There are some people that leave an impression from the very first meeting. This was Daren. There are some people that sound a bit crazy, but you definitely like what you hear. This was Daren. And, then there are some gifted storytellers. This is also Daren. My guest on this episode, Daren Afshar was born in Corpus Christi, Texas but has grown up in a number of places, most of it in California and Arizona. The second half of his life, though, has been spent in Japan where his business, interestingly enough, is Hollywood. But, in the last 4 years, he has been leading a bunch of passionate young global leaders here in Japan. He and his team have a spectacular show planned for us in May 2022 in Tokyo.
I first met Daren, not too long ago in October 2020, at a fabulous event called the One Young World Tokyo Caucus, where he is a director. We caught up later for lunch, and I was surprised to learn that that a lot of the Hollywood projects that come to Japan go through his office. And where is his office? He lives and works primarily in… Mie-Prefecture; not exactly the center of activity for commerce in Japan these days.
However, Daren did remind me rightfully that that is where the Ise Shrine is, the center for spiritual Japan. “Hollywood never had a problem with my address in Mie. So, why should Tokyo have a problem?” Daren likes Mie with a view of the mountains and ocean from his window and describes himself as a real example of 地方推進 (regional development initiatives).
Daren has been in Japan for 25 years, going on to his 26th year. In his high school years, his original target was China, but he found the language a bit too difficult. Japanese, on the other hand used not only Chinese characters (kanji), but also included what laughingly called “a back-up system,” hiragana.
This led him to majoring in finance and Japanese at Arizona State University, W.P. Carey School of Business. After he graduated in 1995, the 24 year old came to Japan with a job offer from Merrill Lynch, around the timing of the failed Yamaichi Securities takeover (1998). He asked for 6 months prior to starting at Merrill to embed himself in the Japanese culture. So, he opened a map of Japan, closed his eyes, and put his finger on a spot, and it was Kuwana in Mie Prefecture.
As his train arrived in Kuwana, he decided “Nope, not here” and kept on riding the limited express to the next stop, Yokkaichi, which looked a bit more appealing to him. 25 years later, he is still there.
“This could be fun. Let’s see where this will take me.” One of Daren’s philosophies in life, as a former surfer, is riding “waves.” He saw a wine boom coming in Japan around the time he was supposed to go back to start work at Merrill Lynch. Needless to say, he never made it to Merrill Lynch.
While Daren was a college student at Arizona State, his night job was being a table captain at Mary Elaine’s, a famous restaurant in the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, where he gained extensive wine experience. He had just received his sommelier license, prior to arriving in Japan.
It was initially a past time for him, but the blonde, blue-eyed Japanese-speaking sommelier began cohorting with some pros. The experience was fun and educational. So, Daren thought, “Well, let’s ride this wave for a while.”
He appeared on NHK a few times and met other famous sommeliers such as Yukiko Shima, and Shinya Tasaki. On one memorable occasion, Daren was on a wine tasting stage in front of several hundred people, and a woman in the front row was trying to get his attention. Daren pretended not to see her and continued focusing on the larger audience. However, in a moment of silence, she shouted in Japanese, “Your zipper’s open!” So much for the elegant sommelier and master of his craft.
However, one thing led to another, and Daren would attract somebody’s attention and another wave would appear. And, he would decide to ride that wave (or not). One particular wave led Daren to the Toei Studios in Kyoto.
There, he met some producers and they asked Daren to get involved in the film they were making. Next thing he knew, he had stayed there for a month, became an extra, and helped out with other production related tasks. It turned out to be a rather large movie with a large cast, and Daren thought “Wow! This is an interesting wave! I think I will ride this one now.” The rest is history.
I asked Daren whether the “waves” come for everybody, but they don’t realize it. He replied that taking note is important. Many of us see the same things, but it is the few that actually notice something and take action.
“Waves” are there. Daren says that you can choose to recognize them. You can enter the sea to ride them. Then, you can choose to “pump” those waves. Some people just ride the wave, but Daren likes to “pump” the wave to see what he can do with it.
There are some waves that are tsunamis. You have to be very careful in riding that wave because it can decimate you. Some tsunamis have been extraordinary profitable and great for his career, while others were disasters.
Daren warns that if you “pump” it too much, you may find yourself alone. But, leadership is lonely. It’s not a phrase that should be used lightly. A group of surfers will be waiting for a wave, but it is usually that one surfer that catches that wave.
This is what Daren has been trying to do intentionally for the last 20 years and will continue to do so with One Young World and his film business for the next 20 years. Daren is not looking to back to the States anytime soon.
