Portland to Tokyo, Tokyo to Portland, Business Class
What’s the hottest small business trend in Tokyo, Japan?
Anything, and seemingly everything, that has something to do with Portland, Oregon, be it clothing, beer, or bikes. Yep, even the doughnuts. A number of PDX-centric hot spots, like Blue Star Donuts, Voodoo Doughnuts and The Original Pancake House, have traveled from Portland to Tokyo, opening a second location half a world away.
Publications based in Japan—from major outlets such as Elle Japan and GQ Japan to smaller trend-loving periodicals like Coyote and Popeye—have spent tons of print and digital ink on all things Portland.
The Japan Times explains the fixation as a marketing ploy to satisfy armchair tourists: “These new Tokyo eateries are selling themselves through their connection to hip American cities and neighborhoods. They offer a chance for young consumers in Japan to experience places that appear in TV shows and films, without traveling abroad.”
Portland’s alternative weekly, Willamette Week, recently devoted a cover story exploring why Tokyo is “obsessed with our city.” Portland Monthly and other U.S. publications have also written extensively about this trend.
But the trend isn’t just a curiosity in Portland. Several popular Japanese brands and businesses who are broadening their reach and opening up locations outside of that island country for the first time are doing so in, of all places, the rose-tinted city of Portland.
That’s why Portland has recently become home to outposts of such popular Japanese eateries as Afuri, Kizuki, and Marukin.
The Tokyo connection
On the surface, this symbiotic relationship between one of the biggest and one of the smallest cities in the world might seem unlikely. Tokyo’s metropolitan area includes 37 million residents, while Portland is home to just 600,000. The two cities are 5,000 miles apart. And World War II’s internment camps in Oregon created distrust and despair in Japan and Portland’s Japanese community.
Forgive the cultural generalizations here, but Tokyo is all hustle, bustle, and a strict adherence to rules that will get you ahead and keep you in line. Portland is chill and laid-back. Whether or not it’s accurate, the TV show “Portlandia” promotes the city as the place young people go to “retire.”
There is another difference that is, perhaps, even more fundamental. Japanese society is significantly group-oriented. The form of character-building that instills these values is called seishin shuyo. American culture all about the individual, and Portland is a great exemplar of that drive to be different, right down to its catch-phrase, “Keep Portland Weird.”
So what’s up with this cross-cultural love affair? Why are there so many Portland-grown small businesses in Tokyo and so many businesses that got their start in Tokyo popping up in Portland? Do opposites really attract?
From Portland to Tokyo
Mitzu Yamazaki, an international business development officer for the Portland Development Commission (PDC), answers with an emphatic yes. He once went so far as refer to Portland as a “kind of a new ideal, a utopia” for many citizens of Japan.
He should know.
Yamazaki is one of the major players in the Portland to Tokyo connection. He’s written a book about local city planning that has become a bio-swale-friendly bible for the Japanese business community: Portland—Making the Most Livable City in the World. He helped orchestrate “Popup Portland,” a business development showcase and export mission that features small businesses from Portland and takes place each year in Tokyo.
Most of all, he works diligently to make sure there is communication between these two diverse places and cultures, specifically across their small business communities.
The enormous difference between stereotypical Tokyo culture and that of Portland may be the heart of the smaller city’s appeal. “Lifestyle change is the single biggest factor in today’s Japanese fascination [with] Portland culture,” Yamazaki explains. “Twenty-plus years of economic stagnation, [and a] series of huge natural and man-made disasters made many Japanese people realize that there is more to life than being successful in a conventional modern Japanese way, which focuses on efficiency, scaling and elitism, and financial success.”
Yamazaki notes that the elements of Portland’s small business community adopted by Tokyo small businesses are all part of a slower lifestyle. He points to the establishment of farm-to-table and organic food restaurants and a growing craft beer scene across Japan.
Add to the allure of the laid-back, the appeal of a kind of balance.
“[In Japan] Portland is known for being a small town—organic food, quality over quantity, the urban/rural balance—and all of that inspires a very different, and quite opposite, way of life,” says Yamazaki. “And yet people in Portland seem to be more satisfied with their lives, especially compared to business people in Tokyo!”
According to an article in Atlas Obscura, “The effort to bring Portland to life in Tokyo is being led by a handful of small business owners who have a personal connection to the West Coast city known for its quirkiness and creativity.” Those local businesses include Paddlers Coffee, Burn Side St. Cafe, Tokyo Whiskey Club and PDX Taproom, all of whom feature Portland themes and products.
Yamazaki points to something more than just temporary transplants who might have just lived here in college and now have returned home to their Japanese roots. A lot of the cross-over is the result of marketing and promotion. He acknowledges the work of Travel Portland and their lifestyle and cultural promotion for the last ten to fifteen years by way of tourism-related public relations and marketing. It’s been effective. Willamette Week refers to statistics tracked by Visa that “nearly 60,000 Japanese visited Portland in 2015, an increase of almost 50 percent since 2013.”
And then there are the unpredictable oddities that draw folks from one place to another. “In the 1980’s there was a TV drama series called ‘From Oregon With Love’ that became popular. [Japanese] people in their 50’s and 60’s still have the idea that Oregon is super rural and beautiful without knowing anything about Portland,” says Yamazaki. He notes the semiconductor business surge during the 80’s helped, too.
That was then, this is now.
Contemporary Portland-centric trends are proving popular as well, like DIY bike repair, “glamping” (luxurious camping), reclaimed wood uses in interior decorating, and even the plaid-and-beard-friendly “Lumbersexual” look.
Most recently, PDC has been trying to highlight business as an aspect of Portland’s popularity with tourists by connecting, promoting, and assisting export transactions for local companies. It has focused on green building and design services such as “We Build Green Cities,” as well as craft makers/designers, like Popup Portland. Both were original participants of the Metro Export Initiative begun in 2012.
“The ‘We Build Green Cities’ initiative has resulted in about ten projects for local design firms in Japan,” says Yamasaki. “And 20-plus companies have participated in Popup Portland over the last three years. Most of them have signed on with distributors and in total sold about a million dollars’ worth, collectively.”
Despite its geographical distance from Tokyo, Portland is still the closest U.S. city with a direct flight to Tokyo. Factor in that Japan is Oregon’s highest priority market, and the cost of doing business in Portland starts to look good. There are investment opportunities in Portland and, Yamazaki notes, “It’s cheaper to invest here than Californian cities or Seattle.”
Both cities “focus on creativity, design, the high quality of things and authenticity,” observes Yamasaki. “I believe, after the fad fades, more subtle but focused cultural exchange will continue for a long time. There are many layers of cultural and economical ties between Portland and Japan that can be further developed. More people will travel to Portland as tourists, students, businesses, designers, artists, and even government agencies.”
Add it all up, and, as dissimilar as Portland and Tokyo might be, Yamazaki sees a relationship that will only get stronger.