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‘Japan is really magical...every little thing feels like a treat.’

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Feature by Michael Canning

Azsa West comes from a haunted little surfer town in Southern California. An artist, director and creative director, she studied photography and illustration at the California College of the Arts, and soon found her niche at creative agency Wieden+Kennedy.

With clients including Heineken, Google, Burberry, she has also published a book of drawings — Nature on a Lonesome Island — and lived in Tokyo, where she was the Creative Director for Nike at Wieden+Kennedy. We spoke to Asza about life as an American in Japan, the thoughtfulness of Japanese design and the high price of curtains.


On moving from America to Asia

Before moving to Tokyo, I was living in Shanghai. Moving to Asia has been a really special experience. It’s changed my life in some pretty major ways. As a creative person, I find it really inspiring; there’s always something new to uncover. Of course though, there are days when you miss home, or when some cultural differences are challenging. Like language barriers, for example.

On first moving abroad

I first moved overseas to Berlin in my early 20s. I had just graduated from the W+K 12 school (an experimental school and mini creative agency run by Wieden+Kennedy) and was looking for a change. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an art director. Before W+K 12, I was just living in Portland doing my own thing, making art and living with a bunch of roommates. When it was over, I felt unsure if it was something I could do and also exhausted from some of the creative compromise that happens a lot in advertising. I was craving something with more freedom with the process. At the time, my best friend Sarah Lannan, who is also an artist, was living in Berlin at the time with her husband, Simon Evans. She invited me to come live in their art studio and we started an art collective. After a while, being broke and alone got old. So I came home.

Nike 'Run It' music video, Wieden + Kennedy

On life as an American in Japan

I think Japan is really magical. Every little thing in our daily life feels like a treat. My wife is half-Japanese and a lot of our extended family live here in the south too. Culturally it’s something I was familiar with before moving here, and really connect with and love. When we were living in China, I came here about five times a year because I loved it so much — also to escape the smog. As far as people’s reaction goes, it’s all over the map. As a woman, I look pretty androgynous, with a boyish haircut. Sometimes you get confused looks but that happens everywhere for me. Especially in Asia, I’ll get mistaken for a boy a lot and asked to leave restrooms. But for the most part, people are really kind and welcoming and are open to learning from others.

On creative inspiration from living abroad

As an artist, living abroad has been a dream. There’s so much to see and take in. You’re never not inspired, and new ideas come easier. I left LA to move back to Asia because I wasn’t inspired by the environment. Maybe I’m crazy, but I’m really sensitive to that and need stimulation in order to be happy and motivated. Living in LA had its ups, but the constant driving and traffic part really left me feeling pretty bummed out everyday. Living in big cities that you can easily get around and that are more international satisfy this side of me.

‘At the end of the day, you pay a shit load for curtains in exchange for living in a magical land.’

On living in Japan as a creative person

I’m really in love with this place and the culture. Before I moved here, I would come here as a tourist for vacations or to chill with family, and was easily enchanted by everything. I still adore it with all my heart, but when you’re visiting a place there’s more of this sense of urgency to see things and create an agenda. Since I’ve been living here, the way I navigate my experience and life here is much calmer. Working in Japan can be a bit intense, with long hours, so after work is done you just want to relax. I definitely have slowed down a bit more since living and working here; learning to let things just happen in a more organic way.

On work differences between the USA and Japan

Working at Wieden+Kennedy in general can be pretty intense, reason being that we put a lot of love and thought into every little decision. It’s crazy. But Japan takes it to the next level. People go deeper into the process when it comes to making things. For example, I’m currently working on this Nike spot and the writers in the room philosophize for hours on the cadence of the way one word is being communicated. They really dig into every detail, and to them it’s important. It’s important to me too, but I find that things move a lot more slowly here and you need to have a lot of patience and respect. In America, I found that in my working experience, we wanted to make decisions quicker and faster. That can be good sometimes when you’re in the 11th hour of getting something done, but it can also be stressful in some ways. Here, the process is a lot more involved but it feels romantic to me in a way.

Levi's 'Go Forth', Wieden + Kennedy

On where to live

We probably looked at about 15 different places to live, but we were also getting a lot of help from my work navigating the house-hunt process. It’s a bit more involved here, with lots of paperwork and stuff. We ended up moving near my office in a neighborhood called Nakameguro.

