Joji Kokuryo is a prime example of the gaming industry’s global reach. Having grown up in the United States before moving to Tokyo, his refined bi-lingual skills have led to a career translating and interpreting for others – taking him around the world and providing some intriguing roles along the way. Now it is Macau that Kokuryo calls home, with the Senior Compliance/Operations Manager recently celebrating three years with Japanese gaming machine manufacturer Aruze. IAG Managing Editor Ben Blaschke spoke with Kokuryo about his journey.
IAG: Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where did you grow up and what are your main memories of your childhood?
Joji Kokuryo: I grew up in Los Angeles and stayed in the US until I was 14 years old. I was too small to play basketball or American football, so I was on the soccer and baseball fields after school every day. From there I moved to Tokyo and picked up the Japanese language by working up to four part-time jobs at one time.
I would start the day working at a donut shop from 5am, going to school and soccer practice, then back to work again maintaining shopping malls in the evening. The days were so packed, but I honestly enjoyed every minute of it. I just remember waking up in the mornings before sunrise and riding my bicycle to work listening to Sublime’s “What I Got.”
IAG: You spent a number of years working as a translator and interpreter. How did that come about?
JK: Working as an interpreter seemed inevitable as I was using English and Japanese interchangeably in daily life. I started out with a few language service agents when I was a freshman in university and then made a lot of connections in various industries that allowed me to become independent. I think I stood out for never diluting any of my interpreting or translations. Japanese tends to be more polite and indirect than English, but for example if someone is yelling and arguing in English that something is “rubbish” there is no point translating that to Japanese as “it is not that good.” You need to explain that the other person thinks the idea is “trash.” Of course this works for positive comments as well and this skill or habit helped me earn the confidence of the people I worked with.
IAG: Your translation work looks like it has provided you with some interesting and unique opportunities. Can you run us through some of the people and industries you’ve worked with?
JK: Having the opportunities to work in various fields definitely helped set me up for my current career. I learned the importance of teamwork and toughness working music festivals, which would consistently be over 60 hours without sleep. I learned the determination and confidence needed to succeed when supporting Japan’s Rugby World Cup bid for 2019. I learned patience and the importance of pacing when translating documents that were over 1,000 pages and I learned to communicate with a diverse range of people teaching English on the side.
The most important lesson came after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Even the strongest showed fear, the cold showed care and the soft-spoken stood up to volunteer themselves to help others. Many colleagues and friends left Japan, which was the right thing for them to do. Business was extremely slow and there are still people I knew missing to this day.
Through all that I learned that you can only control what you can, so I might as well do the best I can no matter the situation. What comes down was up somewhere before, it’s just a matter of getting back up and then progressing even more.
IAG: Do you have a favorite memory or moment from the various people and projects you worked with?
JK: My favorite moment had to be at the Fuji Rock Music Festival in 2012. I had goosebumps and shed tears at the power of the music when the legendary artists Steve Kimock, Bernie Worrell and others had a jam session in the mountains of Naeba. To be honest, I was not familiar with them until working their stage, but their instrumental melodies were so powerful, everyone who experienced their performance that night went home a better person.
Words just cannot describe the feeling, but I was touched and even to this day get chills remembering some of their tunes.
IAG: How did your move into the gaming industry and to Aruze come about?
JK: I had only been to a casino once before, in Las Vegas for a wedding that was before I was old enough to gamble. However, living in Japan I was very interested in amusement gaming such as pachislots and had an ardent love for game arcades. When the opportunity came upon me to delve into the gaming industry, I went right at it. Perhaps it was my language skills, my passion for gaming in Japan, or maybe it was just the fact I supported the same football club as one of the managers, but after only one interview I was in the gaming industry and have never looked back.
IAG: You recently began a new role at Aruze. What does a normal working day entail for you?
JK: Every morning starts with a check of all the emails that come during the night, then to morning video-conferences with Las Vegas, meetings in and around Asia in the afternoon, and finally getting the time to get back to our Sales Director in Europe in the evening.
There is never a time when emails and calls are not coming in. The sun never sets on the world of gaming. We have our biggest sales office in Las Vegas, our main R&D offices in Japan and our factory in the Philippines, not to mention representatives in South Africa, Australia, Europe and of course Asia. My main role is to make sure that everyone is on the same page from the time a product is submitted to a test lab until the time it is up and running on the casino floor without fail. I am also involved in the R&D process and seeing an idea become a reality and then going live on the casino floor is a challenging yet rewarding experience.
IAG: What do you find most enjoyable about working with Aruze?
JK: The greatest aspect about Aruze is the relationships with people around the globe. I now have friends and acquaintances in all parts of the world, from South Africa to Greece to Malaysia and so many other countries. Getting to visit our various markets and getting in touch with the local culture and people is as priceless a benefit as it is a difficult challenge to succeed in the markets.
IAG: What’s the toughest part?
JK: Being away from my family and friends in Japan is the toughest part and sometimes I notice myself looking at the calendar thinking about when I see them next. But as the greatest boxer in the 20th century once said, “Don’t count the days. Make the days count.” IAG: Had you spent much time in Macau before you began working in gaming? JK: I had never been to Macau before joining Aruze, but my first trip I remember being overwhelmed by the size of the casino buildings. I went through all the early rituals like getting lost in the enormous Cotai casinos and of course played the games myself to research the market. Macau is a lively and bustling destination and it was much more international than I had expected.
IAG: What do you like to do in your spare time?
JK: I am a prototypical sports geek. I religiously follow European football, basketball and baseball. There is not a weekend where I am not playing a sport or heading out to a stadium or arena. I am an Aston Villa, Los Angeles Lakers and Dodgers fan and locally support FC Tokyo and Yokohama Baystars in Japan. Basically I have very little to brag about in recent years, but I stay loyal to my colors.
I also played on an amateur football club until last year. We were a rag-tag group of friends and while never the strongest, we always had the most fun. Other than that, I love karaoke and bowling. I am willing to bet I can sing the best “Johnny B Goode” in all of Asia! Industry profile
IAG: Finally Joji, what are your long term ambitions?
JK: I just hope to foster a team atmosphere where everyone has one another’s backs. I am not one to call people into my own office as I would rather go myself and talk in person. A manager is just someone that happens to look over things, but every role is just as important in our daily operations. Aruze has come a long way and we are growing not only in Macau but also expanding into new Asian markets and this is all thanks to the spectacular teamwork of all our offices and employees.