Previous Competitions / Interviews / Interview: Tomoka Kurosawa

She moved from 37-million-strong Tokyo to sleepy whistle-stop town Mjölby, in Sweden. What made her do it?

March 1st, 2024 - Voice of Design

“I wanted to broaden my world”, said industrial designer Tomoka Kurosawa. “I wanted to get out of Japan.” Her prize-winning contribution for the Toyota Logistic Design Competition 2022 was an answer to her prayers. As a result of her achievement she was offered an internship at Toyota Material Handling Europe, in tiny Mjölby. “I could never have imagined I’d be doing an internship as a designer in Sweden”, said Tomoka. She took on the job, and made that decisively bold move.

I asked how the approach to design differs between Sweden and Japan. She said it wasn’t necessarily the design approach in itself that was different. It was more about how you structure the task. In Japan you tend to divide the work up into small sections, she said. “Whereas here [Sweden] I’ve been entrusted with an entire project, from coming up with a concept to trying out ideas freely, which has been very exciting. I love it,” she beamed.

Fusing the artificial with the natural

Tomoka cited two major sources as her reason for wanting to do design. One was iconic Japanese design engineer Shunji Yamanaka, and we’ll get back to him later.

The other, rather different, source of inspiration was, she said – nature. (Which is something she shares with several designers I’ve met and talked to.) She said she was very interested in “the shape and movement of all natural objects. From plankton to flying seed”.

That’s why, Tomoka said, Sweden is a good place to be for her, as it’s full of nature with all its inhabitants. On her way home from work, Tomoka told me, she sees things like mushrooms, hedgehogs, rabbits… and even snow. “I’m fascinated by everything,” she said. One of her biggest passions as a designer is fusing the artificial with the natural.

(Doesn’t sound like the easiest thing to do. But, with her determination and drive, as I see it, she might well make valuable contributions in that area.)

BOTAMOCHI. Toyota Material Handling Design Competition 2022 finalist

It would seem Tomoka took to Sweden like a duck to water

I wanted to know whether there was anything that threw her coming to this foreign land.

“No, there was nothing in particular I disliked,” she said, “except maybe not being able to open a bank account that easily”. Quite a bit of red tape there, as you needed a so-called personal number, she explained, smiling. “But HR helped me sort that one out, which I appreciate a lot.”

Then there was the public transport challenge. But, possibly more important – “what should I eat for midsummer?” She shook her head.

But design boss Magnus [Olivera Andersson] put her straight – sill, he said. Herring in English. “But,” thought Tomoka, “what do I serve it with?” So she asked a woman at the local supermarket. The answer was: new potatoes!

She also admitted she was a bit apprehensive about how cold it would get in Sweden. She tackled the potential threat in two ways. One, by acquiring a very warm jacket. And two, by picking up the all too wide-spread saying: ’There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’, a phrase she trotted out with conviction.

Seize the fortune by the forelock

For Tomoka Kurosawa it wasn’t only ever just about design. She told me there was a time when when she wasn’t quite sure what to do. (Like any young person, I suppose.) Should she move on to study political science? Or go into design?

So, she did both.

At age 18 she entered university to do political science. Four years later Tomoka emerged with a degree. She then started working with business development at Hitachi, where her task was researching new technology, a job she liked. Also part of her brief was coming up with ideas for new products.

Shunji Yamanaka

Round this time Tomoka read a book about Japanese star designer, Shunji Yamanaka. A guy whose work tended to predict the future of society. She was inspired by him. “Maybe because I was an avid reader of scifi literature”, she said. And Tomoka felt she might just get involved in all of these things: research, concept and design. “And be able to”, she added, “create products for the future”.

So, she applied to get in there with Professor Yamanaka. And, as if by magic, an opportunity presented itself: She was offered a chance to join Shunji Yamanaka, at his lab, at Tokyo University. She immediately grabbed that opportunity by the forelock, and hasn’t looked back since.

Jetpack design project for master’s thesis, wind tunnel test conducted in JAXA's facility

Is there a ghost in our room?

Tomoka started scrolling through her portfolio on her laptop. Impressive stuff. Not least that suit designed for a person, who needs to fly on a rescue operation, where no other means of travelling would work.

Here’s also her take on that ’last mile delivery’ challenge. It’s called BOTAMOCHI and it’s a way, a method for adding entertainment to the delivery concept.

The 2022 TLDC jury were impressed enough to select it as one of the winning contributions.

As Tomoka folded her laptop, and I turned my tape recorder off, there was this whirring sound behind her back. Odd, because there was nobody else in the room. We started speculating whether it was that infamous Mjölby ghost, who’d entered our room. We laughed. The jury still hasn’t delivered its verdict on that one.