We’ve written about the Japanese business interest in Vietnam before, but we haven’t interviewed someone who can give a bit of insight and character to the trend.

We recently caught up with Ayano Otani, a Japanese native from Tokyo who has been living in Ho Chi Minh City for nearly seven years.

She moved to Vietnam, having never visited, and she’s since established herself as a respected creative in the art scene in Saigon. Aside from her artwork, she was responsible for setting up a Japanese firm’s operation in Vietnam.

A businesswoman and artist, we had the opportunity to learn about her interest and work in art, as well as life in Vietnam as a Japanese expat.

What led you to Ho Chi Minh City?

I had zero plans to come to Vietnam. I graduated and was expecting to start work in Tokyo as a graphic designer. Shortly after finding a job, the president of the firm I was working at asked me to move overseas to open a new office in Saigon. I needed to setup a new branch and hire 20 staff. I had never lived overseas and the thought of moving to Vietnam intimidated me a bit. I decided to take the plunge anyways.

All of the firm’s clients are Japanese. Most of the Vietnamese employees spoke proficient Japanese, though we worked in the office using both Japanese and English.

I had a bit of trouble adapting, I needed to go back to Japan three times a year. I was working over 12 hour days, almost 7 days a week in Vietnam. The time it took to adjust to living in Vietnam was longer given the number of hours I needed to put in for my role.

I’m now working at a foreign company where I can keep work/life balance. If I can work efficiently, I’ll have free time for myself. This is one of the big differences from many Japanese companies where employees are expected to “stay long” at the office. This has allowed me to put more effort into my drawing.

Over the last few years, I’ve learned that artwork makes you sensitive. If you only concentrate on drawing, you lose your balance. I need to do something business-oriented, where there is less emotional investment. It’s a nice balance and it’s working for me.

Ayano Otani

Do you like living in Vietnam?

Yes and no.

The bright spots:

  • I have met so many international people in Vietnam. Japan is very closed, I would need to go to very specific places to meet foreigners. In Vietnam, people are active and quick to integrate. It’s easy to meet other Asians, European, Americans. I found that my perspectives about the world and cultural differences have evolved for the better in Vietnam. For example, one of my most exciting projects I stumbled upon after meeting an Italian publisher who was traveling in Vietnam. These kinds of opportunities keep me here in Vietnam. It would’ve been a rare opportunity to stumble upon in Japan.
  • The city is smaller than other metros in Asia and it’s surprisingly well connected on both a technology and infrastructure level. In Tokyo, it can take as long as an hour and a half to get to the airport or across town. In Saigon, you can get to the airport and across town in less than 25 minutes, even though there’s no public transportation.

The not-so-bright spots:

  • It’s noisy in Saigon. It’s hard to focus, especially for my drawing since I need a quiet space to work.
  • I also find it difficult to find realistic people. Many people talk too much, they say big things but there’s little execution.
  • It’s a tropical country, ideal for the beach and partying, which is not my ideal type.

Who are your customers?

In Saigon, mostly Europeans on a project basis. For retail, pretty much everyone. A lot of the projects have been recently coming from Europe again.

Ayano Otani Art

What’s keeping you in Vietnam?

I’ve been here for almost 7 years. And every year I always say it’s my last year. I still have a difficult time to this day adjusting to the cultural differences. As a Japanese women, it’s much different from what I knew growing up.

Given that I want to find a balance between work and art, Vietnam is the most convenient place for me to live and work. In Japan, finding time for my artwork would be difficult, given the time commitment associated with a full-time job. In Europe, there are other limitations in Europe such as language and strong tradition. For me to be my best, I’ve found that Vietnam offers the most work life balance.

If I had to choose a country to move to, I would move to Italy. Many Italian customers, associates, and the people in general appreciate real physical books and paintings.

What kind of moods make you a better artist?

When I’m happy, it’s difficult to draw. When I’m sad or feel shocked, the results from my drawing can be amazing.

During my full-time job at the office, I have to meet many clients. I need to be switched on and high-energy. Other times I can switch off. I try to not make appointments and keep meetings to a minimum. I love my down time, given that it affects my drawing habits.

Ayano Otani

So when are you happy with work?

When someone I want to work with decides to work together with me. It makes me very happy.

The other time when I’m happy, is when I’m by myself with my cat.

Any exciting new projects rolling out soon?

I’m working on new books. They will be published in a couple months, I’m working with a publisher from Italy to get them done. The first set can be spotted at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Next spring, I’m aiming to finish two more books. For me, books are peaceful artistic pieces, while my drawings are more melancholy. They are representations of things that I didn’t recognize before, but were pointed out to me by someone else.

Ayano Otani

Where do you buy your art supplies?

I like to buy my art supplies in bulk when I return to Tokyo, which is usually every 2-3 months at “Sekaido” in Tokyo.

I use 4H and sometimes 6H pencil, and right now I don’t know where to buy in Saigon. Any ideas?

For paper, I usually go to stationery shops on Nguyen Dinh Chieu. I’ve heard people say that Art Friend on Le Thi Rieng is good, but I haven’t made it there yet.

What were some of your initial struggles in Vietnam and how did you overcome them?

Finding serious business partners.

Many people here think exhibition and artwork are easy. It’s not. Finding business-minded people who appreciate art in the same way is not easy. If I work with someone closely, I expect the same.

What are your favorite travel destinations in Vietnam? Where do you want to go?

Dalat. The atmosphere is quiet and the air is clean. I love being surrounded by trees and the forest. You aren’t around as many people like you are in Saigon.

What are five nice to knows about Ayano?

  • I studied Oriental medicine, piano, clinical psychology, and graphic design.
  • My main hobby is cycling. I wake up at 4:30AM, 4-5 times a week to do cycling for 1.5 hours and to see the sunrise.
  • My cat’s name is “Gin.” I would love to have one more cat. The cat’s name will be “Tonic.”
  • I have a habit to pick up the name and face of my acquaintances for my artwork in a portrait or illustration book.
  • I love to be quiet, somewhere with no sunlight.

Who should I talk to next?

Sandrine Llouquet, a Vietnamese-French visual artist based in Ho Chi Minh. When I saw her water colour drawings for the first time, I knew that I wanted to learn her technique.