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‘Playful Ants’ that Change the World

Atsuko Aoi
(In the Blue Sky, Inc Representative Director, Singer-songwriter)

Forming and representing “the cycle of life”

Yasuhiro Karakawa, leader of the "Playful Ants Incubator” introduces people in Japan who are creating new values in the world via their unique lifestyles and work styles.


Playful Ant 09 – Atsuko Aoi(In the Blue Sky, Inc Representative Director, Singer-songwriter)

In November 2017, I was in Taragi Town, Kuma County, Kumamoto Prefecture. I was invited as a facilitator for the three days of a workshop named TBDC (Taragi Business Design Camp) in which people from inside and outside of Taragi Town discussed from a wide range of perspectives how this beautiful town, where the clear Kuma River flows and where the world-recognized Kuma shochu (Japanese distilled spirit) is produced, can be made sustainable? 

The venue was a campsite specially set up for the occasion on a spectacular hilltop overlooking the entire Taragi Town. Every morning, participants were given time to enjoy yoga with the sea of clouds in the background to refresh their bodies and minds. One of the TBDC participants who was invited to participate as a yoga instructor with her young son was Atsuko Aoi, whom I will introduce here.

I remember that I was impressed by how beautiful and calm her voice was as she led the yoga class. I also remember being surprised but strangely convinced to hear that she was a “singer-songwriter” usually working under the name ATSUKO AOI when I spoke with her between workshops,

Soon after, in 2018, Atsuko released “Taragi no Mori (The Taragi forest),” a song she wrote inspired by her experience in Taragi. I heard the song at her live performance and was drawn into its powerful and beautiful worldview. Then, in 2019, I learned that she has now opened “Kouji ya Taragi (House of malted rice Taragi)” in Sengawa, offering raw sweet sake and kouji cuisine, and was amazed by the delicious dishes and her power to execute the vision.

Where does Atsuko-san’s amazing energy come from, as she flexibly puts her passionate vision into action one after another?

Teenage years searching for a place to release energy

Atsuko: My mother was a dedicated teacher who eventually worked her way up to elementary school principal. As may be often the case with children of teachers, I had a period of intense rebellion in junior high school. I think I gave my parents and school officials a lot of trouble. But on the other hand, there was another side of me that continued to volunteer steadily at a nursing home. I always felt that I had an excess of gusty energy inside me, and I was searching for my own purpose in life.

At the age of 16, there was a time when I went to a temple where my parents were parishioners to do zazen (seated zen mediation). Here, for the first time in my life I was able to have a quiet time to face myself. And it was during this zazen experience that I began to think that I wanted to live my life with an awareness of the “cycle of life.”  I had been agonizingly searching for the purpose of life, but during the time I spent facing myself at Zazen-do, I began to think that I wanted to use the love and kindness given to me by someone else to circulate as energy that could push someone else forward.

After graduating from high school, I attended a local vocational school for business. It was here that I had my first encounter with singing. Originally, when I was a child, my mother was very busy, so I always spent time alone in a room with records and karaoke machines, singing songs. As I became an adolescent, however, I became embarrassed to sing with my mouth wide open in front of others, and I completely distanced myself from singing.  But when I was a vocational school student, I had to participate in a singing competition on campus. At that time, singing was “the most embarrassing and the most difficult thing” for me. I had a lot of practice, and right before the competition, my body and mind were already in shambles, but as a result of my hard work, I came to feel that “singing is a way to convey my energy,” which led me to participate in various singing competitions. 

Eventually, my goal was to make a living by singing. Although I wanted to go to Tokyo to work as a singer, I first had to save money to do so. Therefore, I found a job at a textile company in my hometown of Toyama. I was hired as a clerical worker, but I didn’t like the idea of spending a whole day in an office, so I asked the president directly to be reassigned to the sales department right away.

My main job was to sell uniforms to companies, but I could propose any textile product, so I would dive into sales at any company I encountered. I found sales to be a really interesting job because I could ask questions such as “What does your company do?” or “What kind of philosophy does your company have? “I felt as if I had a passport that allowed me to visit any company at any time, and I also gained confidence that “even if I fail, I will succeed someday as long as I keep trying.

