Kai Tanaka
Kai Tanaka


Kai Tanaka


Among us
The boundaries between individuals and society are around us

Ao is a bar located in K5 Hotel. Drenched in a deep crimson color, the bar is surrounded by books, giving it the feel of a library. Ao in Japanese means 'blue' and is a reference to the author, Eiichi Shibusawa's, pen name, Seien, which in Japanese means deep blue. The space is reminiscent of Shibusawa's former study, boldly decorated in red, a contrasting color that absorbs the wavelength of the theme color blue. This contrast intends to push visitors to explore Shibusawa's ideas and to take them home as part of the experience. Kai Tanaka, the manager of Ao, shares with us his inspirations and goals; his achievements of self-realization, and his vision of the future.

●Where were you born?
I was born in Bremen, Germany, and came to Japan when I was two years old.

●What were you passionate about as a student?
Club activities; I played badminton for 10 years from junior high school through to university.

●What have you learned through badminton?
That “hard work is no match for talent.” No matter how hard you work, a strong person will always be strong, and a weak person will always be weak. I was more the type of person to stand next to a strong person, watch them win, and then be happy alongside them (laughs).

●What did you do in college?
I was a member of the badminton club, but I was also involved in the Philosophy Criticism Research Group and the Kakurenbo (hide-and-seek) Circle. I also tried to create my own club called ‘the Society for the Study of Extended Culture’, but it was not very active and I was forced to step down as secretary-general after one month (laughs). I couldn’t go to the Kakurenbo Circle very often because I had badminton, but there were some interesting people, so I tried to go once a month. There was an event in the Kakurenbo Circle called the ‘many after party’. As you can tell by the name, it refers to the parties after the after-party, and we would have about 100 of them; one after the other. Although there were more than 100 people in the club, we were struggling to gather people as the parties continued. There were times after the 58th after-party when there were only two of us left in the club room and I just had to endure the pain of keeping the conversation going. On the other hand, in the philosophy club, we just read books.

●What did you do after that?
My parents passed away in the middle of everything, and so I just played around with my inheritance for about two years. Although I did go to graduate school. That was also around the time that I opened ‘OPEN BOOK’ (*1). My money was getting low, so I figured opening a bar was a good way to earn some. I bought a property in Shinjuku Golden Gai, as my father had good connections with the people in that area.

A bar specializing in lemon sours in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai

Asking myself what I want to do in life. I want to do personal things that only I can do, rather than something just related to my own interests.

●Did you find your club experience useful when you started the shop?
No, I don’t think so – I don’t know if there is such a thing! If someone says otherwise, I would think that they are lying. Maybe it’s naive to think that you can’t achieve anything without putting in the hard work, but you actually might be able to just by using your senses. In my case, I don’t work very hard, and I think I should probably work harder.

●Was there some kind of polarity that allowed you to come this far without much effort?
There’s no special secret to it, but I think it’s probably thanks to the love I got from my parents. I think that to a certain extent, my sense of style was formed by the love I received from them.

●How has the OPEN BOOK been doing since it opened?
It was insanely popular. Totally exploded! We made a lot of money. (laughs)

●So from there, you became involved in many other projects?
I used to take a no-strings-attached stance towards every new project. As long as there was an interesting story to tell I would do it, but now I try to be more selective because I don’t have the time or the money to do everything. The GYRE (*2) project had a great influence on me. It made me realize that it’s not always a good idea to do something just because someone approaches you. Also, it made me realize the importance of who you work with. On the other hand, there were times when I approached others first, showed interest in a project, but ended up getting taken for granted. It’s not always like that, however nuanced. But I think the best solution is to meet each other halfway. I think that’s the best way to go about things. Whether it’s a risk or something else completely.

GYRE FOOD on the 4th floor of the GYRE building in Omotesando

●In the future, how will you achieve the things you want?
I think I’m focusing more and more on what I want to do. Asking myself what I want to do in life. I want to do personal things that only I can do, rather than something just related to my own interests. “How do we weave our genetic destiny, our life message, into a dialogue with the universe?”
It’s like a dialogue with your genes (laughs). But I do think about what I’m going to do. It’s like making alcohol. I’ve done a lot of things, and I’ve found that sometimes I’m not as into it as I’d like to be. And I don’t need someone else to do it for me. But if you’re going to do a job, and you’re paying someone for it, you want it to be something that people can relate to and be passionate about. For example, even if it’s something personal, like making good shochu, it’s important to have a social interest in it. When you put something out into the world, that thing’s social relevance is equally as important as the passion and empathy that goes into it. I want that thing or idea to resonate with the common sense of society. That’s why I think that the smaller a company is, the more interesting it can be, and whether it’s Qusamura Tokyo (*3) or Yard Works (*4), I think that there are only a small number of people who can truly share their personal passion with society in a positive sense.

※3 Qusamura Tokyo
Qusamura Tokyo is a plant shop that offers a wide range of unique plants in a set of matching containers.

※4 Yard Works
A company that designs spaces with plants as the main element, also responsible for the planting of K5.

I think that even ideas that come from the field can only flourish if people share them, so as long as I can make that happen without being there, my role is fulfilled.

