Uniting Japan and Australia through design: A chat with JAU founder Sonny Mai
We talk with Sonny Mai, founder of JAU Japan’s first Australian design select shop, about starting a business in Japan, good design, and ethical business philosophies.
Sonny Mai is the type of person to make things happen while making the whole exercise of doing so look so effortless. He’s driven and passionate but still one of the most laid-back guys I’ve (Lucy) ever met.
He’s a problem solver and do-er, but in a way that’s so second nature. Kinda’ recently, over lunch, he showed me a wheelchair he made for an injured pigeon he rescued when visiting his family home in Sydney (Australia). An artfully crafted piece of engineering, he made the wheelchair from second-hand K’nex he sourced online and used a facemask as the pigeon’s saddle. The pigeon is now part of the Mai family.
That’s the type of guy Sonny is; he sees a problem, a need, and gets to work fixing and filling it. Powered by a passion for projects and an innate need (whether he’ll acknowledge it or not) to create a positive impact within the spaces he inhabits, which he does so successfully.
He came to Japan to see his favorite band, Sigur Ros play at Fuji Rock, and a few years later, he’s running multiple entities in Japan, including a physical store JAU, Japan’s first Australian design select shop showcasing some of Australia’s finest design products. Through the brand, he’s managed to help communicate to a wider-Japan-based consumer group the importance of sustainability, the talents of Australia’s creative community, and just how possible it is to try and succeed at achieving something new and different.
We spoke to Sonny about how he got started, the challenges and rewarding aspects of running a business in Japan, and the synergy between Japanese and Australian design philosophies.
Or visit the store:
2 Chome-12–18 Tomigaya, Shibuya City, Tokyo 151–0063
Hours: 12–7PM Friday, Saturday, Sunday
This Saturday September 3rd, JAU and Y+L Projects will be co-hosting a gathering at the JAU store, feel free to pop by and say hello!
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born and raised in Sydney, Australia. My parents were refugees from Vietnam, and Australia was kind enough to open up its borders to them.
Personally, I’m always looking for something interesting to keep me occupied. For the longest time, it was camping and climbing mountains, which was convenient for my other hobby of landscape photography. Now my main hobby, and business, is finding ways to bring awareness of Australian design and creativity to Japan via my shop JAU.
How did you end up in Japan?
In 2016 I decided to move to Japan on a hungover Sunday morning. I booked a one-way flight and tickets to Fuji Rock; I walked into the office on Monday and gently let everyone know I’ll be gone for a while. I thought maybe I’ll stay three months. It’s now been five-plus years.
What made you want to stay?
I stayed to discover the culture and beauty in Japanese design, which I’ve always admired. I’m an engineering major, but I’ve always enjoyed dabbling in design. I found Japanese design and artisan culture to be the alchemy of both sides of the brain, using logic, science, and creativity to perfect an art.
You see art and engineering in Japanese wooden joinery; you see chemistry and metallurgy in knifemaking, biology in aizome and indigo dying; there’s so much skill and devotion to the art and science of these crafts.
The openness and freedom of the creative community, especially in Tokyo, also kept me around. After going to a few live gigs around Tokyo and seeing some really weird obscure performances, I realized that the people in this city accept the weird and wonderful — these people have an audience.
I’m not sure if it’s an economics thing, but in Australia, you have to be a bit more commercial to make enough money to survive the costs of living in any of the major cities. In Tokyo, I feel like the quality and cost of living are more reasonable than in any Australian city (except for buying fruits and coffee!).
So in Tokyo, there’s nothing that you can’t do, kind of like that song from Jay Z (but Tokyo).
You’ve actually got a few projects on the go here. Can you run us through them a little, their names, concepts?
JAU (Japan, Australia, United) is my main project. We have just opened a little shop in Tomigaya, Shibuya, where we showcase an assortment of Australian-designed products. We have had a lot of interest from stores and businesses around Japan who are now stockists of ours, including the biggest department stores in Japan, Isetan in Tokyo, and Hankyu in Osaka.
Less Plastic is a project that we started to bring awareness to single-use plastics and promote ways to reuse in Japan — focusing mainly on reuse at the cafe.
We are a distributor for KeepCup in Japan, and it’s been great seeing the Japanese warm up to the idea of bringing reusable cups to the cafe. We’ve had some great cafes stock our cups, including Mia Mia and Coffee Supreme — but also, it seems like corporates are getting on the reuse bandwagon; we recently did a customized KeepCup for Tinder and some for guests staying at the Prince Hotel.
Forme — Our nascent agency/consultancy to help companies launch their products in Japan. Our team, who have grown all the brands under our JAU umbrella, has built up quite a lot of experience in growing new brands from zero in Japan.
Many brands seek to launch in Japan, but they are often blind to the challenges of the Japanese market and the processes required to get their products sold in Japan.
So we decided that we could help with our experience by starting brands from scratch in the Japanese market. We focus on the more physical side of things, such as product certification and warehousing, but also touch on the important parts of brand awareness and creating partnerships with key retailers in Japan.
What has been the biggest surprise of the JAU journey so far?
Every step of the journey has been a surprise; I honestly didn’t realize that there was enough demand for Australian-designed products in Japan.
