shops closed at 8pm and supermarkets closed at 9pm.
So I spent a lot of time watching Japanese drama and anime and listening to Japanese music. I originally liked Japanese manga such as “Boys Over Flowers” (花より男子 Hana Yori Dango) when I was a secondary school student in Singapore, then I got interested in learning the Japanese language. But my mother didn’t allow me to do so because she thought that Japan’s bubble economy has burst and there would be no future for Japan anymore. She forced me to learn German or French and I chose French, but I quit after 3 months.
However, I became immersed in Japanese culture after I said bye to my family. Nobody cared what I was doing, so I took some basic Japanese classes at the University of Queensland, located in Brisbane. They had an international exchange program where we could stay with Japanese families for three weeks. I went to Komazawa University in Tokyo through that program and I took Japanese classes. Also I joined tourist-like activities such as experiencing zen meditations, getting away to Disneyland, Shibuya, and Asakusa with my classmates, then I hung out with my host family at night. I loved life in Japan, so I decided to take master’s and doctoral programs at graduate schools in Japan. People in Singapore tend to think that they should be a doctor, dentists, bankers, or lawyers in order to be successful. I was interested in science so I majored the medical science at university. I wanted to work at a pharmaceutical company to develop drugs.
I went to the graduate school of Tokyo Medical and Dental University, then I continued to do research at RIKEN (理研, or 理化学研究所: Institute of Physical and Chemical Research) as a student trainee. My Professor at Tokyo Medical and Dental University recommended I worked as a student intern under his friend at RIKEN. I was really impressed that there were many people from overseas working together. But after the Great East Japan Earthquake, a lot of people including my mentor from Georgia left Japan. Also, it was very hard for foreign researchers to find a permanent position. Then I moved to the University of Tokyo to research nutritional science, studying under a laboratory sponsored by Nestle. I was always very interested in nutraceutical sciences as it is a very big market as my mom used to purchase lots of nutritional supplements for me to consume, but she could never provide a scientifically convincing reason for me. I wanted to be someone who could provide concrete scientific evidence behind the nutritional products we consumed, so I switched to this field. My goal was to become a professor at a university at that time.
Entrepreneurial spirit ignites
While I was involved in research as a Ph.D. candidate, I won a prestigious research grant in the field of metabolomics for students. I met my current boss, Professor Masaru Tomita, at Keio University because the competition was held by Human Metabolome Technologies, which was launched by Tomita. He told me about the opening position at the university, so I joined them as a staff researcher. Many members of the Tomita Laboratory and his ex-students have their own startup company and he always told us to think out of the box and challenge ourselves. Two of my favorite quotes from Professor Tomita are “The real breakthrough always sounds like a horror story at first” and “You score zero points for being normal”. After being in that environment for a long time, I gradually got interested in starting my own business.
Let me backtrack a bit. I met the man from Taiwan who would later become my husband when I was staying at the RIKEN’s dormitory in Kanagawa Prefecture. He was working at a small bus company in Tokyo with a Japanese man, who would later become my business partner. They were involved in the inbound tourism, but they couldn’t speak English so I helped them as a freelancer. My mother was running a school dormitory for foreign students in Singapore so I grew up with Taiwanese, Filipinos, Malaysians, and so on. Also, I stayed at a dormitory for international students in Japan and enjoyed talking to them. I could make use of such experiences of mine when communicating with foreign tourists to Japan.
I remembered that it was really fun and fulfilling for me to see our guests having a great time with our efforts, so I decided to start a business in the tourism industry while other researchers’ startups were related to their research. I obtained the necessary certifications after learning at a school for a year and a permanent residency in Japan to start my own business in the travel industry. Just when everything was ready for the startup, the Coronavirus struck Japan.
Always think differently
“Why is that happening at this time?” I was so disappointed, but Tokuda san, my Japanese business partner, said, “We always should do something different from what others are doing.” We should think differently to succeed in business, so we decided to start our company in September 2020, amid the pandemic.
For the first year, we had no tourists at all. So we tried to export products made in various parts of Japan to foreign countries, but that business didn’t work out because we had no trade experience. We were wondering what we should do, then the opportunity came – Tokyo Olympics.
We joined the project which was organized by Omega, a Swiss luxury watchmaker and one of the official sponsors of the Olympics. A lot of people were working with Omega and we were in charge of the staff transportation by bus. This was the beginning of our business getting off the ground, and then finally Japan’s borders have been opened. A lot of travelers have returned to Japan!
I think we are a good team because each of us has a different skill set. Tokuda san has much business experience at an apparel company and a bus company. So he knows how to negotiate prices with other companies and he tells me a lot of things such as how to make a budget sheet and how to calculate the margins and profits. My husband has a lot of contacts in Taiwan so he is in charge of the Taiwan market while I take care of the English-speaking countries. Also, he works as a CFO of our company and helps me with pricing, etc. Other things such as offering concierge services, contacting bus drivers, and preparing itineraries are outsourced to people outside our company or part-timers, but we would like to hire more people to do those things in-house.
Our customers are mainly from Singapore and Taiwan. Also, I got interviewed by CNBC and BBC, then we’ve had customers from the US as well. In the future, we would like to expand our market to America, Europe, and Australia because people from those countries are really interested in Japanese culture. On the other hand, we do not have contacts with people from Mainland China, but it’s OK because a lot of companies already take care of them.
Do you remember what I said? We believe that we should think differently in order to succeed!
What is Tokyo to you?
It’s my home now.
When I return to Tokyo not only from overseas but also from outside the city, even Narita Airport, I feel I came back home. And I’ve been away from Singapore for almost 20 years and it has changed a lot, so I forgot what it looked like. So I do not miss my home much. Just meeting my Singaporean guests or speaking to my mom on the phone makes me happy. My guests from Singapore know that I may miss home and always bring me nice gifts from home, which are so sweet and kind from them.
Nobody cares about me in Tokyo so I feel free to try many new things and it’s fun here.
What is Japan to you?
It’s a country that has given me a lot of opportunities. So I want to cherish it and give something back to Japan.
We hope non-Japanese and Japanese learn from each other so that everybody can improve and fewer misunderstandings occur. In order to realize it, both of them should be open-minded and flexible.
This is how we build a better society together and we’d like to contribute to that through our business.