Tomoyuki Sugiyama

Back to Contents of Issue: December 2000

President, Digital Hollywood

Photograph by Kyoko Fujimoto
Tomoyuki Sugiyama talks like a digital guru. He acts like one. He looks like one. And in a world of Internet hype and phonies, he might actually be one. Before the Net sunk in with everyone, Sugiyama was a successful acoustic architecture designer and researcher working out of his hometown, Tokyo. Then he spent a few years as a visiting scholar at MIT, and his world -- and world view -- started to change. Seeing his MIT colleagues using email to communicate effortlessly with others around the world -- this was the late '80s, when that was a big deal -- he grokked the potential of the Internet, and, more impressive, foresaw the digital divide that only in recent years has reached hot-topic status.

Upon returning to Tokyo, he founded Digital Hollywood Corporation, a school designed to provide the skills and training required by the new media industry. The school, backed by IBM Japan and Hitachi (among others), now includes courses in all things digital -- everything from computer graphics to Web design to Net business, and has five branches in Japan, one in Seoul, and one in Santa Monica, California. The school claims to have churned out some 16,000 digital designers. Sugiyama in 1995 set up a tech talent outsourcing company called Digital Scape, and earlier this year he partnered with seven companies to create Digital Hollywood Stream, a ¥2.5 billion fund for investing in startups.

Last December, the school opened its second Tokyo branch, this one in the heart of Bit Valley: in the Q-Front Building, famous for its huge TV screens overlooking the swarming crowds. The new branch hosts galleries, a cafŽ, and a bar.

Sugiyama is a busy guru, making TV appearances, overseeing new branch openings, and setting up new strategic alliances with companies like game maker Namco and cellphone superstar NTT DoCoMo. Chiaki Kitada and Kyoko Fujimoto spoke with him at his headquarters in Ochanomizu.

Tell us about your Net business classes.
Many students want to start up an Internet-related business. We introduce them to business models and systems. Upon graduation, they have to submit their business plans to an external advisory committee -- it's possible that one of the companies on the committee will take up their plans and fund them.

The Q-Front building seems to symbolize Bit Valley. Did you have that in mind when you moved in?
We had wanted to open a branch in Shibuya for quite a while. Finally we found the right place, as Tsutaya, our biggest shareholder, took part in the Q-Front development project. The developers were looking for tenants who had something to do with digital. Q-Front and this branch opened at the peak of the Bit Valley movement, in December 1999. I was stunned to find so many president wannabes here.

You predicted the current upsurge in cellphones a few years ago. Will cellphones take over PCs?
The number of cellphones has exploded, but the size of the screens is simply too small, especially for motion pictures. Americans complain that Japanese cellphones are too small for practical use. The screen is only 4 centimeters (1.5 inches) square. Nobody wants to watch a movie on a screen that size. People probably could stand watching two-minute versions, though, and there will be a market for content like that. Palm Pilots have the right size.

Will i-mode go worldwide?
It might be difficult because it belongs to a politically sensitive realm, telecommunications. Game machines have gone global because big companies didn't show a strong appetite for that kind of thing.

In other areas where politicians don't have a tight grip, Japan produced mega-hits like the Walkman and cartoon animation. Cartoon animation gained a huge worldwide audience, partly because it went into the market without the intention of world dominance.

What do you think of Japan's future?
Japanese are not so good at making software, so it's not a good idea to overemphasize that industry. Companies here are good at manufacturing small, refined machines at the lowest price. That's a core business in Japan.

This country has a rapidly aging society, and we'll soon need technology that supports physically incapacitated people who still have active brain functions. Japan is known for being on the cutting edge of the robot industry. A company here recently invented a walking robot that moves up and down stairs smoothly, controlled by remote. And the home electronics industry can inexpensively manufacture high-quality technology.

What else worries you about Japan's future?
State financing could run dry if the government keeps overprotecting the old establishment, like the finance and construction industries. I fear a big outflow of capable Japanese businessmen moving overseas because their English has improved dramatically. The government should spend our tax money on human resources instead of trying to rescue those companies.

Young Japanese today are divided into two categories: those who study hard and those who have given up, even if they are talented. I find this society getting polarized into the rich and the poor. It's good to eliminate rules and regulations, but it will lead us to a society with a diminishing middle class.

And the world?
People in the modern age immerse themselves in an overwhelming amount of information, and they end up wanting more than they can possibly have. They have pent-up frustration, jealousy, and grudges, because they know exactly what's happening in the rest of the world. I hope we can find a solution to these problems in cyberspace by connecting with others via the Web and email.

Cyberspace is best suited for multidimensional activities. You can do whatever you want and make friends with anybody you'd like to: artists, scholars, government officials, software designers, et cetera.

My hidden agenda of founding the school is to produce more people who can appreciate this kind of freedom.

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