From the Toei film project in Kyoto, Daren made friends. The great actor Masahiko Tsugawa befriended young Daren, and became a mentor to him. Daren came back to Kyoto many times with him and learned a lot.
One movie presented another movie, and then “The Last Samurai” came. This solidified Daren’s niche, fixing a ton of problems, troubleshooting on the fly, making decisions at a pace that his Japanese friends were having difficulty with.
So rather than complaining about the loads of work, Daren figured, “Lets leverage it.”
Daren wondered how much of the Japanese population is aware that a significant portion of “The Last Samurai” was filmed in New Zealand. This was because of financial incentives, but also because of logistics. New Zelanders would say, “Oh right, mate. We will take care that for you right away.” While Japanese will always reply, “Oh, muzukashii” (that’s difficult).
Not only “The Last Samurai,” but many other films like “Fast And Furious Tokyo Drift” were barely filmed in Japan. There are number of examples where Daren has presented to the national government showing how much money and PR that Japan lost by allowing production to go overseas, rather than fixing the problem and setting up an environment of collaboration and cooperation that turns into profitability.
Canada is a great example of this, according to Daren. Everybody is scrambling to keep up, and there are always plenty of areas willing to welcome and pay for large-scale productions. Even the Japanese productions now will go to Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, not just for financial reasons, but also because it is certainly easier to shoot there.
Any film producer will agree that, first and foremost, what makes Japan a difficult place to shoot is the concept of “meiwaku” which basically is the concept of not creating a problem for somebody else. While a socially great concept to keep order and structure, the unfortunate part is that nobody wants to take a step or a risk for the same reason.
Another challenge is the “Galapagos” nature of Japan, the “KY” (Kuuki Yomenai), which Daren translates into English as “clueless.” Daren believes that there is a difference between ignorance and stupidity. Ignorance is “you just don’t know.” Stupidity is “you know but you do it anyway.”
There is a certain kind of cluelessness, ignorance, or naivete here in Japan, being surrounded by ocean, not really caring about what is happening outside its borders. Daren believes that this has harmed the country in general. When Daren goes to say, “Hey I’d like to bring Mission Impossible to your doorstep,” the reply he gets is “What’s that?”
For the last 10 years since MI2 finished, Daren has been working with producers of Paramount try to get in MI to Japan. Of course, MI3 went to Shanghai and MI4 to Dubai, despite the fact that Daren pleaded with the government, “Please tell me you will give me whatever I need to get Tom Cruise to jump off of Roppongi Hills.”
There was a time when Tom Cruise made a personal appearance at an agency of the government to make a personal case to the government to support him with bringing MI to Japan. Even that didn’t work.
Daren was able to get Paramount to fund one last scout for the latest MI movies. Chris McQuarrie, the director, the producer, and a stunt coordinator took a good hard look at Japan. And on the final day, when Daren asked them, “So, what do we think?” The answer was, “No.” Just having Tom Cruise come out of the Tokyo tunnels or subway on a motorcycle and running around Marunouchi Square was not enough.
Daren thinks that Gunkanjma in the James Bond series (“Skyfall” 2012) was a great inclusion. But if you asked most people around the world, if they knew that the bad guy’s secret lair was, in fact, a cherished treasure of Japan off the coast in Nagasaki Prefecture, few would know that. So, Japan did not “win”, but “lost” even in that case.
Daren stressed that he did not want to give the impression that Japan was totally clueless. Daren’s discussions with the government had been productive, and while it may have taken him 10 years, there are now formal incentives program in place. Paramount’s GI JOE reboot, “Snake Eyes”, was the first recipient of these funds. The film is being released later this year!
Ironically, Daren had much more money ready for MI, when he asked the government for a war chest to go to battle and to get MI to Japan. And, even though Tom loved Japan and was constantly pushing for it, Chris and his team made the call. London was going to pay much more money and had been home to the franchise for a few years already.
Daren’s understanding is that Tom is done with MI. He broke his ankle in the last MI, and while he will always jump out of an airplane if you give him a chance, he thinks the series is done.
For the most part, Daren thinks Japan has missed a massive opportunity. He believes that another wave will come, but Daren feels he has spent way too much time and energy in trying to get Japan to “see the light.” Some things were built, which is great, of course. But, there are so many other countries such as China and Korea laying waste to Japan’s efforts.
A famed example is when Daren went to ask the Japanese national government for $25 to $50 million, his reference point being one providence of China which had $1.5 billion in a war chest and a physical studio. Daren admits that his mistake was saying to old school politicians that he was “on Iwo JIma fighting a battle with bamboo sticks.” It was an appropriate metaphor for Daren, but he admits that it was just terribly insulting, and as a result didn’t get what he was asking for.
