Winter Diaries | Max Mackee

In conversation with Elise Legault
Photo credit: Xavier Tera

On paper, Max Mackee is a founding member and the Director of International at Origami, Japan's leading QR-based mobile payment platform. Since 2012, he’s been working towards introducing cashless transactions into Japanese consumer habits - and this is no small feat considering the country’s strong ‘Cash is King’ mindset. His vision however isn’t just to change Japan’s cash culture, but to innovate its work environment as well.

Mackee was born in Japan and spent his younger years in some of the world’s biggest cities - Tokyo, Paris, London. As he reached adulthood, he became a lawyer and a DJ - a lifestyle that saw him hopping from boardrooms to dance floors. He eventually left law and returned to Japan with a freshly earned MBA. Whereas his past career had been lined with dissonance, Mackee envisioned a life that reconciled business, creativity and a dose of fresh air.

Today, he may be busy redefining the future of shopping in Japan, but he’s also speaking at conferences, continues to invigorate dance floors and finds time to shred powder in the backcountry. We caught up with the entrepreneur as he was preparing for a weekend of relaxation at his mountainside cabin in the outskirts of Tokyo.

You’re a DJ, a nature lover and an entrepreneur, do you consider these as three distinct versions of yourself or do you feel like they all combine nicely into one great package?

Back when I was a lawyer, I used to think I was juggling personalities. I was a lawyer during the week and on weekends, I’d be deejaying around Europe. They were two separate worlds that didn't intersect. Now, it’s much more of a continuum. Through launching a startup, my experiences in deejaying, record label managing and marketing have all intermingled. I also consult for fashion brands and media - these are business opportunities and creative connections I’ve developed through my deejaying events. So yea, it’s much more of a continuum now.

How did you get into the startup industry? Were you seeking that type of experience or did it sort of fall into your lap?

I knew I wanted to get out of law after practicing for 8 years, so I convinced my firm to send me to business school. Then, I moved back to Japan and met Yoshiki, who had just set up Origami. He asked me to join as part of the founding team. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I was interested in startups because they give you the freedom to really do something creative in terms of business model and culture - you don’t have to abide to old paradigms. And, if you really scale a startup where the working culture is different, you have the ability to help society evolve.

How is that going so far? Have you witnessed any societal evolution?

Not yet… (laughs) The company has to get much bigger and successful to have an impact on Japanese society. We still have a long way to go. We want to lead in mobile payments in Japan and start international development. Hopefully, in 3 or 4 years time, we will be in a position where we can say that we’ve tried new things and our working practices have seeped out into the rest of the world. That said, the wave of startups in Japan has definitely helped in reshaping certain working cultures that we've had engrained for such a long time.

Speaking of cultures, how is weather perceived culturally in Japan?

I think Japanese people feel very fortunate. I used to complain a lot about the weather in the UK because it really is awful there. My first year back in Japan, I was smiling a lot because of the food, of course, but also because the weather is pretty nice all year round. The summers are hot, a little too hot… But autumn is beautiful. Spring is lovely because of the cherry blossoms. And then, winters can be cold and snowy in certain parts of Japan, but generally it’s sunny in Tokyo. Japanese people are very linked to the seasons. For example, there are certain sorts of food, mainly fish, that are specific to a season. All in all, I’d say that people appreciate the weather for different reasons.

Do you recognize that within yourself as well?

Yea. Definitely. I don’t know how I’d respond to that if I lived in the UK, but I appreciate every season and I particularly look forward to winter.

What do you enjoy about winter?

I love being in the mountains and snowboarding in the backcountry. Since I came back to Japan ten years ago, I really got into it and spend a lot of time out there. I’m fortunate that I have a place up in the mountains where I can get out of the crazy Tokyo grind. It’s my form of meditation and it’s something I look forward to all year round.

What creates that meditative space for you?

Nature is such a special kind of environment…Whether it’s in terms of healing or clearing my mind, I need nature. Back when I made music, I used to really be into field recording and I’d use the sounds in my mixes. I love listening to all kinds of music, but there’s really nothing more perfect than the sounds and the music that Nature makes. I spent a lot of time up in the mountains, in Nepal, and all kinds of places, because I just found the sounds incredible. When you are in the backcountry, you discover what real silence is. The snow acts as insulation and all you can really hear is the sound of your feet as you crunch through the powder. It’s just amazing. If you can’t get into a meditative state in that environment than it’s going to be difficult to get into that state anywhere.

Tell us about your place up in the mountains.

It’s a house in the mountains of Minakami, where all you can hear is the stream - there are no man-made sounds. You have bears and monkeys walking around. I try to go out there once or twice a month. It’s only two hours away from Tokyo, one of the biggest cities in the world and all you hear is natural sounds - it’s amazing. It’s just the perfect environment to wind down and meditate, or just focus on the basic things in life.

Do you remember the moment you fell in love with it?

Well, I was born in Japan, but my family moved to France when I was 9. I came back to Japan ten years ago and I had a crew of friends with whom I was doing a lot of events, deejaying and partying. Tokyo is a real 24-hour city so, you know, that was my life for a couple of years… And then, I started questioning if I could really survive here because the city has a lot of energy and I find it hard to sit at home and just relax.. It’s one thing when you’re 16,17, 18 years old, but at the time I was 33…I was getting to the limit of what I could handle. And so, when one of my colleagues invited me up to Minakami, I just thought: ‘Wow, this place is amazing’. That was the moment I fell in love with it. And, the interesting thing is that in Japan, there isn’t really a culture of people having places in the countryside like in Western culture… It’s very limited. Even when people have places in the countryside, they tend to be near their neighbour’s houses. The most popular places will have restaurants, shopping malls and those kinds of things.

Why is that?

I’m not quite sure. I think it’s a question of Japanese society which believes in harmony and following rules. Maybe it’s about convenience too. Minakami was developed 40 years ago mainly by foreign folks and Japanese people who lived internationally and wanted to develop an area in the wild, far away from everything. It’s very difficult to find these types of places. So, when I saw it, I couldn’t believe this place actually existed. The other interesting thing about Japan is that our population is basically disappearing. If you go to the countryside, there’s less and less people. So the property prices are really cheap. You can get a place in the countryside for 10 grand.

Really? Even that close to Tokyo?

Yea, or even closer. The government is trying to encourage Japanese people to move out of Tokyo, but everyone is moving into the city because that’s where all the jobs are. In Europe, I wouldn’t be able to afford a place in the mountains, but in Japan, it’s very affordable. It’s one of the beauties of this country.

It’s pretty fascinating that we can find you late night in a club just as much as in nature, on the slopes. Does backcountry and clubbing have anything in common for you?

Yes… I think when you are deejaying, you can reach a point where you are completely in tune with the music and everyone that is dancing in the room. It can be a bit similar to the space you get into when you are in the mountains… I was reading a book recently called Stealing Fire that came out of Silicon Valley. It’s about how psychedelics, meditation and sports like backcountry snowboarding can get you into a state where you’re no longer relying on your consciousness , but rather on your subconscious functions. Your brain allows you to pick up on a much wider range of things around you in the environment and can lead to real creativity. You can get into that type of space when you are deejaying in a club… but you know, the easiest is to go into the backcountry and ride some powder.

Do you see yourself evolving in a space where there is winter? Is it a part of your identity?

Definitely. My personal goal for the next five years is to be able to spend much more time outdoors during the winter. I’d have Tokyo as a base, spend winters in the backcountry and work from Europe in the summers. That’s the vision.