roguture, part 3: hustle and flow
reading time: appx. 20 minutes
most of what follows– other than the quotes from davy– are the thoughts that stem from having observed the millards over the years. on the face of it, roguture is ‘just’ a humble business venture that happens to teach english and roast coffee. but as i see it, roguture is so much more, and provides an example of what living free, [mxd], and non-binary is like– free in spite of the pressures to conform that come from identity politics, mixed in understanding that who they are is a composite of multiple influences, and non-binary in that their actions are ethical and fluid, not moral and pre-determined. roguture is an expression of life that thrives in spite of the negative affects of binary forces. the millards themselves probably haven’t given too much thought into the larger ramifications of what they do or how they do it. which is what makes roguture all the more fascinating to me. everything about its story is organic, natural, and empowering. a lot of businesses have to feed off of consumers to survive (like the cancer we explored in part 2, like the same old things that refuse to retire we explored in part 1). but not roguture. roguture doesn’t feed off others, it empowers them. it is my hope that those who struggle with being freely themselves, and free from the cancerous norms of binary ideologies, will be encouraged by roguture’s story.
THE START OF SOMETHING NEW: IF IT DOESN’T EXIST, CREATE IT
having seen how being hidebound to the wa had negatively affected so many people they knew– from friends and families to coworkers– the millards decided it wasn’t going to happen to them. with roguture, they’ve made it a mission to help end the wa-induced cycle of violence for whomever they could.
as we explored in part 2, this cycle of violence revolves, in most cases, around work culture. this is because the concepts of labor, debt, and capital create a master-slave binary, a cancerous power relation that, once established, becomes near impossible to break free from (which is why davy is adamant about not sending his kids to japanese school, for this is where the indoctrination begins, at a young age). definitions of atheism aside, one could argue that being-japanese is itself a religion that revolves around the wa, with ‘god’ manifesting in the form of one’s company/work. to be clear, things are no different here in the west; the wa just presents a very concrete example of an abstract problem.
what roguture does is present an alternative and non-binary approach to work. by doing so, not only do the millards reconfigure and transform the japanese relationship to work, but to their families and themselves as well.
“…our vision was to start a company so we could hire local japanese people and teach them the importance of working hard without having to sacrifice your family and friends. we knew it was risky, we’d have to invest thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours, we knew that. but this is a problem that noah and i feel strongly about. it would be awesome to be able to work with people and teach them the importance of working hard but also loving your job. loving what you do, enjoying it, getting skilled in it, and all while having time to be with your family.”
and so, roguture came into existence. sometimes you just have to create a new concept when the prevailing world around you has become inert, stale and myopic. to this day, there aren’t really any options for those of us who are fluid and don’t view the world and our relations relative to a strict identity. we’re often forced into black/white categories by others, leading some of us to identify with either traditional or trending identity groups, or we’re outcast. what’s the alternative to this either/or, inclusive/exclusive binary? the saying “to art is freedom” comes to mind.
to help empower and sustain a non-binary vision, the millards created a new concept to bring into the world. a thought, that while felt, had yet to be realized through active expression. roguture is this kind of newly created concept the millards have drawn from that would ultimately inspire and become realized in their english-school/coffee-roaster assemblage in west tokyo today.
roguture is a japanese neologism that combines two concepts:
“so the concept of being yourself, being an individual, is the rogue (rogu) aspect of it – but also being involved in some kind of market, y’know, doing trade (ture) or doing business with others. our friend caleb thought of it, so thats how the name came about. it’s because we were talking about wanting to hire japanese people to be able to do what roguture is about.”
HUSTLE AND FLOW
rogu-ture….rogue individuals connected through trade. rogues are those who do not conform to societal norms; they forge their own paths because they are affected differently, their bodies animated by a different energy. untethered to societal expectations or identity categories, these rogue-traders exert a creative energy that introduces to the market an alternative to wa-inducing binary norms.
what started as an online clothing store transformed into an english school, which eventually doubled as a coffee roaster, and that’s where we find roguture today. reflecting upon roguture’s story, the words pirates and hustlers come to mind. these guys exude a sense of urgency. their energy is contagious. perpetual movement, hustle and flow, is their vibe; for to slow down means to give the wa that much more opportunity to suck you in– gravity feasts on the inert. to combat gravity, you have to create an energy intense enough to rival that of the black hole’s. to do so, a body must increase in mass; or in other words, combine with other bodies. as we'll see, roguture has endured and thrived by perpetually empowering those around them.
