【Kenji Shimizu】Even a devil wearing PRADA tries it on first, right?
Slideshow autography by Anyamaru
We are very pleased to introduce you Kenji Shimizu, CEO, a cutie-producing company SnowSmile, as following picture-story.
-PROLOGUE- A Memory of Kesennuma
One day, a fisherman found rats in his fishing ship anchored at Kesennuma.
At the same time, he picked a cat up his neighbor.
So, he decided to take the cat on the board during his work.
Several years have passed.
The cat got old, so he found the cat couldn’t live so long.
The other day, the cat disappeared suddenly, and never came back.
He thought the cat might have been back its home.
By the way, that fisherman is Kenji’s father.
The young Kenji almost deported to Vietnam
We begin in Hachinohe in Aomori prefecture, a port town on the south coast of Japan filled with the cry of gulls and the smell of the sea. This is where Kenji Shimizu (Shimiken) was born.
Although it was a small town with nowhere nearby to travel to, the sea alone connected it to all places.
Hachinohe’s fishing industry thrived, and as a special characteristic of the town it had welcomed foreign trainees since long ago.
In the area where Shimiken lived, too, there were many foreign trainees, and Shimiken’s house in particular became a gathering spot for them.
Generally, the Vietnamese are known as earnest people, but all those who came to his house were “good-for-nothings”. It’s said they only said things like “That girl is cute”.
Since he was with them a lot, he used to see them off when they returned to Vietnam.
As it happens, because he got along with them too well he was once mistaken for one, forced onto a high-speed bus to Narita Airport, and was in danger of being deported.
That was an episode from a time when even Shimiken himself as yet had no idea he would make use of these experiences for his future work.
While Shimiken grew well in that lively port town visited by foreign trainees, he changed completely into a delinquent after entering high school. The reason was because a girl he liked had appeared in an “extreme” adult video.
Even though he tried to be delinquent, all he could actually do were things like kicking toilet doors a lot. In the end, wanting to leave his rural hometown for a larger city he studied obediently for university entrance exams.
In his free time, he often enjoyed buying up lots of fashion magazines and making scrapbooks from their clippings. — At that age, he had already developed an interest in fashion.
Crazy about i-mode in university
Studying his hardest from wanting to leave his rural hometown for a larger city, Shimiken splendidly succeeded at leaving his hometown. As a result, for some reason he ended up coming to a university in Yamagata Prefecture which was even more rural. There, he specialised in information science.
He had fun cracking and similar with friends that he made there. He liked and was enthusiastic about i-mode, but was dissatisfied with its email functionality which didn’t allow group chats, and so set up a mailing list server together with those friends.
i-mode is a mobile phone internet service provided by NTT DoCoMo, the predominant mobile phone company in Japan.
“Hah-hah, now we can cheat on exams!” they rejoiced, but Shimiken and his friends were all “morons”, and thanks to leaving their phones on vibrate mode in tests their cheating was discovered.
In addition, they were cracked by someone in China and scolded by the university.
Since i-mode used the idea of a self-organising complex system, Shimiken who liked mobile phones specialised in complex systems in graduate school.
Shimiken became enthusiastic about the FOMA F900iT (one of the latest mobile phones of the time) which could run java applications. He imagined a future with a fullscreen touch panel and input interface with a high degree of freedom.
Shimiken’s project scrapped, and almost being stabbed with a knife
After finishing graduate school, he entered an IT company in Tokyo and was assigned to its new business development department. He was involved with a project about creating a mobile phone tool for business card exchange, and got to the point right before commercialisation.
However, due to a higher-up’s internal company politics, the project was scrapped. In the end, a few years later a different company raked in hundreds of millions of yen with the same project plan.
While in a teeth-grindingly frustrating situation at work, even in Shimiken’s private life as well a horrifying thing occurred.
Twice, he was almost stabbed with a knife. Fearing for his safety, he resolved to leave for Hokkaido.
Fun friends in the snowy city
Initially, Shimiken was quite depressed from being unable to forget the incidents in Tokyo. However, thinking that he would become useless if he didn’t interact with others, he chose to enter a share house rather than a single apartment.
In the share house, there were around 70 men and women from about 20 different countries. The reason he chose that share house wasn’t for the sake of innovation or diversity, but rather because he wasn’t able to get in touch with the managers of other share houses.
