Fast Company

Keiko Satoh

TED likes to think of itself as an Idea Summit, a gathering that one reporter/participant calls 'smart, overstimulated, and uncoordinated; the nutty professor in its own world of ideas.'

Changing the Channels of Communication

The Tokyo office is paperless, the furnishings spare by design. Ten young people tucked around a floor-level table sip coffee and espresso. The talk is of "digital shoots" and "multimedia hypertext form" - the jargon of the new global digerati. There is a graphic designer, the editor of a computer magazine, a young manager from a semiconductor company, a high-tech public relations consultant. They are American and they are Japanese. And they are not happy.

At the center is Keiko Satoh, a smartly dressed management consultant who has convened this small group to plan a big conference. These days, on both sides of the Pacific, the computer world is a never-ending collection of trade shows, exhibitions, and confabs. But this gathering is meant to be special. TED - the acronym stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design - will bring together some of the smartest, richest, hippest innovators from Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and, this time, the Japanese manufacturing establishment - from old-guard Matsushita to new-wave Nintendo. TED likes to think of itself as an Idea Summit, a gathering that one (continued page 100) reporter/participant calls "smart, overstimulated, and uncoordinated; the nutty professor in its own world of ideas."

In other words, if anyone could bridge the massive "culture gap" that separates the United States and Japan, it would be this group of communications strategists. That they can't even come close speaks to the magnitude of the gap - and the challenge of Satoh's mission to deescalate the trans-Pacific war of words.

The Americans in the room poke and probe and verbally joust. They want a freewheeling sensibility at the conference, to lay differences on the table. Their Japanese counterparts turn ashen at the thought. "We appreciate the differences, but we don't need to discuss them,'' says one, almost pleadingly. The magazine editor explains that most of his country's 450 participants will come to listen, not to talk. They will attend as representatives of their companies and file written reports when they return.

"You mean we're not talking to individuals, we're talking to companies?" one American asks in mock disbelief.

Fed up with such arrogant digs, the editor lobs back his own, more subtle retort - this one aimed at the touchy-feely ambiance the Americans want to create at TED.

"Maybe you Americans are looking for a lost community," he says. "We Japanese already have a community.''

Through it all, with a mix of den-mother understanding and hardheaded perseverance, Keiko Satoh keeps the conversation moving forward. Everyone agrees TED will be a big deal. No one said it would be easy.

Keiko Satoh is in the business of communication. Not fiber optics and packet switching, but the simple art of talking and understanding. It is Satoh's conviction that somewhere in the passing lane of the information superhighway, the drivers have lost their sense of direction. High-speed modems and personal digital assistants have made communication more mobile, accessible, and global. But they haven't made it any easier for people to understand what their counterparts in other countries are saying. The lines are clear; the meanings are not.

"My country is considered the most difficult in the world to enter," says Satoh, who speaks nearly fluent English, more than a bit of Italian, and moves comfortably between the cultures of Japan, Europe, and the United States. "As a Japanese, I don't want it to be thought that we are the most difficult race. I don't think I'm a hard person to access. But even we in Japan like to think that our country is somehow weird and inaccessible.''

That said, it's difficult for Satoh to describe exactly what she does. Public relations isn't quite accurate. The generic term "consulting'' works sometimes. "But then, people say to me, `Keiko, you're not doing consulting, you're doing counseling.' They call me `Keiko Hospital.'''

From that perspective, Satoh is carving out a business niche with an idea that's so old it's new: teaching frustrated executives how to talk across boundaries. Taking a lesson from Satoh means setting aside the personal computer and tossing out the etiquette books. She aims not to teach rules, but to change attitudes. "We've come,'' she says wistfully, "to view communication just as a form of transaction, not as a form of meaning.''

Perhaps the best way to think of Satoh is as an information theorist - a change agent who propagates new ideas about how to communicate more effectively. She is part of an emerging class of humanists on both sides of the Pacific - artists, writers, cultural trendsetters - who are struggling with language and expression, cultural assumptions and misunderstandings, and whose views need to be heard if the global economy is to function smoothly into the next century.

These days, Satoh spends most of her time promoting the ideas of two information doctors. One is Richard Saul Wurman, the American architect and writer known for his Access travel guides and his Smart Yellow Pages for Pacific Bell. Satoh produced the Japanese translation of Wurman's influential book Information Anxiety and organized Wurman's Japan-based TED extravaganza.

