There is no exclusive data for the number of African-Americans who live and work abroad, but from the media attention over the last 5 years, it is alot. To saving money, starting over, or learning something new, countless of African-Americans have crossed the Atlantic – and Pacific – to get to the next level.
Arthell Isom, CEO and art director of D’Art Shtajio, Japan’s first black-owned anime studio, is one of those people. His work has been featured in music videos for The Weeknd, Jay-Z, Pharrell and others. Yet, working and building a life in Japan has bought along its own unique lessons.
Maryann Reid: What is the one thing that surprised you about working in Japan in general?
Arthell Isom: I think the Ganbaru spirit of the Japanese really stood out to me. Ganbaru doesn’t have a singular translation, because it’s used in so many aspects of their life. I’m referring to their will power and drive. My senpai (Japanese for senior or superior) really enjoy their work. So much so, they’d work endlessly until their task was completed and with the intent to always do better. I remember asking how they worked so hard and painted so well. Their response was always Ganbaru.
Reid: What was it like when you first arrived in Japan in 2005? Please share an aha moment to let you know you were not in the U.S. anymore.
Isom: When I first got to Japan it really was surreal. I think the aha moment came when I saw all the signs were no longer in English. There were pictures instead of the traditional alphabet.
Reid: Do you find it easier to do business as a black man abroad than in the U.S.?
Isom: I think so much has changed in the U.S. since I’ve come to Japan. I feel like this would have been easier to answer in the past. Now with the push for diversity and representation I feel like doors are definitely open in the U.S. that weren’t open when I first moved out here. In Japan, I feel like the Japanese value hard work over anything else. At least in my experiences, here, when it came to working, race wasn’t a factor.
Reid: What, if any challenges have you experienced working in Japan? While working in Abu Dhabi I experienced more cultural issues than race.
Isom: I can identify with your experience of cultural clashes while working in a foreign country. There’s one that really stood out to me though, even today. I think in the West we really focus on individuality when it comes to work and working with others. We wear it like a badge of honor. However, in Japan, community and like mindedness, are the driving forces here. Everyone relies on their senpai to set the pace and the course of action. I think both approaches have benefits.
Reid: What is the one thing you’d change about the anime industry?
Isom: This question is always hard for me to answer. Because I feel like it isn’t my position to change the industry. I think of D’art as an addition to the numerous studios here in Japan expanding the medium of anime. We’d like to add to the landscape of characters and stories fans think of when they think of anime.
Reid: Any other black mentors you look to or up to for advice moving forward?
Isom: I look up to a lot of successful black mentors all across the board. Ava DuVernay, Will Smith, Jay Z, Serena Williams, Rihanna, Lebron James, and within my industry Peter Ramsey to name a few. I haven’t had the chance to meet any of them yet, but I got close when Jay Z’s people reached out and wanted me to be in the Entrepreneur video by Pharrell featuring Jay-Z. I learn a lot from watching and reading about their individual journeys.
Reid: What advice would you have for someone who wants to reinvent themselves abroad?
Isom: If you have the opportunity to move abroad even for a short period of time, do it. It really will change your outlook on life. My advice would be definitely open yourself up for reinvention, and change. It’s important to have an open mind when you travel because it’ll allow you to fully experience new cultures and practices.
Reid: Is there anything else I should know?
Isom: Being a twin, my brother Darnell is a major motivational factor when it comes to driving toward goals. We always use each other’s energy to push forward. And it was our pact from high school, to start a business together, that has kept us on track. Darnell is cofounder of D’art Shtajio.