Interviewed by Isao Tokuhashi
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Since 2015, we have shared the journeys of foreign visitors and introduced questions that they have had for Japanese people (Click!). Now, we will be bringing you a new series of interviews that highlights foreign staff working at Japanese companies. Through their eyes, we’ll get to learn unique perspectives on Japan and its corporate culture. To kick things off, for our first interview we have…
Kyodo Public Relations Co.,Ltd.
Originally founded in 1964, Kyodo PR is one of Japan’s major PR companies. Among its handful of foreign employees, is Don Kimball who was kind enough to share with us his story (in fluent Japanese).
From Boston to Shiga
My close friends all call me “Donny” but I don’t use it at work. For some reason when people add the suffix -san to Donny, it makes me feel like I’m walking by a maid café or something like that in Akihabara (not that I visit such places). Instead, I use Don at the office and Donny everywhere else.
Though my main line of work is what I do at Kyodo PR, I’ve also launched my own media outlet as a side hustle called “Your Guide to Real Japan.” The goal of this endeavor is to show foreign tourists the underappreciated charms of Japan. To this end, I often introduce off-the-beaten-path destinations like Mito or Kusatsu that lack awareness among western tourists.
I originally came up with the idea while traveling during Golden Week 2016. I had been planning to develop a personal brand for myself as a marketing expert but was I reluctant to talk about social media ON social media. Instead, I came up with the idea of using inbound tourism as a means of displaying my skill set.
How I came to this point in my life is a bit of a wild tale. Though I originally hail from Boston, I spent most of my formative years in Shiga Prefecture. Since then, I’ve been back and forth between the States and Japan a lot but every time I go to America, it always feels like a foreign country to me. I guess you can take the boy out of Japan but not the Japan out of the boy…
When meeting Japanese people, I am often asked what brought me to Shiga Prefecture in the first place. The truth of the matter is that it has amazing access to both countryside regions like the Hokuriku region as well as Osaka, Kyoto and even Nagoya. Shiga was the perfect place for my family’s research as it provided perspective about both the urban and suburban cultures.
When I was younger, my family had never intended to be in Japan as long as we ended up being here. As such, during my stay in Japan, I only ever attended an international school in Kyoto. Eventually, though I returned to Boston for high school before entering a university in Michigan. Thereafter, I returned to Japan as an exchange student and realized I did not want to go back to the States so I transferred into Temple University Japan.
Following my graduation from Temple University, I went on to pursue a Master’s degree in Japanese Studies at Sophia University with a heavy focus on Social Psychology. For my research, I studied the importance of narrative in the creation of an individual’s drive and what happens when that story is then lost. In the formulation of my thesis, I interviewed the likes of social recluses (hikikomori) and others on the fringes of Japanese society.
A Direction Given by Fate
I had originally been planning to continue my studies through to a PhD. but life intervened along the way. Fortunately, just when I was questioning what to do, an unforeseen career opportunity presented itself. Through an acquaintance, I was given a shot at joining Kyodo PR’s international team as an assistant. While I wasn’t so keen at first about joining a traditional company due to fears of excessive overtime, I figured that it would be a good and useful experience. Back then, I figured that I could always pivot into entrepreneurship if needed.
In a way I could have never predicted, my life changed in an instant during my interview with the international department at Kyodo PR. During part of the interview process, the door suddenly flew open and a peculiar woman from one of the actual account services teams stormed into the room. Before even getting her name, I was already being interrogated on whether or not I could translate a press release from Japanese to English.
While at the time I was definitely shocked and thought this too may had been part of the interview, the encounter was actually how I met my current boss. Ever since she barged into that room, we have been very close and have gone on to win a lot of international business together. I’m eternally grateful to her for taking a chance on me. After all, I am the first westerner to EVER join one of Kyodo PR’s account teams so she really went out on a limb for me.
Since joining the agency in 2013, after such a memorable recruiting procedure, I’ve been in charge of the PR strategy of foreign-affiliated companies, Japanese firms and inbound tourism companies. In the nearly five years that I’ve been at Kyodo PR, I’ve handled the local launch of many multi-nationals while also overseeing the PR strategy for many domestic and international travel-related companies.
When it comes to my presence online, I’ve been able to leverage my background as a researcher and my PR expertise for great gain. This has created an interesting synergy where my own website has acted as a quasi-resume when pitching to prospective clientele. I often tell some of our clients about my own website “Your Guide to Real Japan” to call their attention to my information transmission ability towards overseas markets.
In the future, I’d like to use the Kyodo PR brand name to better sell my social media abilities to those working in inbound tourism. Despite the fact that Japan is constantly setting records for the number of visitors from abroad, the country’s marketing initiatives evoke the early 2000s. Furthermore, if you look at the data, most western tourists only are aware of major destinations like Mt. Fuji, Hiroshima and Kyoto and this is leading to overcrowding at such destinations.
As if the sheer number of tourists at places like Kiyomizudera was not enough, repeat visitors are actually looking for something more from their second and third visits. They are yearning for authentic experiences where they can connect deeply with the local culture. This is a challenge I’m trying to tackle on my web magazine but the problem is a big one and not something I can handle alone.
How to Appeal to Foreign Visitors
Context is key to getting more tourists off the so-called “golden route” of Tokyo and Kyoto. Without a narrative or story to follow, those not familiar with Japan cannot fathom the importance of a place like Atsuta Jingu that isn’t well known. If you give them something tangible to follow though, I find that they will eagerly consider adding more hidden gems to their already packed itineraries.
To see how this plays out, take for example Ibaraki Prefecture’s Kashima Jingu. Not only is this shrine the origin of Nara’s deer, but it is also very important to kendo and kenjutsu. Unfortunately though, this fact is largely unknown, even to foreign practitioners of martial arts. If the shrine did a better job telling its story, it could greatly increase the number of international patrons. Since few entities are proving these kinds of narratives, I have taken up the call to arms to convey these charms to foreign tourists.
One thing I’d like to point out is that getting off the beaten path does not mean going to obscure and far away spots. There are many everyday attractions (like Yurakucho’s hole-in-the-wall izakayas) that can feel authentic to foreign visitors. From a Japanese person’s perspective, these are nothing particularly special but these are indeed memories that visitors will ultimately cherish. Unfortunately, there are barely any foreigners involved in the planning of Japan’s marketing so these insights get missed all the time.
It’s high time that those responsible for promoting Japan start marketing the country like it were soon to be 2020. The country still puts huge emphasis on outdated resources like ‘flyers’ and ‘posters’ when in reality their recipients view these as a mere nuisance. As the world continues to change every day, it’s time for those in charge of domestic tourism to finally step up to the plate and make the shift towards digital storytelling. It is my hope that through my personal brand and my work at Kyodo PR, that I will be able to break through the noise and help more businesses related to inbound tourism find success.
Question: When will Japan learn that more hours worked is not the answer?