during their early years roguture survived by reselling clothes– buying name brands from factory outlets in the u.s., and flipping them for profit on the japanese e-market. years later, that same hustle and energy remains as intense. time has only sharpened them. one would think after so many years of perpetual hustle one’s body would get worn down, the speed at which you’ve gone, slowed. but that’s if it’s just unending hustle…without the flow. to sustain productivity, one must be rooted, but also flow.
while observing their roasting process i saw how they would also fill in time gaps of inactivity by bagging and labeling starbucks cups. they had bought up a bunch of reusable starbucks cups in the u.s. and were reselling them on their online store in japan for profit. hustle. they took the clothing hustle as far as they could and when it was no longer sustainable they shifted gears and dove head first into teaching english. flow. all the while maintaining their mission of hiring japanese people, and teaching them how to lead sustainable and balanced work life with family life.
THE START OF A POSITIVE CYCLE: EMPOWER OTHERS
reflecting upon roguture, it's become obvious to me. sustainability has everything to do with this flow of energy. inertia results when this flow of energy is inhibited. when the millards invest not just into their hustle and business, but also into their community and the people they’ve worked with, the creative and empowering energy that they exert increases in influence. there’s a contagious quality when you’re around them; you feel creative, active, and positive.
there are some things that drain you, that inhibit a body's flow and discourages action. such things are negative affects produced by binary relations and vampiric connections. and then there are those relations that give you a power-up, increase your energy and capacity to act; they make you feel engaged, able and ready to do more and go further.
when their clothing venture began to wane the millards began to look ahead to what they could do next. initially when i asked davy why they decided to start an english school of all things, his response felt unsatisfying: “because a close friend of ours had experience teaching english.” and i thought, “that’s it? just because someone else has done it, and not because you have?”
long story short, at that time their friend had been feeling depressed and struggled to keep a steady job. “it was mainly because of our friend that we wanted to do an english school.” it sounded strange to me at first because i simply wasn’t used to such an affective response, a reasoning that wasn’t logical but empathic. i expected davy to say something about himself. maybe about having past experience teaching english. or some personal anecdote about how teaching is important to him. but no, his response was essentially, ‘because it was good for my friend.’
i was, and still am, taken aback by this. the selfless nature of what they do inspires not only hope, but endearment…and respect. the thing that gets to me is how genuine and organic the selflessness is. the way davy says it, it’s like no big deal. like there’s nothing special about it, it’s just second nature or common sense.
“at the beginning it was so hard to find students to occupy our time, so we were paying our friend to do nothing because there were no students. we were doing events, handing out flyers, throwing shaved ice parties or barbecues so that people would come. it took us a whole year after we started roasting to get to a point where we were getting enough students.”
it was around this time that davy started roasting coffee beans. it was 2015.
ENTER TOKYO COFFEE
“i always liked the smell and taste of coffee but i couldn’t drink it. when i drank it i’d get a headache and i never really looked into it until i watched a ted talk. and this guy was like 90% of the coffee that is sold in the world is rotten. and i was like whaaat? essentially what he was saying was you have to drink your coffee as soon as you roast it. the analogy i like to use is rice. if you don’t cook rice you can keep it in a bag in the pantry for months, literally months and it’ll be fine. but no fool cooks it and keeps it in the pantry because it will rot and it will visibly rot, it will turn black and become stinky. coffee doesn’t get stinky and the taste doesn’t change that much. but essentially what the guy was saying is that it rots. you can tell that it rots. and i was like… ‘this is it!’ i can’t definitively say freshly roasted coffee is what helps with my headaches. i was like, this might be it. i was just so excited that maybe finally i’ll be able to drink coffee.
so we ordered some green beans and roasted on a small frying pan in our kitchen. when we finally figured it out and drank it we were like, ‘what is this, this is so different from anything we’ve ever drank!’ from that day on so many of our friends, and so many of our customers now, told us 'we’ll never be able to go back to any other coffee'. all our friends were like, 'hey we’ll pay you money to get your coffee'. so we started doing that and it took so long cause we were doing it by hand, so we checked out how much an industrial roaster cost. and we were like, hey we have downtime at the school especially in the morning when there are no classes so we were like why don’t we sell coffee on our store again [the one they used to flip clothing]. we know how it works, we know the ins and outs of the e-biz, all we need is an industrial roaster. so we got the cheapest japanese one. it’s way smaller than any of the normal ones. so we invested in that, and we opened an online store, and we changed our clothing store into a coffee shop. at the end of our 2nd year it became really successful and now we’re selling a lot to the point which our roaster is not keeping up with the demands. this is where if we step up and buy a new roaster, thats when we can begin to hire more people.”
i ask davy what was the hardest part to their coffee roasting journey. the way davy explains it, sounds like something spoken by someone who has endured so much to the point that dealing with struggles becomes as natural as tying one’s shoes. pressure just rolls off his shoulders.
