I've always wanted to meet Lucas. His work with the travel magazine Papersky had inspired me greatly, so two years ago, having bought a ticket to Tokyo, I emailed him to see if there was a possibility of us meeting. I hadn't started Creative People + Projects then and so I didn't have a good excuse, but the kind Lucas quickly agreed. Unfortunately the earthquake in Japan happened, and I rerouted to Seoul instead.
A few weeks ago I finally managed to find my way to Tokyo. When I pushed through the door and stepped into Knee High Media's office (the creative agency founded by Lucas), I was surprised at how down-to-earth it was. I had expected, I guess, to walk into an entire building - after all, Knee High Media is scarily busy: besides publishing Papersky, Lucas is also the brains behind kids' magazine Mammoth, the yearly kids' music festival "Mammoth Pow-Wow", countless bicycle tours across Japan; as a creative agency the company also works with clients to, among other things, design shops and create publications.
Very quickly I found myself face-to-face with Lucas. We shoke hands and I noticed that his grasp was firm but gentle. It was a cold day in Tokyo, but I was immediately comforted by the warmth of Lucas' personality. And so we talked, and as his story unfolded, I began to understand why he is able to do what he does.
How did it all begin? Why did you decide to come to Japan?
I was originally from California - born in Baltimore, in the East Coast. I graduated from college and the next day I came to Japan. It was the first time I'd ever been outside of America. In school I had a friend from the Netherlands, a friend from Pakistan, a friend from Wales... they all spoke other languages and they would always go back to these countries and tell me about all their adventures. So when I graduated I was like, I'm going to go somewhere exciting! In Japan Town in San Francisco, there's a bookstore called Kinokuniya, they had lots of Japanese magazines and I'd always be amazed at the design, the photographs. So I said, I'm going to Japan! That was my only reason and I only had a very small backpack and I just got on the airplane. I had no plans. I had about $1,000 on me.
I know at that time you began making the youth/fashion magazine TOKION, which later gained alot of popularity.
In about two weeks or so I figured out that I really liked Japan and that I wanted to stay here, so I found a job teaching English to kids. I also started writing for some publications here. Time Magazine used to have an Asian office in Tokyo, so I used to write for them. I also wrote for Wired Magazine and Japan Times. So I would write articles, then I remembered that I kinda like making magazines, so I started making the magazine TOKION in 1996, three years after I had arrived in Japan. Once I had the idea, I gathered a group of people I thought it'd be good to work with - about 5 of them.
TOKION was about street culture, youth culture, music, fashion. Every issue had a different theme. This was new at that time. Not many magazines did that. Another thing new was that we did lots of collaborations with other brands. On the first issue of TOKION we had Nigo (the founder of fashion brand A Bathing Ape) on the cover. It was his first. He had never been on one before. It was a very big deal in Japan. He liked Star Wars alot so we gave him a pink light saber! We also did different versions with a green one and an orange one. Depending on what shop you went to, you got a different cover.
So did TOKION become your full-time job? Was it successful enough for you to make a living out of it?
When we first started, I was still writing. It took about a year or so before it became a full-time job. The income came through advertising and sales, and we also did alot of parties, because there were lots of good music bands.
Why did you eventually decide to stop publishing TOKION, especially when it was still very popular with the readers?
I started TOKION when I was 24, 25 years old. You get older as the years go by, so it got more difficult. The quality of TOKION was very good, but the topic was very young. The readers were very young too - lots of energy and they always wanted to know what's new. As I got older, I had less energy and I didn't know about what's going on. It kinda creates a gap. You can fake it and pretend like you know but it's not real anymore. Obviously the readers read magazines like that and they know it right away. So I couldn't make what needs to be done anymore. So I thought if there're other people who could do something with it, then it might be better.
Do you think one day you would stop making Papersky, just like you stopped publishing TOKION, and do something different at another stage of your life?
We kinda do alot of different stuff, so I don't know what else to do (laugh)! We have Mammoth, the kids' magazine; Paper Sky is about travel, we also do events now all over Japan where we visit rural prefectures in Japan. It's called the Papersky tour in Nippon. Each time we go to a different place and we ride bicycles, and we appreciate the place through the ride. We just opened a store two weeks ago. We used to run a rather famous bookstore called Book 246. We have a clothing store in Kyoto, the Globe Walker, commissioned by the North Face. Every 3 months we make a different map for them, and in each of them we choose ten places that Papersky recommends in the city. We also create monthly exhibitions about the city in the shop. We also recently opened our own online shop!
That is alot on your plate! How many people do you have in your company?
5 of us. Myself, my wife, and 3 other people. It's a small team. At one point we made three magazines, and we also made Metro Min, a free magazine (another publishing company asked us to make it) - we were doing all of these at the same time and we had 12 people. It was too much. The last four years or so, we have gotten down to a smaller team. We also make these bicycle maps that are distributed at the places that we introduce. For Mammoth magazine, we have a 2-day music and camp festival. It's basically a music festival but geared towards families and kids.