When questioned about the existence of a generation gap in the film industry here, Daren replied that was one of the reasons he got involved with One Young World. The bridge between what Daren does in TV and film and digital media, bridges nicely with One Young World. That bridge is the power of storytelling.
Daren believes there are some amazing stories in Japan, yet Japan is the worst storyteller. However, what has happened recently is that the younger generation are the ones now telling those stories, often leveraging the power of the foreign platforms.
For example, at the World Economic Forum, there were several stories about Japan. One was regarding the Olympics where Japan was recycling more than 90% of its metals and making recycled gold medals from computer motherboards.
Japan was not going to tell that story by itself. And even if it tried, nobody was going to listen. It takes a younger audience, a younger leader to step up and say “If you really do want to be cool, don’t call yourself cool. Let the others who think we’re cool continue that message on their own.”
Daren thinks that there was more progress made by giving those stories to storytellers who are good on those particular platforms and letting them run with that. This is opposite of what Japan has done traditionally for decades, trying to control the narrative start to finish with the “Japan is awesome” theme all the time, which not everybody is in the mood for all the time.
Finding these new aggressive young leaders has always been one of Daren’s tasks as a producer. He wants aggressive young people who are not going to ask him for permission on everything. They are going to put some proposals on the table consistently.
One Young World presents Daren with a potential army of talent. He is able to transfer some of his own experience and storytelling abilities to these younger people who have passion, great energy, and camaraderie. This will be a “tornado of terror” to the status quo, according to Daren.
The difficult part about One Young World is trying to convince the corporations that they should not fear, but rather get excited to work with One Young World. One Young World is not here to protest, but to make the world a better place, and they would like to do that together with the corporations rather than against.
One Young World as a global organization was established in London about 11 years ago, and presently shifting to become a more global footprint much like the World Economic Forum. 2000 of the world’s top young leaders who are working on particular projects or about to set out a particular project join the global summits every year because they need network, they need mentors, and they need financing. The 4-day annual event delivers that.
In addition to talking about a number of topics to align with the United Nations’ SDGs, the One Young World global summit allows young people to interact with business titans and political leaders like Sir Richard Branson, former US President Bill Clinton, Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus. One Young World brings together all of these experts to the table, giving direct, unfiltered access to young leaders who need it.
In the context of One Young World, “young” is basically between 18 and 32. Daren thinks 18 may be a bit young because they may not have had that much experience to prove their leadership capabilities. However, there have been examples, even here in Japan where a 16 year old has set up a business. There have been a couple of cases where 12 year olds have set up businesses in America.
So, Daren is talking to his global colleagues to see if Japan could be a pilot for younger members in high schools. Daren knows that the Son brothers, Masayoshi and Taizo, are very passionate about education, and that they aware of what OYW is doing, and Daren is trying to get them involved.
He is working with an elite high school in Gifu prefecture, to provide them with at least a lens for them to look through to see what our world really looks like. It’s to help them understand the kind of challenges that they are going to face in the future; to not be scared of them and to embrace them.
There have been over 300 One Young World ambassadors in Japan over the last 10 years, and 80% of them have just disappeared. Daren believes that is to be expected. He wants to focus on the 20%.
This year’s global summit is in Munich, Germany, and Daren is proceeding like a torpedo, not allowing anyone to tell him this will not happen at the end of July. He has every intention of taking 30 to 40 delegates from Japan to Munich to be a force of nature there. Munich is showing the same commitment.
At this point, Daren’s judgement is that everything will be fine. Daren’s focus is actually on May 2022, because he has been working for the last 3 years to make sure that One Young World comes to Tokyo.
Though there are a few genius types in high school, most of the One Young World Ambassadors between 18 and 24 are from the elite universities. Daren is more interested in trying to get the other schools that don’t always fit into this kind of Top 10 category. He is convinced that talent is everywhere and is determined to find it.
Most of the multinationals and a few of the Japanese corporations send their employees as a human resources initiative. But Daren is also very clear that they cannot just send anybody. They needed to have already led in their organization, and that they need to have a minimum TOEIC score of 780. English being discussed amongst 190 countries’ delegates is obviously very high level discussion.
It is not cheap to bring 50 of the world leaders to a 4-day event, either. There is a ton of coordination that has to happen. So, there is a cost to attend One Young World and sometimes delegates will pay for it on their own. Other times, scholarships are made available by corporations and generous donors. In the case of Tokyo 2022 because Tokyo Metropolitan Government is a host city, 40 special young leaders will get the chance to attend next May.