“we didn’t train under anyone. we read a few books and watched a ton of videos. we realized that there’s craft coffee that’s like for maniacs. and it’s so crazy, it gets down to the nitty gritty. we were like, we just want to sell online so we need to make something that everyone likes. it might not be that unique but it’d be something that everyone likes. so that took us a long time. we had 4 different beans we used and we just tried tons and tons of variations. we had friends taste test and try all the diff combinations…10% of this, 30% of that…we eventually chose this one that one of our friends liked because she’s the typical japanese person, so if she likes it then it has to be good! and thats what we stuck to. what was hard was to always produce the same taste cause your customers would get irritated if there’s this one particular taste they enjoy and then 3 months later it’s different. to make that same taste consistently is what’s hardest.”
PERPETUAL POSITIVITY: EMPOWERING OTHERS TO EMPOWER OTHERS
when it came to deciding what direction they would take roguture, they turned to a friend and decided on teaching english. when it came to what coffee blend they would sell, again, they turned to a friend. this pattern is no coincidence, this is just how they roll. i love how when it comes to what would be a vital decision to most, they acquiesce to others in their community. it’s not at all like they can’t make their own decisions. it’s that their sense of ‘self’ is communal– what’s personal is collective, what’s local is simultaneously global. a decision is never made within a vacuum despite the tendency for people to make decisions as if they were.
at this point i suppose one could think that such behavior is in line with the wa– talking about others so oneself would not be a nail that stuck out. but the disrupting of the wa is more like a recalibration. it’s not logical, but affective. davy and noah's sensitivity to others isn’t mechanical, not part of a logical equation that ends in guaranteed harmony. davy is so quick to talk about others because there’s no distinction between himself and his affections, and the bodies that affect him. he’s only so quick to refer to others because he himself is a mix of all these others. who we are is made up of a complex interplay of the great many different things that affect us.
for the millards, their thoughts seem like they're always directed outwards, their actions inclusive, open and courageous. from an outsider’s perspective, it would seem this bizarre lack of ego borders on recklessness, as if decisions were made on a spontaneous whim. no, they go with the flow and are empowered by their interconnections. to them it’s just common sense, they don’t think twice about drawing strength and inspiration from others. and in turn, others are empowered by them.
i ask davy if he feels like they couldn’t have gone this far by themselves. i ask the question already knowing what the answer would be. but davy does the same damn thing again, without skipping a beat he transitions into a story about, of course, somebody else.
“when we hired yosh it was so powerful and moving because me and noah had been doing this by ourselves, and when we started to become successful we needed help. when we asked yosh he began to cry, he was so touched. it was emotional and powerful. the most rewarding thing is simultaneously also the most challenging thing. yoshi working with us changed his life. him and his wife just started a food bank where they get food from all these big companies like costco and they distribute it to the prefabricated housing units where the earthquake hit. and he wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that i think if it weren’t for the 4-5 years he worked for us. if you were to ask him 10 years ago could you use a computer, he’d say no. in yoshi’s case, he didn’t go to high school so he didn’t have the vocabulary to write a formal business email. he had to learn how to type. hiring and teaching people has been a huge learning curve for noah and i. it’s the hardest thing but i know its also the best thing. by the time yoshi left us he could get any e-commerce job. now he has all the skills one would need to run an e-business.”
teaching, training, mentoring and empowering others. it all happens so organically. by empowering others they empower themselves. they’ve created a positive cycle as opposed to the negative cycle of the wa-induced japanese workplace.
if you’ve come here to read specifically about tokyo coffee, you might have wondered whether or not their coffee is organic. by now, you’d know the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. in every sense of the word, yes. you can’t manufacture organic.