The other information doctor under Satoh's wing is Seigo Matsuoka, a Japanese philosopher whose book History Informs has made him a sort of Eastern media guru. Satoh is promoting Matsuoka's ideas abroad by helping to create a new book aimed at US audiences. Much of Matsuoka's writings are arcane musings on language, but his bottom-line message - the need to inject humanism back into the narrative of interpersonal communications - parallels Satoh's worldview.

One sign of Satoh's commitment to these ideas is a black ink painting on her office wall. It's a kind of modernist cave drawing filled with primitive language symbols. Admiring comments prompt her to call on an aide, who drops what she's doing to lug in several more paintings by the same artist. His name is simply Panwei, and promoting his work is Satoh's most recent passion.

"He's 29 years old and born in Shanghai,'' she says. "He left after Tiananmen Square to come here. He doesn't speak any Japanese. We communicate by kanji. I began to learn Chinese history through him, through his art. The things that are not in a book, the Chinese way of understanding.''

Satoh brought Panwei to TED to demonstrate the art of calligraphy. She also choreographed a dialogue between her philosopher-client Matsuoka and a Zen priest. Both sessions (surprisingly well-received, it turns out) were motivated by the same idea: to give the Americans in the audience a glimpse into the Eastern mind.

This is what Satoh means when she talks about stepping back before moving forward, nourishing cross-cultural understanding through art and history and even philosophy. It's a painstaking process, and her words can sound jarringly off-key in a world full of high-bandwidth technospeak. Listen long enough, though, and it becomes clear how her insights apply to practical situations. "We've come to view communication just as a form of transaction," she says wistfully, "not as a form of meaning.''

Keiko Satoh is well-placed to serve as a mediator between Establishment Japan and the new international order. She is a member of a prominent Tokyo family and a graduate of Tokyo's respected Aoyama Gakuin University. She also has an English certificate from Oxford and spent two years at Radcliffe earning a certificate of advanced studies in management. Phyllis Strimling, coordinator of the Radcliffe program, recalled Satoh as a "brilliant student who, when she was here, was struggling with how a freewheeling woman can find a way to maintain a level of creativity and intelligence'' in her business life.

Seven years later, Satoh appears to be finding that niche. In addition to consulting for Japanese clients like Nippon Telegraph & Telephone, she spends much of her time in Italy, where she represents jewelry designer Maurizio Beolichi and advises a food company with international ambitions. Indeed, with her freestyle hair, understated fashion, and thirst for philosophical talk, Satoh seems better suited to Milan than to either Tokyo or Manhattan.

She started her career as a forecaster for the Tokyo garment manufacturer Renown, where she tracked everything from pop music to social change in order to second-guess fashion trends. One of her greatest successes was convincing a reluctant management to carry the Norma Kamali line, which she correctly predicted would be a hit with price-conscious working women.

She struck out on her own in the mid-1980s, a young woman in a man's world, an offbeat consultant in a country that still has trouble grasping the value of intangible advice. (Even mainstream consulting companies have a rough time in Japan.) It hasn't always been easy for Satoh to get her message across.

When the old-line Tokyo department store Takashimaya hired her to help decide how best to use designated art space in a future New York outlet, Satoh dragged a delegation of Japanese executives to Boston to meet with a range of art experts. Her aim was to convince the executives to drop their plans to exhibit traditional Japanese art. Instead, she wanted them to promote new American artists - and to understand the intense connection between true art patrons and the local community.

She made headway, but only temporarily. Satoh's consulting engagement ended before the store opened, and the decision was overturned. Last spring, when Takashimaya opened its store on Fifth Avenue, the gallery offered a revolving selection of art from both sides of the Pacific - pleasant, proper, but also thoroughly predictable.

No matter. In the New Economy, it will take cultural mediators like Satoh to nudge forward the process of communication, however slowly. Already, she is contemplating broadening her message from business clients to government. "I pay taxes," she reasons, "and we must seriously rethink the way we look at ourselves and present ourselves to the world.''

One idea she plans to propose: the Foreign Ministry should invite foreigners in and monitor how they perceive official statements - sort of a multinational focus group. "This kind of input has never been tried,'' Satoh says.

That's hardly the kind of suggestion Japan's concrete-minded bureaucrats are likely to jump at. But they might do well to start listening. After all, Japan's relations with the rest of the world couldn't get much worse.

Or could they?

Nina J. Easton is staff writer for the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

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