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SUCHETA BAL FOR THE PORTLAND DEVELOPMENT COMMISSION - Cool local companies visited Tokyo at the end of April, with the help of the Portland Development Commission to fan the flames of Japan's love affair with Portland. Here Teisuke Morimoto of TKC productions meets Dan Powell of Portland Design Works. Teisuke is Dan's distributor in Japan. Officials say it could be the harbinger of much bigger foreign direct investment here, as Japan's economy booms in the run up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Minutes before President Obama’s speech in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership at Nike headquarters last week, he met with some small businesses.


They were hand picked by Oregon Jobs Through Trade because, in theory, if it passed they could export way more wine, leather satchels, bike parts...the stuff the locals are good at.

One of them was Egg Press, a letterpress greeting card company based in the Schoolhouse Electric Building in Northwest Portland. They make the sort of handmade works on paper ($5 for a card) that are a pleasure to touch, as well as accessories such as fabric pen cases ($35). Obama said that if certain tariffs were abolished under the deal, Egg Press could sell a lot more cards in Japan.

Local economic developers have been working on this Big-in-Japan policy for years. The latest in a series of visits came April 18 to 24, 2015. A delegation set up Pop Up Portland, a mini expo in the arches of the former train station Maach Ecute in the Akihabara neighborhood. The aim was to sell the idea of Portland cool to the Japanese. (It’s reminiscent of Cool Britannia from the Tony Blair years in Britain, when music, design and art were pushed by top politicians.) As well as Egg Press wares, they showed off shoes, iPhone cases and bike accessories. The business owners were on hand to tell their stories. So were 12 translators, including several former Portland State students.

The Portland Development Commission targeted Japanese TV shows, glossy magazines and a few hip bloggers, as well as buyers for retail stores and boutiques. The result, within two weeks, was 55 articles or mentions, and 1,000 likes on Facebook.

“We were trying to target tastemakers and the ones who read the trends,” says Mitsu Yamazaki, International Business Development Officer at the PDC.

SUCHETA BAL FOR THE PORTLAND DEVELOPMENT COMMISSION - Pop Up Portland participants during media event at Maach eCute venue. It was a three-day mini expo in the video game Akihabara neighborhood of Tokyo, where buyers, media and public could meet hip Oregon artisans and soak up their stories. “It was very design-centric, products with great look and feel. Not luxury goods, more like authentic design.”

Sucheta Bal, who is PDC’s Business Development Manager for the Athletic & Outdoor Industry, was also on the trip.

“We sent out hand made invitations and people arrived holding them, like it was more valuable than just another email,” says Bal. She explains that many Japanese people, who have always had a love of perfect packaging and presentation and a strong sense of less-is-more, are Tier 3 consumers.

“Tier 1 consumers just want a deal. Tier 2, like the middle class in China, have money and want brands. Tier 3 don’t want Gucci, they want something better than that.”

SUCHETA BAL FOR THE PORTLAND DEVELOPMENT COMMISSION - Pop Up Portland participants during media event at Maach eCute venue. It was a three-day mini expo in the video game Akihabara neighborhood of Tokyo, where buyers, media and public could meet hip Oregon artisans and soak up their stories. “Tier 3 will to pay more for something no one else knows about,” adds Yamazaki. “The Japanese don’t just buy stuff. It’s carefully planned. They do things strategically.” Apparently they like Oregonians’ small batch, hand made, high-quality ethos. They’re ready for a $3 donut that tastes of pesto.

Targeting the media worked. After a similar 2014 trip to Kyoto and Tokyo, Vogue Japan and fashion magazines Popeye, and Brutus all went overboard with Portland content. A Japanese designer Teruo Kurosaki published the guidebook “True Portland: The Unofficial Guide for Creative People” which sold 20,000 copies and has 20,000 more in its second run.

“You see Japanese people walking up North Mississippi Street holding Popeye looking for the places in it,” says Bal.

The trip didn’t generate big sales. The PDC says last year the companies involved sold $2,500 worth of goods, while this year it was around $15,000, with other deals and orders in the pipeline.

But they are confident they fanned the flames of an interest in Portland, one that could rival Portland’s position as New York’s pet city.

Archival Clothing of Eugene makes roll-top messenger bags out of waxed twill, as well as heavy wool, zip-up cardigans. Their bandanas are $30 each.

“When the Japanese people heard the owner of Archival say they were inspired by the 1940s mountain climbing culture, they were excited that she cares so much about the details. The media were talking about ‘This is heavy duty, this is waterproof,’” says Yamazaki.

They were keen to hear all the makers’ stories, which gets back to that Tier 3 effect, that consumers need more than a logo. They need a good personal story to latch on to.

“I knew things had changed when I hear my best friend from growing up in the suburbs of Tokyo say the phrase ‘waxed canvas.’ To him it’s fashionable and practical. And that from this accented, countryside boy.”

The friend had read about Archival online. “If this country boy has access to this type of detail, the people in Tokyo will be reading 10 times more.”

The PDC and others rely on cultural fixers such as Woody Udagawa. He is a creative director, copywriter and concept designer based in Tokyo who comes to Portland ten times a year. He is the founder of BAUM LTD. a creative company. He helped Navarre and Blue Star donuts launch in Japan, as well as introduce apple farmers to the ways of Portland cider makers.

He wrote in an email to the Tribune confirming that Japanese have gone hipster-hunting in Portland, fascinated by the high quality of life and a low level of stress.

SUCHETA BAL FOR THE PORTLAND DEVELOPMENT COMMISSION - Pop Up Portland participants showed off their wares at Maach eCute venue, a three-day mini expo in the Akihabara video game neighborhood of Tokyo, where buyers, media and public could meet hip Oregon artisans.“For me, Portland is the best place to find creative business partners. Now I am working on Japan-based international companies’ global communication project. They do not need traditional big ad agencies. They prefer to work with tiny but spicy radical small companies like us and some in Portland.”

However, big business is interested too.

“The other side is from strong interests among real estate developers and governments. For example, River bureau of MLIT (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism) offered a collaborative project with PDC’s “We Build Green Cities” (WBGC) team in March. They held a huge workshop event with WBGC. It was focused on ‘How to execute radical ideas.’ Three hundred civil servants and business professionals gathered from all over Japan.”

Yamazaki of the PDC confirms this new mood. The Japanese economy is coming out of stagnation and big money is looking for things to buy.

“It’s accelerating because f the (2020) Olympics in Tokyo,” he says. “The government is printing more money and devaluing the currency.” He explains that in the 1980s Japanese interests bought bling like Pebble Beach golf club and Rockefeller Center. Now he says they are more discerning.

SUCHETA BAL FOR THE PORTLAND DEVELOPMENT COMMISSION - Media madness: Japan went ape for Portland in 2014, and tourists came in search of canvas rucksacks, pour-over coffee and bushy beards.“Today they are very careful about impact, culture, sustainability, quality and authenticity,” says Yamazaki . The message now from the Americans is “’We want more, don’t limit it to a Honda factory in 20 years with 2,000 job. We want condos, senior care centers, shops and restaurants. The Portland region is based 80 percent on small companies, this is a small company town and we should embrace that.”

He believes that a century of Portland-Japan connections is the tide pushing this current wave of interest.

“Roll-up jeans and quirky shirts and beards, that will go away and Japan will look elsewhere. But the people connection, and the culture and what’s authentic, that can’t go away.”

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