what’s organic simply is; it is what naturally flows and what is an expression of what a body can do, or what multiple bodies can do in concert. advertising and labeling something as ‘organic’ couldn’t be further from being so. what is actually organic disavows any such labels; it is simply the expression of a body’s own power– it’s capacity to act. what's unfortunate is how we've become reliant on labels to identify things, and give up the power to understand the world around us and think for ourselves. this applies especially to the dominant identity categories along the lines of race and gender– manufactured constructs, not organic expressions. what is organic is what a thing is and does by it’s own power, its self-expression. there’s an ineffable beauty to something that unfolds organically and can express itself in such a way. it is something true to itself, unspoiled by the curated narcissistic facade of self-importance or the need for social approval. something which is growing increasingly rare and difficult to find.
it would be naive to think that anyone is impervious to the wa’s force– it affects everyone. when social approval and conformity are simultaneously intertwined with capital and power, to think that one could live ‘freely’ outside such dictates would be to misunderstand not only what it means to be free but also the nature of power. for better or worse, it is only within a binary context, or being inundated with negative affects, from which one can begin to realize one’s own power, which is the capacity to adapt, change, and transform– this is the freedom/power one has to express their individuality, or particular vibe/energy.
the millards could’ve gone according to the japanese-wa script, but they didn’t. their perspective was never singular, homogenous or binary– it was always mixed. they were raised in a multi-cultural household and international school, all the while living in a deeply ethnocentrically homogenous country. most people never have to truly learn to navigate through and negotiate between living in disparate worlds simultaneously. living in, and living out the phenomenon of two worlds in one has always been their default mode of existence. hell, they embody it. because of this, the way they see and approach life always involves an assemblage, a mix, and combination of different experiences, affects, and relations– hence the organic way in which roguture’s evolved and developed.
most people, regardless of how ‘diverse’ they may perceive their experience to be, are anything but; the difference is between what is fabricated as ‘organic’, and what doesn’t need the label at all. the millards aren’t ‘diverse’ or ‘multi-cultural’, they simply are themselves. if diversity is something that matters to you, an ideal to be attained, then i’m afraid you’re missing it entirely. what they do isn’t relative to trends and analytics. it comes as no surprise then that roguture, as an extension of who they are, expresses the qualities of non binary individuality (rogu) and intermixtures via craft (ture). as in, what a body (an individual/rogu) can do (their trade– as in a craft, but also as in something shared/exchanged with others).
the school currently has 40 students, and has had as many as 50 over the past 3 years. some of these students are kids, and kids make a lot of noise. well, guess what, before the space was used as a school, and before it was a clothing retail, it was a recording studio– the rooms are soundproof. this allows them to have classes running simultaneously, one for kids and another for adults. it all works so perfectly, and none of it has been scripted.
no doubt a main draw of their school is the coffee that so happens to come with it. i tell davy it must be nice for the students to come in and sit down to have a conversation in english over a cup of coffee. when they first started the school it was never their intention for it to be anything other than that, but as we now know when things mix with others, the separate elements can be elevated, and when combined, form something new and exciting. the school is now more than just a school. the roaster, more than just something to sell coffee. combined, they express what roguture is all about.
“they love it, they love it. all our students drink the coffee. they’ve all been to other english schools, and they sit in a boring classroom, and there’s a whiteboard in the center of the room; the more they’ve been to different english schools, the more they prefer us because of the friendly and laid back atmosphere we have here. so many students tell us this is the coolest school they’ve ever been in.
until a few months ago i couldn’t have put it into words but we're finally coming to grips with how chaotic everything is and making everything work. in terms of our finance if it's just the english school we’d be in debt every month and it’d just be so hard. but our coffee sales on amazon just started booming and it was cool to be able to sell an x amount every month and make everything barely get by. because of that, because of the coffee sales, we were able to be ok with everything.
it wasn’t long ago that we were roasting for our friends out of our home on this tiny little roaster. and when noah was like lets get this roaster and put it in our basement i was like what are the students gonna think? they’re gonna think ‘what is going on?’. and he was like ‘no, we’re gonna put a positive spin to this and tell them that we love coffee and we’re gonna be selling this on the side cause we don’t have enough students to support the school’. well, some days we have tons of students but in the big picture not enough. half the times the mornings are empty, most of our classes are later in the day. but noah was right. and especially because our students liked our coffee. i think i’m more timid and more concerned in a way that i think noah is not. i don’t wanna jump off something unless i can see theres some safety net underneath it. but talking to you has been really encouraging and hearing about how all this has been an extension of who we are is very encouraging to hear. all this gives us assurance we’re not doing anything fake, we’re just being ourselves and doing everything we can to get by. we grew up in japan in a very crazy situation, we were just different from everyone else, we were always different. and now we’re not doing everything the same and that's ok.”