Although you do so many different things, your main focus seems to be on magazines. What
do you think is the magazine's role in the world? Do you think it still has a place in these digitized times?
Definitely. Magazines are special because they are printed and on paper - they are alive! Paper is literally living - holding itself together via fibers. Magazines are held together through inspiring ideas and visuals. Magazines are printed matter and printed matter at its best is collected and saved and passed on through time. It's referenced and loved both in the heart and mind - magazines at their best, like good music and good art, have a soul and the ability to inspire - so yes, in an increasingly digitalized society, magazines definitely still have a place. While they dwindle in number the publications that do survive become more and more precious and important.
I am quite curious: What is the creative process like at the office of Knee High Media, with so many creative projects running at the same time?
It's like juggling. We've got lots of balls up in the air and we've got to catch whichever one is going to hit us in the eye first. It's good because each publication has a focus but at the same time all of the projects we work on inspire one another.
We have a list of ideas but sometimes things happen, like the Tsunami, and the mood and the timing is very different, so it's always very important to look at our old notes but also to be in the present and the future. Magazines are very live, which is why I like magazines. For us it's always trying to figure out what's the right thing to do at the right time and place. We always have Monday meetings and we talk about different projects, and through that we usually come up with a theme. We also always have a keyword. The upcoming issue's theme is New Zealand and the keyword is "Long". In Japan it's very popular to go to the mountains and ride bicycles around town. It's good that people are doing both of these activities, but we think that the next step is for people to realize that it's not just a fashionable thing to do - because if you ride a bike it's alot better than if you ride a car, as it does a lot less damage to the earth, and you have better communication because people say hi and you say hi back, and you can feel if the air is dirty or clean. It's the same with walking. It's interesting also that it's a very healthy thing mentally, but you don't feel the effects if you just do it for a day or two, but if you take a walk or ride a bicycle for 4 days or more, you are no longer in the "fashionable" zone. It's more of a commitment. It automatically affects your mentality. It doesn't matter who you are, but when you do that it's going to change you in someway or another. In New Zealand it's not such a rare thing. There they do this as a lifestyle. It changes the whole mentality of the country, so we want to introduce this concept into Japan.
What is your philosophy towards your work?
"Play to learn". If you're not interested in what you're doing, it's not fun and you're not learning anything. The reason travel is exciting is because you're always meeting other people and learning something new. The travel might be faraway or a walk down the street, but if you're constantly being exposed to new stuff, it's exciting. It's like how you get people excited in things - it's a very editorial thing. Many people can make a magazine, but not many can make one that people are interested in. I think that's a skill that we have as a company. For instance, when we started a magazine about plants, we didn't know anything about plants. The company who hired us wanted to just make a gardening magazine, but we thought we can't do that because we don't know about plants! But what we can do is get people engaged in plants, excited about plants, so that kinda opened up different doors. So once people - whether about culture or kids learning things - are engaged, you don't have to teach them anymore, they do it themselves and they learn more. Like our tours - everyone comes to the cities, but no one goes to the rural communities. If no one goes there, no one can make food, you can't function as a country anymore. You also lose a lot of your culture. So our concept was - how do you get people excited about the rural communities?
How has living overseas changed your worldview and the way you work?
I've become an Earthling. Which has definitely given me the view point that we all live on the same island - Earth. Once this happens you can appreciate your locality with a widescreen perspective of being both one and simultaneously a part of a whole.
You are always trying to keep things different and provide new perspectives. That's very inspiring to me. What, on the other hand, inspires you?
think the cycle of being inspired and inspiring others is ultimately
what makes life so precious and delightful. I'm constantly curious
about things and always striving to know more, but not through an
'intellectual' type of knowledge but rather through a hands-on type
of knowledge that is only gained by experiencing people, events and
places on your own.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a magazine?
Don't do it! Making a magazine is tons of work - usually doesn't work out, costs lots of money and makes no money. But if you have a voice inside you that says, make it and people will be inspired, make it for the sake of creating a better world, make it in the name of creativity and happiness, then go for it! You'll love it, because magazines, when they are good, will open doors to anywhere you want to go.
How important is work in your life? Do you consider yourself to be a workaholic?
Life and work are pretty much the same thing. I am inspired by life and the natural world, as well as by people and the amazing amount of love and creativity that people hold in their hearts. I travel the world and Japan looking for people, places, things and ideas that inspire me and I try to share what I've found with our readers.
What do you do on your off days from work?
Pretty much the same things that I do on work days.
Hang out with my wife - we work together, so actually I'm very lucky in that I get to be with the person I love everyday.
I also do a lot of walking, hiking and biking, which I also do on work days. Our magazine Papersky has created a series of clubs that bring readers together to participate in hikes and bike trips throughout Japan. We currently have 5 clubs: a bicycle club, a mountain club, a book club, a Japan culture club and a food club.
I've got lots of free time I'll read - it takes me about 2 months to
get through a book. What
I probably do most of the day is day-dreaming. Definitely hard to
keep my mind from wandering about.