●What do you think about scale? Do you think organizations need to be big in scale?
I think you need a certain size of business. If you want to write novels for a living, you can do that as an individual. Of course, you don’t have to be a social person, but you do have to have a social stance. In terms of being personal and social, I think that OPEN BOOK is enough. There are jobs that only I can do, and there are jobs that have the potential to grow in scale. So it’s a way of thinking. Even if I don’t create something from scratch because I feel it would be too difficult to do on my own, I might help out if I’m asked to do so.

●Do you always want to be in touch with your own business so that you don’t lose your individuality?
I think one of my roles is to support people and say something like, “That’s great, let’s spread the word!”. I think that even ideas that come from the field can only flourish if people share them, so as long as I can make that happen without being there, my role is fulfilled. I don’t think I should just say “this is a good idea” and let people do it.

●Is there anything you are personally interested in doing at the moment?
Have you heard of a game called “Among us”? It’s an online game and it’s more fun than any drinking game! The OPEN BOOK is a bit classy, so I would like to create a more outrageous place. For example, somewhere that doesn’t charge money. In Tokyo, you have to pay for everything so I think it’s necessary to have a place where you can do nothing. It’s just a vacant lot. Whoever wants to plant trees can plant them and whoever wants to bring furniture, they can bring that too. But they have to take responsibility for it. It can be a building. Maybe a floor that can be used freely, and those who want to sell things can do so too. But there are no walls, so if you fall and die, it’s your own responsibility (laughs). Also, I would like to do an OPEN BOOK in Kenya.

●Why do you want to open it in Kenya?
I think it’s cool to have a worldwide presence. Normally, I would open several stores in Tokyo or New York, but I would rather be like FUGLEN (*6), who began in Oslo and then opened a shop in Tokyo. I’d like to leave the store in Kenya for a year and see what happens to the sales.

A coffee shop from Oslo

●When you think about it, the things you are doing are all kind of social experiments.
That’s a good point! Well, it’s a very expensive experiment (laughs). My friend and I are going to start a company called Osushi Company. We’re trying to build a relationship with a lot of people where we don’t take money, but we buy each other sushi in exchange for our work. Basically a barter company. It can be anything, but I have a few ideas for each project: at least sushi work, then car work, forest work, and finally island work where you can get an island!

●Tell us about the Ao community
Similar to OPEN BOOK, it wasn’t really about building a community, it was more about building my own castle. I wanted a castle of my own, rather than a place to communicate to the outside world. Community is not something you create, it’s something that comes naturally. For example, when I was at university, people used to come and go as they pleased, kind of like at a party. So, when I was outside, I would play my music aloud, as I’m usually an anti-earphone kind of person. This to me created a kind of seamless communication with others. For any given situation, those who want to enter they enter, those who want to leave, they leave. I think we call it a community when we cut out the situation that happens to be formed there.

●Is it still part of your social experiment to make noises and sounds that are not usually heard in our society? Also, if you had to name one place where you come face to face with the boundary between the individual and society as you delve into your own interests, where would it be?
It’s lurking everywhere, isn’t it? Like when you take out the rubbish and it’s gone! In fact, I live next to a nursery school so I’m always waking up in the morning to the sound of children shouting. That’s what it’s like to live in a society!

● Do you have any goals you’ve made recently?
I love to travel, so my latest goal is to travel all the time. I like to be on the move. I like to be in touch with primary information, and Okinawa is a great place for ideas. Speaking of which, there was someone who loved flying, that legendary dumpling maker, who was it ……? He’s a radio personality and he loves flying so much that he goes from Tokyo to Nagoya via Frankfurt (laughs). He could have just taken the Shinkansen.

●Do you think there is a point to such futility?
It would be useless if I said it was useless in the first place. For example, people throw away books, but if you put them together they could make a good bar. I think it’s closer to the context of art, to find value in something useless. I think it’s important to dare to pick up things that have been considered useless in the context of economic rationality from a personal point of view, especially in the service industry where efficiency and digitalization are increasing.

●Finally, can you tell us what it means to be mobile?
My grandfather wrote a book about the meaning of movement called “Riding on the Bus” (*7), which you can read here, in Ao bar. When my parents go abroad, they always take the bus to the end of the line. Then, do you know what they do next? They take the bus back the way they came. The bus always turns around and goes back to the terminal. It’s not so much the journey, it’s the act of getting on the bus itself that I enjoy. But there was an incident when my mother took a bus in Argentina and it stopped at the end of the line. She said that the driver was angry with her (laughs). Oh, I remember now! It’s Mr. Paradise Yamamoto! He is the dumpling maker who loves airplanes!

※7 “Riding on a Bus”
An essay by Komimasa Tanaka

Kai Tanaka

Kai Tanaka

Born in Bremen, Germany in 1991. At the age of 24, he opened his first lemon sour shop, OPEN BOOK, in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai. Since then, he has been involved in the world of food and drink, managing the library bar “Ao” in the micro-complex K5 in Nihonbashi Kabutocho, which opened in 2020. He is the grandson of Naoki Prize-winning author Komimasa Tanaka.

Text : Jun Kuramoto

Photo : Naoto Date

Interview : Akihiro Matsui

Kai Tanaka


People who come to the smoking area

Interesting people in Kabutocho

Next to the K5 building, there is a long, narrow, cylindrical, seemingly modern-looking object in the car park. Hats off to those smokers and their sense of smell, to be able to realize that that object is actually an ashtray and that the area is a place to smoke! I am interested in those people.