In 2000 I was interviewed by Eye Magazine in conversation with Elizabeth Resnick when I first talked about my childhood and my father’s influence on my career:
My father always encouraged me to take the biggest challenges. When I arrived at MIT, electrical engineering and computer science were known as the hardest majors. I wanted to study architecture, but my father said I would make no money. He said: “You won’t be able to feed yourself or your future family. Don’t waste your time.” He was a pragmatic man. He grew up poor.
He ran a tofu factory, so my childhood was about working in the tofu factory. My family would work there every weekend and all vacations. It is a very laborious work. You wake up at 1am and work to 6pm continuously. After school we would work in the store that sold the tofu. My father believed it was unprofitable to have workers, so we were the workers. School became a wonderful place to escape.
I became interested in computers because we were always working, and I didn’t have any time to play. I asked my father for a computer so I could do things at night. I had a dot-matrix printer but didn’t like the way the default text looked, so I wrote a program to make it print better-looking text. This was in 1979.
Before my father was a tofu-maker, my father was a cook. In Japanese food, it’s not about the flavors, it’s about the presentation, the illusion of being natural. I learned my basic layout sensibilities by helping him lay out food. Those sensibilities disappeared when I came to MIT because I was embarrassed about being from a blue-collar family. But when I told my Japanese typography teacher about my background, his response was: “You are the son of a craftsman, my father was the same way.” I realized then that the cultural aesthetics could be a source of strength.
In 2011 I returned to thinking about my Dad in relation to a question that a RISD student came to ask me about how being a father influenced how I led RISD:
My response began from where I often stand — that children will inherit a world that you will either make better or worse for their adult lives. We all want better lives for all the future adults so we work in the present to improve the coming world to our best abilities. And we often fall short of success because, well, we are human. But we remind ourselves again to care, and to try again. And that’s whether you are a parent or not — a better world is universally desirable.
I knew that wasn’t really a response to his question, so I tried again. I spoke instead about my own father and how he influenced me as a leader. My father was a cook for many years. He left home (a small fishing village in Japan) at 15 and shined shoes on a boat for passengers as his first job in addition to cleaning the bathrooms and floors. On that boat he did every manner of job, and worked his way up to peeling potatoes in the kitchen, and then finally to becoming the cook of the ship. In the 60s he left the ship, and worked as a cook in a Japanese restaurant in Seattle; a decade later he took over a mom-and-pop tofu-making business and ended his career as a cook.
However Dad stayed active in his cooking craft; he loved to cook for guests at our house. It wasn’t often, but when we would have guests come over he would get a whole fish and cut it as sashimi (raw fish) and arrange all the foods in beautiful ways. In many ways he was my first design teacher with his mastery in meticulously arranging the shapes, proportions, mixtures, selection of plates, and overall visual / textural / temperature balance of a multi-course traditional Japanese-style meal.
One day when I was about 11 or 12, I noted to my father his consistent pattern in how he would give the best parts of the fish to the guests, and for himself eat the scrappiest, undesirable parts. I thought this strange because as a cook he knew what tasted good and bad, so with his more developed taste acuities he should be eating the good parts himself. He plainly explained that a cook doesn’t make food for himself to enjoy — he makes food for others to enjoy. His happiness came from making others happy around him. I noticed this about my father — how giving he was to others around him, and expecting absolutely nothing in return.
In 2013 I wrote a piece for LinkedIn, which touched upon the relationship between a father-and-son and also teacher-to-student:
Ten or so years ago, I was on a plane to the west coast from Boston, sitting in one of the back rows so I could see the entire length of the plane. There were suits and dress shirts all the way up the aisle — it was all guys in the plane that day it seemed. The mid-flight movie was “October Sky” with Jake Gyllenhaal, way before his superstar actor days.
It tells the classic story of a father-son relationship where the book-smart son (played by Gyllenhaal) is never given the full respect of his coal-miner father (played by Chris Cooper). Various physical tragedies are overcome, and in the culminating scene the son’s project is being regaled by the public. But the father is nowhere to be seen to bestow his blessing. Jake’s character looks down to the ground in quiet acceptance. And then, there is dad … straight from the mine, walking towards the son carrying his coal mining helmet. Proud, finally. As tears began to well up in my eyes, I noticed all the men shrugging uncomfortably all the way up the plane — subtly wiping away their tears. The universal nature of the story was on full display up and down the aisle. I’ve spent a great deal of my blogging thinking about the impact my father has had on my life and could speak to how he’s been the central inspiration to my life. The story, perhaps, isn’t much different from other sons out there.
It always feels a little weird for me to look backwards at what I might have said or wrote. What doesn’t feel weird is knowing that my Dad’s influence on me is real. I’ve always felt a bit like the coal-miner’s son in October Sky, or the 11-year old who noticed his Dad’s selfless-ness and wondered if he could ever live with such integrity, or the junior professor back in 2000 trying to make sense of his evolving professional life and hanging on to the knowings that were put in place by his childhood training. So in 2014, and on Father’s Day, it was nice to get to say “thank you” today to the man that made my life something just through the fact of his working as hard as he could for all of us. He never really knew what I was doing, or have been doing, all these years, but he knew that I should try to do it. Whatever it is. And to try as hard as I can. So I’ll keep trying. And get back to work. -JM