He almost desperately stayed in the common room where there were many people, yet often didn’t talk with anyone for the whole day.
Even though he would be silent all day long, he very seriously cooked in the common kitchen, and this unusualness made other residents interested in him. Because they were all good-natured people, his heart also gradually opened up to them.
At that time, a guest house that big was apparently uncommon, and so it was frequently covered in the news.
One day, a Japan Broadcasting Corporation TV crew had come to the share house for a live broadcast. Interviews and photos had finished with no problems, and afterwards all the residents had a hot pot party. The party went well, all had been drinking, and everyone was quite drunk.
When Shimiken happened to glance at his phone, there was a call from his family.
It was news of his father’s death.
The fateful day
Following the call about the traffic accident, after the wake his father was cremated on the 10th of March.
The funeral is usually performed the same day of cremation, but the day and the next day were also bad condition to be performed according to Japanese Rokuyo, a recurring six-day series of lucky and unlucky days.
So, the funeral was decided to perform on 12th.
The next day, 11th, he and his family were preparing for the funeral.
“Ah, an earthquake.”
The earthquake went on unusually long and a powercut occured.
But he wasn’t overly alarmed because of following three reasons; first, the region was one of the frequent earthquakes, second, the earthquake was only side-to-side shaking, didn’t feel more dangerous up-and-down shaking, third, powercuts also commonly occured.
He was affected by normalcy bias, and felt ordinaly.
But he thought he should watch out and did.
There were no gulls, further didn’t hear sounds of any living creature. Rather than the smell of the sea, instead an intense smell as of an overturned drainage ditch assaulted his nostrils.
Only a loud major-tsunami warning siren was sounded in the midst of the strange silence.
He felt to be knock down by the drum, and remembered air raid sirens in movies of World War II he had watched in his childhood.
He intuitively felt “This is bad!”.
Finding an old person near him watching out of sea, he told the old person “Evacuate! The major-tsunami warning is sounding!”, which he only did at the situation.
Holding his father’s remains, he evacuated towards higher ground together with his family and an elder woman in his neighborhood whose legs were inconvenience.
Upon arriving at higher ground with an unbroken view of sea, he and his family began confirming safety of an old man who had treated their family well since his grandfather’s generation.
That old man was holding binoculars to one eye and yelling “Why aren’t the fisherman releasing the boats! Idiots!”.
By releasing ships onto the open sea they can escape destruction.
However, because fishing was suspended at the time, all the fishermen who could release the ships were away from the sea, and so soon after the shaking had no way to get there in time.
Harbors and bridges were also destroyed by the swept-along ships.
Seeing this the old man ground his teeth, but he treated Shimiken’s family even more kindly than usual.
That night he made rice balls for them, and even lent them blankets.
That night, Shimiken stayed awake together with his father’s remains.
Two small bits of fortune were that the cremation had been conducted before the funeral rather than the reverse, maybe due to it being a fishing village unlike in many other parts of Japan, and that the 11th had been an unsuitable day for a funeral.
With that unprecedented disaster, naturally Shimiken thought his father’s funeral would be put on hold.
Clearly the living should be prioritised over the dead.
Shimiken hoped that people close to his father would also first pay attention to their own physical safety.
However, thanks to a Buddhist priest’s generosity, the funeral was held. Even though he and his family didn’t carry out any planned effort to inform others, a large number of people, whose houses and workplaces had suffered damage by the tsunami, and they had no idea what tomorrow would bring, still they wore mourning clothes over their rain boots and came to attend.
Shimiken’s shared-house friends made response to the earthquake.
Nick from New Zealand collected disaster relief donations from close to a hundred of his drinking buddies in Sapporo’s Tanukikoji shopping district.
Jan from Finland, who came to Japan because of liking games, went to Sendai as a medical volunteer.
Chen from Taiwan, who came to Japan as a working holiday right after the earthquake, even now is Shimiken’s closest friend.
The people of different countries who gave aid to Japan and the Tohoku region despite their own circumstances overlapped in Shimiken’s heart with the people who came to his father’s funeral.
Even though he understood it was illogical, Shimiken couldn’t resist his impulse.
Even a devil wearing PRADA tries it on first, right?
Shimiken thought with his ‘empty head’ about how to go around the world thanking the different countries that came to Japan’s aid. As a result, what he came up with was ‘starting a business’.
