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Illustration of Masaya Asai

Found in Translation

Masaya Asai ’01 grew up in two cultures on opposite sides of the world. Now global entities like Apple and Uniqlo — and even the United Nations — seek out his hybrid sensibility.

Illustration by Sim(Techin) Khurukitwanit ’21, who just graduated from NMH and will attend the School of Visual Arts in the fall. In this portrait, he says, “Blue represents a western culture, while red represents the eastern world culture — a mix of two worlds through both colors and a little bit of illustration.” 

By Kim Asch

Masaya Asai still remembers the sense of panic he felt on his first day at Northfield Mount Hermon as a new sophomore from Sapporo, Japan. He’d studied English for years and could read and write with proficiency, so he was alarmed when he couldn’t follow the welcome speech by Richard Mueller, then the head of school, during the opening assembly. As Mr. Mueller recognized groups of international students according to their home country, Asai obliviously stayed put when the students from Japan were asked to rise from their seats. The boy next to him signaled, stand up, and he scrambled to his feet. 

“That was my day one,” he recalls with a laugh. “I didn’t know if I would survive.” 

Asai caught on to conversational English well enough to excel in his courses and make plenty of friends. But he felt most at home in his art classes, where the possibilities for visual communication to transcend language captured his imagination. “The work spoke for itself,” he says. 

Now a luminary in the advertising industry, Asai’s work has garnered more than 100 international awards, including the top prize at the 2015 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for the memorable “Shot on iPhone 6” campaign. The series of video, print, billboard, and poster installations featured striking images from around the globe captured by amateur and professional photographers alike using their iPhone cameras. Judges praised it as a “game-changer” for the way the campaign crowdsourced its material, literally showing how the device empowered users of all stripes to take and share incredible photos. The wide diversity of images seemed to democratize creativity and had a unifying effect, making the world seem somehow more intimate and interconnected. 

Since then, Forbes has anointed Asai one of “39 designers who will change the world.” He was named by the trade magazine Campaign to its 2019 “40 under 40” list of young professionals representing Asia-Pacific’s next generation of leaders in marketing and communications. He’s won so many prizes that two years ago, the Cannes Lions festival invited him to join its design jury and help shape the industry’s standards of excellence. And besides global commercial brands such as Apple, Asai lends his skills to social-impact organizations like Japan’s Para Table Tennis Association — where he helped build awareness of the challenges that para athletes face — and the U.N., for whom he explored ways to improve the lives of refugees living in some of the harshest conditions on the planet.  

Testing Asai's table tennis design

“I speak up when I have something to say. Sometimes people get freaked out because I’m so straightforward.”

Asai says his reputation as a “creative problem-solver” stems from his hybrid sensibility — his Japanese upbringing and his American education. “I have a very different point of view because I grew up in two different cultures. The way I think and tackle issues is enhanced by both.”  

Asai's table tennis designs

Designs that Asai created for Japan’s Paralympic Table Tennis Association

One of those cultures was NMH. Asai followed his sister, Tomoko ’96, to campus, where he played soccer and lacrosse and began to master the art of asserting himself. “Japanese people are very shy and hesitate to speak up in general,” says his friend Hiroto Mihara ’99. “At NMH, we learned how important it is to express our ideas.” 

Classmate Tak Stewart ’01, who grew up in Tokyo, recalls that Asai was into trends, and kept avant-garde Japanese design and fashion magazines in his dorm room. Over winter and summer breaks, they’d get together in Tokyo, and Asai invariably knew where to find the coolest store and trendiest restaurant. “Looking back, Masa had a big impact on my career trajectory of pursuing architecture,” says Stewart, referring to Asai by his nickname. “He always had a keen eye for all things design.”  

After graduating from NMH, Asai studied advertising at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, earning both a bachelor’s degree and an MFA. His career took off almost immediately with jobs in Tokyo and Los Angeles, and he bounced between the two cities and cultures with ease.  

“There are a lot of nuances in Japanese business that cannot be translated or understood by foreigners, and I think Masa has a knack for navigating through them — perhaps even leveraging them — especially since his job is primarily about communication,” says Stewart, who built his career as an architect in Seattle.  