On hidden costs

For some reason curtains and blinds are really expensive — and these things don’t typically come installed in your house. They can also be really costly to install. I’m not sure why, but from what I hear the manufacturing costs of bigger objects combined with property changes can be difficult. But to me it’s worth it. At the end of the day, you pay a shitload for curtains in exchange for living in a magical land. It’s just the price you pay.

‘In Japan, the thoughtfulness is all around you. it’s in the city’s structure, the design of its bathrooms, the way your lunch is packaged.’

On what’s unique about creativity in Japan

I guess I experienced this more in Portland, and in some ways New York when I lived there,  but the thoughtfulness and the craft — people working at a higher level making and creating things. In Japan, the thoughtfulness is all around you. It’s in the city’s structure, the design of its bathrooms, the way your lunch is packaged, how your change is handed to you, your experience at a museum, your cab ride, your meal — it’s just infused into everything. Life feels more pleasant and efficient. One of the reasons why we picked our apartment was because it felt like living in the future.

On the flipside, sometimes I just miss typical things about living back home, like friends and places. I grew up near the beach in Southern California and that’s something I’ll always miss, no matter where I am in the world.

On what’s next

Right now I’m working on a screenplay that’s based on my crazy childhood, curating an art show with a group of friends in Shanghai, a big Nike spot for Japan, and something else that’s kinda secret in the fashion/beauty realm.

On one thing everyone should know

Spend your first day walking around. There’s so much to see and do — chances are you’ll stumble upon something cool and unexpected. Pick a neighborhood and see what happens.

Brand design and global campaign for Shiseido Waso

On one thing everyone should skip

This is a tricky one. When you first come to Tokyo everyone says to go to the Robot Restaurant. I went to see the show when I first got here and it blew my mind. I felt hungover for three days after I saw it, purely from the sensory overload. In some ways I wish I would have just googled it and left it at that. But I know a friend who went about 30 times because every time he had a visitor they wanted to go see it. It’s insane. But to me it’s the kind of thing you should only see once because it’s just so full on and gets ingrained in your brain. You’ll see.

On something you wish you’d been told

Ha, probably the little thing about the curtains. But it’s really not that bad. I guess when it comes to living here, you can pay a lot for housing fees and tax. The taxes are pretty crazy, but you’re getting a lot back. Japan is incredible and the quality of life is fantastic.

On good bars

It’s not really a bar, but the cafe beneath Wieden+Kennedy is perfect. It’s the perfect little spot to relax and have a glass of wine and a snack after work with friends. It’s called Taste AND Sense.

‘I have a residence card and am living and working here on a five-year visa. But because we are gay and have a baby it became a lot more complicated.’

On where to get inspired

In this city, walking a lot really inspires me. I like to listen to music on my headphones and oftentimes that becomes the soundtrack that helps seed new ideas. But usually a trip to the museum really does the trick.

On visas

My work helped me out with this stuff so I’m not an expert about this sort of thing. I have a residence card and am living and working here on a five-year visa, but because we are gay and have a baby it became a lot more complicated. My work helped us to get a lawyer to help us navigate the process. It’s still ongoing.

On weekend getaways

Since I’ve arrived I’ve been working crazy hours, but we’re hoping to get some downtime this weekend and take the train to Kamakura beach outside of Tokyo. My friends say Hakone is supposed to be really beautiful too; it’s about an hour away or so. I’d love to check it out and go in a hot spring.

On spending your first 500 dollars in Tokyo

When I first got my paycheck at Wieden Portland I went to the music shop and bought an old jazz drum kit. It’s the best thing I’ve ever bought and I miss it everyday. I had to sell it to a friend when I moved to New York.

On something that’s hard to find

That’s funny, because since I’ve moved abroad I’ve made friends with a lot of Aussies and I’m always asking them to bring me back Vegemite and Tim Tams from back home. For some reason, those things are hard to find here. But what I really miss is good Mexican food. Every time we go to LA we always stock up on tortillas and spices and things.

On any watch-outs

Don’t be a douche and you’ll do great.


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