Fortunately, as he had eaten and slept under the same roof as many foreigners, he knew well what Japanese things appealed to them.
When making something, positive feelings are important. For Shimiken, what could bring forth such positive feelings was fashion.
In this way, he began the nail art phone application project.
Nail art constitutes about 15% of the world fashion market. In terms of amount of money, it’s less than 15% for America, China, and Japan which have big markets, but more than 15% for developing countries.
In other words, nail art is an easy starting point for a population beginning to experiment with fashion.
However, nail art’s shortcoming is that you can’t try it on like clothes. Even though you can repaint your nails, after many repaintings the nails will be damaged.
What Shimiken came up with was the original idea for the phone application NailCute, whereby one could try on different three-dimensional CG nail art with Augmented Reality.
In parallel, he was also pushing forward with another project: an online store where customers could buy or sell user-made nail sticker designs. This was inspired by the Japanese messaging application LINE in which people can do the same thing (of which the company takes a cut) for user-made stickers to send to their friends.
As for the reason for this project, he knew that drawing pictures itself doesn’t cost much money, and hoped to encourage budding designers with the profits from selling designs.
Furthermore, Shimiken was thinking about how to improve employment amongst the poor and in what form to expand the distribution network. By deploying mobile nail salons made from modified cargo bikes, alongside expanding the nail sticker distribution network in the same places, people in those areas could have access to both forms of nail art fashion. Since the required funds were small, this was well suited for the Plan-Do-Check-Act/-Adjust (PDCA) cycle management method, and whether in developing countries or Japan could provide employment to the poor, such as single mothers.
Betrayal, abandonment, and sabotage
The project started on track, and several offers of investment came in. However, as it happened they all cancelled after a short time.
A private investor in Dubai required a Japanese lead investor as a condition, and so was given up on. In a television program sponsored by a Singapore TV station offering 160 million yen seed money to the winning business, Shimiken made it to the final round and then was not selected as the winner.
They worked hard to reach the point where there were only a few months before the release of the NailCute application, but the the answer from a certain public-private fund which had kept them waiting for a long time was “You don’t have enough employees, so no.”.
Within the company at the same time, there was frequent betrayal, abandonment, and sabotage.
Though Shimiken was a comparatively tough person, at this time he thought his heart might break.
To then meet Meyumi Yamada of the company ‘istyle’, which runs a community website for cosmetics, was a light in the midst of darkness. They only chatted casually, but her words “It would be a shame to have an idea that can be brought out into the world and yet not do so.” were plenty to make him struggle once again.
With those words as encouragement, he took part in a event in Taiwan which, in place of the unthanking Japanese government, was to thank Taiwanese people for their help after the March 11th earthquake. After that as well Shimiken helped other events like one in Vietnam succeed.
However, even though each event succeeded, because he had no funds he couldn’t move forward. Ultimately, both his financial situation and his body reached a breaking point.
Shimiken had barely had been keeping his business going, but in the end judged that a limit had been reached and carried out debt disposal. Momentarily thinking “With this my life should get quite a bit easier”, instead his bank account was frozen from some sort of slip-up and he became penniless.
Then, while walking aimlessly along the road, he was seized by the administration and sent to a homeless shelter.
In the shelter, one of his roommates was an old man whom everyone liked. However, in the end the man swindled him and disappeared with Shimiken’s money.
Moreover, because of the terrible shampoo in the shelter’s bathroom his hair colour faded and made him look like a young hoodlum. Perhaps because of that, he was often questioned by police even twice a day, to the point that it became so tiresome he ran away from any police he saw as though playing Tag. (“They have several people who can chase me. Against the rules! Not fair!”)
With his high adaptability, Shimiken was okay for a month in that environment, but as he was gradually being worn down mentally he one day snuck away.
At the present time, it’s said he works in a mystery job protecting a town’s peace from hoodlums and armed homeless people.
Getting tired of tangling with homeless people and hoodlums, he’s thinking of going back to nail art soon.
There are things that can only be seen when one has experienced many varied things. What is the next objective of Shimiken, who’s aiming to resume a nail art project?
It’s very Shimiken-like to thus jokingly talk about his plans for nail art application development. For NailCute to be completed, and from that for girls to become cuter, isn’t that a dream we all share?