To produce “genuine prosperity” as found on a trip around the world
Wise-Wise Co., Ltd.
Through internship and overseas study programs, the arena of learning for university students has expanded beyond Japan to include the rest of the world. Here are some Aoyama Gakuin University (AGU) students and alumni who have nurtured global perspectives and thinking at AGU that have taken them to the world stage.
Enriching people’s lives with “furniture that produces forests”
I run WISE-WISE, a company that manufactures and supplies furniture and quality crafts, upholding the goal of enriching people’s lives and the natural environment through our business. All our furniture made under our original brand uses Fair Wood, which is wood harvested with due consideration to the environment and the local community of the logging area. More than half of the timber come from forests in Japan.
Forestry and lumber businesses in Japan are in a critical condition due to competition from foreign-produced wood. Forestry regions have lumber, workers, and processing technology, but they have no work. WISE-WISE teams up with such regions to bring work, profits, and revenue to them. If money flows into the regions, they can take care of and maintain their mountains and forests in a healthy condition. To put it another way, we can say that our company is making “furniture that produces forests.”
I established WISE-WISE in 1996 with the aim of establishing a lifestyle brand that enriches people’s lives. Our business performance was favorable at first, but we were gradually swept up by the wave of deflation, which stalled profit growth. Amid ongoing competition to provide cool and stylish products at low prices, we were shocked to learn that some furniture on the market was made with timber extracted from tropical forests and timber traded at unfairly low prices, and, furthermore, that the domestic timber business was suffering in the face of competition from cheap timber produced overseas.
This led to our decision to produce furniture using wood harvested in Japan and to avoid using timber logged in ways that destroy the environment and society.
Based on such decision, I announced the Green Company declaration in 2008, promising society to protect the forests where our wood originates and to engage in environmentally friendly corporate activities.
Kurikoma Mokuzai, a timber producer in Kurihara City, Miyagi Prefecture, a region hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake, is one of our partners. Following the disaster, Kurikoma Mokuzai asked us if they could engage with us in a business that looked to the future, which prompted us to start a project under which their timber artisans produce furniture with Japanese cedar harvested from Mt. Kurikoma. After two years of planning, a furniture brand named KURIKOMA was created, which caused a great sensation. Today, in addition to the artisans, Kurikoma Mokuzai also employs local workers with disabilities, also contributing to the creation of employment in the region.
I work every day with the hope of linking furniture users with forestry workers and local communities, and serving as a company that brings genuine prosperity to all concerned.
Losing everything in the U.S.; “Creating myself” at university
Looking back on my days at university, I feel the period was spent on “creating myself.” I was exploring what I should pursue and how I should live after I graduated. I engaged in a variety of part-time jobs, met many people, and visited a lot of places in search of something that could provide me with a livelihood. The most significant experience I had was my one-year nomadic journey through the United States.
At the end of my third year, I took a leave of absence from university and took off to the United States. Starting from New York, I traveled down along the East Coast. When I reached Florida, a serious incident occurred—all my possessions except for my car were stolen, including my money, return air ticket, and contact information of the person who was supposed to put me up during the trip. I had no choice but to work in Key West, the southernmost tip of the U.S., as a dishwasher to save up some money, and continued on my journey.
I left Japan with a large suitcase full of clothes and a music player, but came back with only a newspaper. However, I learned that I could survive even if I was deprived of everything in a foreign land, and this has become a big asset for me. During my trip, I met a Japanese businessperson who advised me that, if I was undecided about my future, I should join a large corporation engaged in an area I was interested in. This piece of advice led me to my next turning point.
“Genuine prosperity” is not about money—encounters with minority tribes bring me to a turning point in my life
The biggest turning point in my life was brought about by an encounter with ethnic minority groups living on the islands of Indonesia.