Before the event, Daren is expecting several mountains in front of him. Right now, a lot of companies or government organizations are unaware of what is happening globally with One Young World. And most of them are not prepared when Daren presents the scale of the event even though it is only 4 days. The security for 50 VIPs is not dissimilar to the G20 summit.
Daren needs partners that will put in real money into real projects, to put real key opinion leaders on stage, and to have real discussions about that next business idea, the next start-up.
Paul Polman former CEO of Unilever has attended every year, and that kind of experience is not being shared through just a speech. He attends all 4 days, participating in smaller workshops, shaking hands, hearing pitches. He is really invested in these young people.
Daren is talking to Panasonic. He is talking to Toyota. And, on the record, he is quick to say that he is NOT talking to Nissan and he thinks everybody knows the reason why. He will not allow partners on the One Young World platform if they are not showing commitment to being responsible members of society.
He iterates many times to his team and ambassadors that One Young World is not a “white-washing” or “green-washing” platform. One Young World is here to make a world a better place. And, if the companies who want to join are not on the same wavelength, then they are not welcome.
Proposals to potential partners depend obviously on the partner. In the case of Toyota, for example, Daren’s proposal to them is how to truly integrate its technologies. Toyota has been pushed by the market to pursue EV’s, purely electric vehicles and plugin hybrid vehicles. But, Daren thinks that Toyota has been right to play the hydrogen card in the face of public opposition.
Daren believes that the Japanese government getting behind that was an excellent initiative, similar to the push that was made in the 1970s to get the automotive industry up to a global competitive level. He thinks that Japan has taken that step again, but has been terrible at telling that story to the world.
“Let’s have a hydrogen discussion,” suggests Daren. “Why not power the opening ceremony with hydrogen. Make sure that 2000 people and 50 VIP take hydrogen fueled buses to the ceremony. Plug the buses in and power the entire ceremony with clean Hydrogen. Toyota can proudly say, “This is hydrogen. It is clean. Welcome to Japan.”
Daren believes that the same should be done with every single partner, at every single level. In essence, One Young World is a platform for storytelling to the world, which Japan is so poor at doing. One Young World is not just asking for money, but rather is asking for the stories.
Like this podcast “Made With Japan” represents, makes things WITH us, pleads Daren. Innovations happen here, whether people know it or not. Japan needs to be better at communicating that reality to the world again.
And for Daren, One Young World is the greatest platform to do it because their young people are fabulous at telling stories. It might be a 60-second Instagram story from time to time, but they’re good at it. So, if you give them the right topics, the depth, and let them run with it, there is a PR army to tell the right stories to the right people at the right time.
One Young World is the next generation, and for the partners the value is the storytelling by talented young storytellers from all over the world, what’s happening here in Japan in 2022.
Daren believes that, Johnson and Johnson sends 60 of their employees every year from all of their regions around the world to OYW global summit because, not just for employee retention, but also to prove a point; why young leaders are coming in droves to work at J&J.
He feels One Young World is like this massive festival of leadership where each company is sending their best. Literally, the Olympics of young leaders. And, everybody’s getting medals because they’ve all succeeded already and that’s why they’re there. They get to take it up a notch because they get to surround themselves with excellence the entire time.
When speaking with the CEOs he always start the sessions with a pretty simple question. “Why would anyone want to work here? Who is the face of your company? Who is the voice of your company? What is your message?” Daren feels that once you’ve got the answer to that question then the business model makes more sense to people.
Japanese delegates and corporations who want to get involved with One Young World should check out their webpage (https://oywj.org/). The application process for Munich just closed, and the applications for the Tokyo Summit later this year will probably be kept open for a little bit longer because they will be ramping up for the what will be the biggest One Young World global summit ever.
Daren basically has teed up the ball for Japan, with bringing One Young World to Tokyo in 2022. And, it is up to the Japanese delegation and partners to show up with a driver, not a putter.
The good news is that many of Daren’s friends in government and corporate Japan are looking at the event very seriously. Particularly given all the negativity that we have right now with uncertainty about Corona and the Olympics, Daren is confident that there is no uncertainty whether One Young World is coming with force.
“Coming out of Corona we need some positive energy and this is going to be it. We’re going to be doing it with Japan,” says Daren.
Japan will host the 2025 exposition in Osaka and Kansai, and One Young World in 2022 is perfectly positioned for that. Being a Hollywood producer, Daren promises a level of spice that Japan is never comfortable with, and that will be a lot of fun.
Looking forward to that show. The stage is set to help Japan become better storytellers!