I really enjoyed the job of creating new value where there was none, so to speak, and my sales performance soon became outstanding. As a result, I was quickly promoted to the youngest manager in the company. Although my work was going well and I was having a lot of fun, the energy that was welling up inside me was only increasing, and I decided that the time had finally come for me to try singing, and I decided to go to Tokyo.

Business experience opening up new avenues to keep singing

Atsuko: I started my life in Tokyo as an artist, living and working in an office. But it was not an easy world to live in. I soon quit the office job and I worked as a waitress at a live bar and continued to sing requested songs at parties from time to time.

One day, I received an unexpected proposal from the president of a company, who was a regular customer at the live where I worked. He proposed that I should concentrate on the singing work I wanted to do while working at his company, which handled building equipment. Looking back, I think it was similar to a business contract in sports.

Later, I started a record company with the president and friends, released my first original single, “In the Blue Sky,” and began my career as a singer-songwriter.

I learned many things from the president, who came from an accounting firm. Since he is about the same age as my parents, I still look up to him as my “father in Tokyo.” I still have a strong impression of what he taught me, especially when he told me, “Regardless of whether it is a big hall concert or a small live house concert, you must plan each one as an independent business and make a business plan.

I myself was serious about achieving results second to none with my singing, and singing was actually my whole life. And at the time, I thought that the only way to generate circulation in my opinion was through singing. So, I learned the importance of having a holistic approach as an “artist with a business mindset” in order to answer challenging questions such as “How can I make everyone involved in live activities happy?” and “How should I judge the results of each live activity, whether it is a good surplus or a meaningful deficit without not being made happy or sad just by the numbers.  

photography : HIDEKAZU MAIYAMA

Atsuko has been working under the guidance and support of her “father in Tokyo” since 2005, and in 2019 she left this company to set up her own company, In the Blue Sky Inc. The reason for this has a lot to do with her experience in Taragi Town in 2017, as mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Creating diverse works while flexibly changing oneself

Atsuko: While spending three days in the beautiful town of Taragi in November 2017, I was struck by the beauty of people and nature there.

True freedom comes from believing, not prying or doubting. Life is kept alive by feeding on other lives. We are standing on the basis of the lives that people have worked so hard to sustain. Those thoughts ran wildly inside me and I felt love for everything I saw. Even after returning to Tokyo, I could not stop crying for three days.

My young son asked everyone attending at the event in Taragi, “I want to find my treasure here. Will you join me in my search?” As I could not forget his words, I wrote the lyrics with him and completed the song “Taragi no Mori (The Taragi forest).”

Taragi no Mori

Oh the people, living with the sun, living with the forest
Drinking water from the mountains, burning firewood
What a beautiful way to live

How precious is the life that surrounds us
How grateful I am to alive

I’d like to find my treasure here
Hand in hand, will you join me in my search?
I almost forgot that we take lives to survive and live

Oh the people, who can trust anyone, with beautiful eyes
I live in a world where I must teach our ancestors and children
To doubt others and to protect themselves
The beauty of a life filled with trust
The loneliness of a heart that prying each other

I’d like to find my treasure here
Soul to soul, will you join me in my search?
I’ve lived searching for freedom, facing hardships

The earth and the Buddha that tell the story
of 10,000 years of ancient life
When did people begin to draw the line on the earth?

When did people start fighting?
The beauty of the beginning of the world
The foolishness of the world nearing its end

I’d like to find my treasure here
Soul to soul, will you join me in search?
Over time, will you join me in my search?
I’ve lived searching of richness, losing my heart

Oh the people, living with the sun, living with the forest
Drinking water from the mountains, burning firewood
What a beautiful way to live

In addition, I began to rethink what I want to do in the future. It is true that life in Tokyo is convenient. However, as Tokyo has become too artificial for many people including myself, it is difficult to feel the cycle of life. Even when it comes to food, in Taragi, where we live in harmony with nature, we have many opportunities to enjoy foods that are full of life. But in the supermarkets of Tokyo, you cannot find anything that you can feel the life of.

