Back to Contents of Issue: November 2003

At home in Hyogo with Japan's hardest rocking IT whiz

by Dominic Al-Badri

"ROCK'N'ROLL SAVED MY LIFE!" insists Koji Tomita, the 35-year-old founder of TNT, his fast-growing computer services company in Hyogo.

Tomita was raised in Hawaii in the 70s, well before Waikiki reinvented itself as a quasi-Japanese colony the following decade. As an Asian child, he was a pariah in the American public school system. Picked on and bullied, Koji found solace in the sounds of rock monsters AC/DC and Black Sabbath.

Though the music rocked his socks off, Tomita was most startled by his surging popularity -- his records impressed classmates who previously hadn't given him the time of day. And his signature tune? Aussie hard rock heroes AC/DC's classic, "TNT."

If Kansai has an epicenter, it's Osaka's southern district of Namba, where Tomita was born and spent the first few years of his life. His father was an underwater photographer who spent days away from home, working in the waters surrounding the tropical Hawaiian islands.

With firsthand experience of the changing times in Hawaii, a growing weariness with constant international travel and a prescient notion that the Japanese were gearing up for a peaceful invasion of the then idyllic islands, Tomita's father announced that the family was moving there en masse.

Tomita was suddenly yanked out of his Kansai childhood and plunged into American society. His father gave up his previous day job as a photographer and started a noodle shop, one of the very first in Hawaii to serve Japanese tourists homesick for a tasty bowl of udon.

Nearly 30 years later, Tomita can laugh. "That music really helped me. It gave me the self-confidence I lacked."

Self-confidence is something he has needed in spades these past three years as he and his wife Hidemi have struggled to turn a bedroom operation into a viable business. His father's interest in photography rubbed off and led Tomita to get involved in the early days of digital video editing, working with numerous Japanese production companies filming TV commercials on the white sands of Hawaiian beaches.

Armed with his knowledge of computers and his fluent English and Japanese skills, Tomita decided to head back to Japan in 1995 when he saw how successful Microsoft's Windows 95 had been. "I was sure I could get a job with one of the big Japanese companies," he recalls.

But there was one problem: "Though I could speak Japanese, I couldn't really read or write it." Tomita's immediate dreams came crashing down around him. None of the big Japanese technology companies were interested.

Lady Luck
Tomita was able to put his bilingual skills to good use at Osaka-based agency Academy Travel, run by expatriate businessman Ray Kruger. A lucky break, as it turned out, for it was here he met his wife, Hidemi.

A couple of years later, lady luck smiled again, and Tomita noticed a want ad from a Kobe-based computer company well-known in Kansai's foreign community. Three years of experience there and a growing realization that he could, with a combination of his computer knowledge and his ever increasing number of contacts, go it alone led to his fateful decision.

"We had just come back from our honeymoon [in 2000] and decided I could start my own company," he reminisces.

But it was tough. Initially catering to those members of the foreign population in Kansai who were looking for either bilingual computers or English operating systems, Tomita and his wife worked out of the spare room of their small apartment in the city of Nishinomiya, exactly halfway between the cities of Kobe and Osaka.

"We had to leave our first apartment because of complaints from the neighbours. Too many foreigners! Too many courier deliveries!" With a steady stream of foreign folk struggling to sort through the mysteries of the Windows OS, and an equally steady stream of deliveries of monitors, hard disks and motherboards, it was perhaps inevitable that the good burghers of Nishinomiya were unimpressed. The Tomitas promptly moved out and into a bigger apartment. Six months later, same story: evicted again.

TNT's first big contract, with Alice K.K., a local orthopedic shoe manufacturer, remains one of Tomita's most enduring memories: "I met the vice-president of the company by chance and he said he needed 14 TFT screens. This was a big break." The folks at Alice were so impressed with Tomita's service that another big order promptly followed for 30 computers and a complete network setup including two servers.

"I had to learn on the fly. The apartment was full of computer parts, stacked to the ceiling. Hidemi was pregnant with our first child and she was assembling motherboards on the dining table. We were sleeping between computer boxes. It was just like a Southeast Asian sweatshop."

Today TNT is housed in a smart new office on busy Route 171, and Tomita has a full-time staff of six. Aside from assembling top-quality PCs, designing Web sites and offering crucial support to Kansai's English-speaking community, TNT's most lucrative work comes from an increasingly large database of Japanese customers looking for inexpensive computer repairs at prices far cheaper than those charged by the big companies.

"In the early days, business was 95 percent foreign and 5 percent Japanese. Now it's about 50-50," Tomita says. "Many big companies charge a fortune for data backup and similar services. We are able to undercut them and offer a really personal service."

This latter business ethos is at the heart of TNT, and though Tomita would like to have branch offices in Kyoto and Osaka, he doesn't want to get so big that the level of customer service declines. (Tomita cites Dell as an example of a company whose initial reputation for quality service slipped as sales boomed.)

He's quite happy where he is: "I don't want to move to Tokyo. There are enough companies there already and the rents are too high. In Kansai the people are friendlier and the food is much tastier. I'm from Kansai originally, so I want to stay here and try and help other companies. When I can, I always choose Kansai-based suppliers over those from other parts of the country."

Even for a native son, things are not always easy, however. "The toughest thing has been trying to work in a Japanese way," Tomita admits. "I may be Japanese, but I was brought up in Hawaii and don't think like a traditional Japanese. This can cause problems when dealing with other Japanese, especially as I like to wear jeans and t-shirts. I'm the boss, but I don't look like the boss to most people here. It's really irritating. Luckily, Hidemi is able to take care of that side of things."

With revenue doubling year-on-year, and with TNT's digital video-editing classes and seminars all set to start this autumn, Tomita, though wary of becoming complacent, is finally allowing himself to relax a little. "Things are finally paying off. It's been worth it." All that -- and the latest AC/DC album wasn't too bad either. @

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