Soon after starting as an art director at the international ad agency TBWA\HAKUHODO in Tokyo in 2007, Asai was named Adfest’s “best young creative” in Asia. He went on to spend 15 years with the agency, leading global campaigns for Apple, whose founder, Steve Jobs, is one of Asai’s major influences, and Uniqlo, the Japanese “lifewear” brand. 

Last year, he turned his attention to Facebook’s new virtual-reality system, Oculus Quest 2. For a recent video promotion, the tagline “be everything you want to be” was brought to life with a series of high-octane scenes: an elderly woman knocks out a heavyweight in the boxing ring; a young woman escapes the jaws of a T-Rex by jumping off a cliff; a teen in a wheelchair engages in combat. The positioning of the product, Asai says, is not an escape from reality. Rather, it’s “a way to expand and extend your own reality.”

Asai has just expanded his own reality with a new job as the chief creative officer of Droga5 Tokyo, an agency that’s part of the global consulting company Accenture. He’ll be thinking more broadly and ambitiously about specific brands — “using creativity to impact the entire brand experience, not just advertising or marketing,” he says. 

Though he lives in a world of big-budget concepts and global-scale projects, he still sweats the details of late-night editing sessions and tight deadlines. His vision is always focused on the essential human experience. When he works with clients to develop a creative strategy — typically in person, though in 2020, it was mostly on Zoom — his primary objective is to distill big ideas into a story that can be told with a single image and minimal text, or just 15 or 30 seconds of video.  

“For me, the creative process isn’t about adding. It’s more about subtracting, boiling down to one clear message.”

“For me, the process isn’t about adding,” he explains during a call from his home in Tokyo. “It’s more about subtracting, boiling down to one clear message. And I always want to provide a fresh perspective, something new.” What Asai seeks to achieve with his imagery and messaging is what one of his heroes, the late chef Anthony Bourdain, sought in food and culture. “I loved the way he traveled with an open perspective,” he says.  

When Asai took on a pro-bono project for the Japan Para Table Tennis Association, the request was simply for a new logo and a poster to bring the sport more visibility. But after conducting several interviews with players from the Japanese national team, he enlarged the project’s scope.  

Asai perceived that a big reason only 1 percent of the population in Japan watches Paralympic sports is because people don’t understand the challenges that individual athletes with unique disabilities face. Spectators — or potential spectators — don’t appreciate the skill required for each athlete to compete. With table tennis, for example, the physical obstacles one player encounters at the rectangular table are different from what another player might experience.  

Asai decided to create visual icons that would make the athletes’ physical challenges immediately understood. He asked the athletes to sketch out tables showing one end as standard in size and shape but to show their end in the shape as they experience it with their disability. For example, Katsuyoshi Yagi, 28, who was born with short arms that limit his reach, drew a table with his end oversized and round. 

After creating a series of posters depicting 20 uniquely shaped tables, “we wondered what would happen if we actually made these tables,” Asai says. With no budget, Asai approached the manufacturer who produced the official table intended for the 2020 Paralympic Table Tennis competition (it was postponed due to COVID-19), and he agreed to build three prototypes. The tables were used at live events and installed at commercial facilities and schools so the public could try playing a game in the “shoes” of a para-athlete. The Japan Para Table Tennis Association reported that Asai’s campaign raised the sport’s visibility, with 92 percent of people who tried out the table responding that they would watch a para table tennis match, as well as other para-sport games.  

Asai’s old friend Stewart suggests that the project not only shows how Asai channels his skills and influence to make a positive social impact, but also that “he is and always has been a talented connector of people and ideas.” Stewart says, “He’s an inspiration for how we can leverage design to serve something bigger than ourselves.” 

And not just design. In a 2019 TEDxSapporo talk, on the island of Hokkaido 600 miles north of Tokyo, Asai encouraged his audience to articulate their ideas and ambitions even if their instinct is to be restrained. “I speak up when I have something to say, despite the fact that in Japanese culture, people don’t speak their minds. Sometimes people get freaked out because I’m so straightforward,” he explains. But “to say what you think,” he told his TedX audience, “is the power to move people.” 

 Kim Asch is a freelance writer in Burlington, Vermont.