After graduating from AGU, I joined NOMURA Co., Ltd., a leading architectural space producer in Japan. I was immediately sent to Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries to head up one project after another to open Japanese department stores and hotels. I felt myself becoming drained from work, both physically and mentally, so to refresh myself, I started traveling around the world in order to meet ethnic minority groups. The more I got to know these ethnic groups, the more shocked I felt about my own life. At the time, I had been living in a condominium with a swimming pool in Singapore, flying around the world with a suitcase, but feeling drained in my body and soul. In comparison, these ethnic minority groups were living in places with no electricity or water, but were drinking clean water and eating delicious food. I came to think that they were more “genuinely prosperous,” enriched, and fulfilled than I was, and this came as a shock to me.
What was very clear to me was that enrichment is not about money. I was overwhelmed by the thought that people can live a full and plentiful life without money, school education, or lots of purchased goods.
It was around that time that a village chief of a tribe I had been repeatedly visiting invited me to be his son-in-law. “Maybe I should stay and live here,” I thought, while dozing off to sleep that night.
When I woke up the next morning, however, it dawned on me that staying in the village was not an option for me—even if were to live happily ever after in the village, I would not feel genuine happiness if my parents and friends were not happy. It was clear that I would not find my own happiness there. Then I thought of an idea: “I should go back to Japan and embody the genuine prosperity I found in the lifestyles of minority tribes.” Perhaps it was then that I opened the door to my future.
Incidentally, when I returned from the village to Singapore, I was ordered to transfer to the head office in Tokyo. This came as a surprise, but it must have been destiny. Back in Tokyo, I applied for a position at a new internal start-up company that was soliciting employees. The start-up was WISE-WISE.
The spirit of social contribution acquired at AGU was the starting point of my working life
Even though I was not such a diligent student at AGU, after 30 years, I seem to have unknowingly inherited the spirit of helping people and society, the spirit of social contribution and dedication that permeates AGU. Aoyama Gakuin has been supported by the dedicated contribution of many individuals, including John Franklin Goucher, who used his personal assets to acquire the land to be used as the Aoyama Campus, as well as Ginjiro Katsuta and Otohiko Majima, alumni of the school. The deeds of our predecessors, which I had heard about as a student, have stuck in my mind over a long period of time, culminating in what I do now.
As I said, “genuine prosperity” is not only about money, and neither is it only about “things.” There are many factors that make our lives fulfilling, including travel, music, arts, and food. I currently provide “things” such as furniture and crafts, but I have only come one-tenth of the way I had intended to pursue. There are many challenges I would like to take on to deliver fulfilling lifestyles. It is now 22 years since I launched the business, but I feel this is only the beginning.
My message to AGU students is to live for their hopes and dreams. Don’t give up without even trying, blaming society or the times we live in. Even if you fail once, don’t give up, but revise your strategy and try again and again. As long as you do not give up, you will eventually get closer to your dreams.
I hope my work will be the “The Salt of the Earth, The Light of the World” so that I can contribute to bringing “genuine prosperity,” or fulfillment, to people and society.
A day in the life of Mr. Sato
Rise and shine; make breakfast with children (elementary school age) Mr. Sato values spending quality time with his children in the morning, no matter how late he gets home the night before.
Arrive at WISE-WISE Omotesando office/showroom
Morning assembly; meeting with employees
Lunch in Omotesando
Meeting with customers; work on project in progress
End of office/showroom hours Participate in seminars and mini-symposiums hosted in showrooms by individual and organizational tenants engaging in social contribution activities.
Tidy up and go home
College of Economics
At AGU’s College of Economics, the Department of Economics, which is a traditional department established when AGU was founded, offers curricula for analyzing diverse socioeconomic issues, both old and new, existing around the world from a wide range of perspectives including theoretical, empirical, and historical approaches, and for discussing government policies. Meanwhile, the Department of Public and Regional Economics offers curricula that allow students to apply their knowledge in public, regional, and geographical economics and geographic information systems (GISs) in order to solve issues of the modern era.