Being contacted by Japan’s largest and oldest department stores during the middle of the pandemic was surprising. We only just started implementing our very first online marketing campaigns as the pandemic started — I didn’t think it was the best time to launch our brands, but in hindsight, it was. The pandemic meant people staying home were yearning to improve their homebody lifestyles. Since many of our products are in the wellness category, such as incense holders, oil burners, etc., we built up a decent following with little effort.
We had been covered in a few magazines, and from there, the department stores started knocking on our door. They were looking for something new and different to get people visiting their stores.
They were looking for something new and different, as they had a hard time through the pandemic in terms of getting people to visit their stores and spend. They had also been looking to “greenify” their brands, focusing on more sustainable brands or brands that focus on natural ingredients — both qualities essential to the brands we work with.
What have been the biggest hurdles of starting a company in Japan? Do you have any advice for international folks interested in starting a company here?
The hard part was figuring out all the steps and getting all the proper documents to get the Japanese entrepreneur visa, which will allow you to transition to a Business Manager visa. It’s a tedious and drawn-out process with a few interviews with government officials, but not too difficult once you understand the steps, as long as you have a solid business plan and you can show you have some savings to start a company.
In terms of getting a business manager visa, I advise having a solid business plan with something unique and feasible, plus one that is mutually beneficial for Japan. In my case, it was being able to share Australian culture through design.
You’ll have a hard time if you don’t speak the language, but it’s not impossible. My Japanese is useless, so initially, I was lucky to find someone on Upwork to help me get started with some translations and business-related things.
We’ve realized that most brands don’t want to start a business in Japan to sell their products, so we’ve started a consultancy that helps companies that sell products establish their Japanese market.
JAU is your ‘flagship’ project, if we can say that. What’s the project/brand’s philosophy?
We bring great Australian-designed products and culture to Japan. I admired Japanese design so much, but there was also great design back home in Australia — something I wanted to share with people in Japan. Australia is not just kangaroos, koalas, and beautiful beaches. Although Australia is constrained by isolation, we have a strong creative scene, our people are culturally diverse, and this drives some interesting and strong design talent willing to experiment and take risks.
It’s also a symbolic gesture for me, as my parents and sister are refugees from Vietnam; Australia gave our family so much opportunity in a safe and welcoming environment. I’m very proud to be Australian, and this is my best attempt to give a little of something back to the country I grew up in.
JAU has gotten quite a bit of love in Japanese media over the past few years, and you’ve run pop-ups in some major retailers like Isetan, Actus/Slow House, Hankyu and T-site. How did all those come to be? How have you felt about the attention JAU has received?
I’m so proud that these retailers have recognized Australian design as worthy enough to grace their stores.
It seems like many department store buyers follow us on social media and have seen our products in magazines, prompting them to get in touch with us. They’ve all been very kind and quite cool people to work alongside. I always had in my head an image of a department store buyer to be a graying businessman with inflexible arrangements — but this is far from the case. These guys and girls are in their 30s and 40s and are really chill and supportive. It’s always good fun when they come around to visit.
You seem to have discovered a sense of harmony between Japanese customers and design lovers, and Australian makers and creators. Do you think there’s a special bond between these two cultures?
The designers we represent have a very minimalist design style, sometimes nature-inspired or nature-protecting (sustainable design). I’ve observed that the Japanese are very fond of nature; even many national holidays are focused around nature. Japanese design is generally very minimalist too, and I think these fusions resonate well. Japan’s minimalist ethos and craftsmanship often inspire Australian designers, influencing their designs in return.
Australia is small population-wise compared to Japan, but how do you think Australia fares in the design world?
I think this isolation of a relatively small population in Australia has made our creatives more resourceful and stronger designers; this paired with the relaxed Australian culture, creates a more open-mindedness about what design is, and there is no fear of experimenting. I think there’s a great opportunity to show the wild side of design from Australia — watch this space.
Late last year, you also opened a physical store; why did you feel it was necessary to open a store?
We launched in 2020, and then COVID hit, which meant online was the way to go. But now, hopefully, people want to be outside and have real-life experiences, sick of being inside in front of glowing rectangles.
The shop provides a space where we can show and educate people more about Australian design and the creative people behind the scenes.
How has having a physical space that customers can visit shaped your business or approach to business?
It’s still early days, but the feedback has been good, with the locals around Tomigaya enjoying the relaxed vibe and friendly staff and resident dog (Naomi is our store manager, as well as Shy-chan, our cuddly dog staff member).
It hasn’t changed how we do business too much, but it has opened up opportunities for us. We have people from magazines dropping by on the weekend, and the following week, requesting some of our objects for a photoshoot, which is great. We also get quite a few buyers from retailers, dropping by and eying which products might be good for their stores.
I’m hoping later this year, we can have more focused pop-ups for our designers in Australia and have a bit more fun with little events like Australian wine tasting or workshops.
If people want to know more about JAU or your other projects, where should they go?
They should visit our store in Tomigaya, Shibuya. We offer complimentary Australian roasted coffee from Mia Mia or a glass of Australian wine as thanks for visiting. We encourage people to come and just sit around and chat with our staff. We’ve found many locals enjoy just dropping in and sitting around to chit chat, which is lovely. I want to build a sense of openness and community around the shop.
Or visit the store:
2 Chome-12–18 Tomigaya, Shibuya City, Tokyo 151–0063
Hours: 12–7PM Friday, Saturday, Sunday