That is why I wanted to create a place in Tokyo where people can feel the cycle of life. Kouji (malted rice) came to my mind as I myself have had serious problems with my intestines since childhood, and it was because of the nutritional science I learned when I became a yoga instructor that I came to realize the importance of the intestines. I became certified as a fermented food health advisor, and then opened Kouji ya Taragi, a restaurant where customers can enjoy homemade raw sweet sake fermented from rare kouji and glutinous rice from my hometown in Toyama Prefecture, dishes using soy sauce kouji and salt kouji, and Kuma shochu (Japanese distilled spirits) made in Taragi Town.

“Kouji ya Taragi” is my “art work” as “Taragi no Mori.” In order to take on the new challenge of running a restaurant, I became independent from the company that had helped me so much and established “In the Blue Sky Inc.”

I think I now understand why she is able to launch new activities, seemingly unrelated at first glance, one after the other. The release of a song inspired by Taragi, and the opening of a store in Tokyo that sells kouji, which is also life in the form of microorganisms, and Taragi’s shochu. For Atsuko, both of these are “works embodying the theme as the cycle of life.”  

Atsuko: It is true that running a business in the Corona Disaster is hard, but without challenging yourself to try new things, you will never grow. There were long and tough periods of time when we were unable to operate, but perhaps because of this environment, more than a dozen part-time members worked together like a puzzle and we were able to continue to operate.

Transforming awareness of the problem into the energy for a new cycle.

When I asked her what kind of activities she plans to devote her energies to in the future, she gave me an unexpected answer.

Atsuko: As a parent with a son in elementary school, I am actually interested in “education.” You might say that it is more of an awareness of the problem than an interest. Although this may be true in any country, in Japan today, compulsory education is especially standardized, and it seems to me that it is becoming more and more difficult for each and every child to vividly demonstrate his or her diverse individuality. I hear that many children lose their place in the school classroom, and sometimes I myself feel an unsettled sense of bewilderment about this situation.

photography : TOKURYO OYA

I believe that we all have such vague issues that don’t seem to be resolved immediately. And it is actually never a bad thing to be aware of them. As a singer-songwriter, I sublimate and turn them into songs, even if they are negative emotions and energies. All emotions and thoughts can be transformed into good energy, depending on how we digest and handle those. I would also like to represent my current awareness of the problems I feel about education in some way. Such an activity may be next one of what I think as “cycle of life”.

Post-Interview Reflection

Atsuko’s talk reminded me of the term “Planned Happenstance” proposed by the late Professor John D. Krumboltz of Stanford University. The intention of this term is that “the accumulation of coincidental and unexpected events has great significance in creating one’s own unique path” but also that “those coincidental and unexpected events are also brought by small actions taken while respecting one’s curiosity and sense of adventure.”

The same is true of Atsuko’s activities to continue to shape and represent the cycle of life. The opportunities to experience various things at Taragi were never planned out. However, it was a natural encounter that was brought by Atsuko’s constant awareness of the cycle of life and her ongoing activities.

The path which we go wandering as playful ants is just like that. Always be aware of our own unique and big purpose, but continue to take small steps. Instead of sticking to the straight and fastest route, we enjoy changing ourselves while facing changes in the environment that we cannot control. In doing so, we’ll follow our own unique path that we’ll see incidentally.
Stay Playful.

『The Playful Ants that change the world』

In an ant society, you can easily identify the herd of “Worker Ants”—the textbook definition of ants, the ones who continuously carry the food. If you take a closer look, you may notice that there’s a different group of ants walking about playfully in their own world. These are “Playful Ants”—ants and thanks to their curiosity, they at times stumble across an unexpected feeding ground or detect sudden threats in advance allowing them to warn the colony of danger in advance.

In this interview series, I introduce interesting lifestyles and work styles of different “Playful Ants”, in order to help incubate them into this world.

Each human being is as small as an ant. However, if each ant pursues his or her own path purposefully and playfully, that path can connect to an opportunity to explore and create something new. That can turn into the power to change the world in its own way. I’ve come to believe so after spending many years on designing and leading practical innovation projects, and working with many global and Japanese corporations as a consultant. 

Yasuhiro Karakawa (Playful Ants Incubator)
With a purpose of “incubating Playful Ants both in the corporations and the society” Yasu has been leading practical innovation projects with global corporations in more than 10 countries while also serving as a strategy advisor and a guest lecturer.