What is The Tofu Project?

The Tofu Project connects entrepreneurs, innovators, and creative leaders from Japan and the United States through curated events and projects designed to challenge people to discover their fullest potential, share their stories, and create impact.

We are a 501(c)3 non-profit that designs unique toolkits for creative leaders and social activists focusing on leadership, self-expression, and design thinking.


What do you guys do?

Like many great ideas, The Tofu Project began over a bowl of ramen noodles. Lisa — a journalist who had been writing about Japanese culture for American magazines, websites, and radio shows — had a vision of creating a program that would teach entrepreneurs from other cultures the communication and leadership skills needed to compete on a global scale. Rather than acting as a cultural interpreter to creative minds across the world, she wanted to empower people by providing them the tools to speak for themselves. So she tapped Tomo — a San Francisco-based designer who went from the rice paddy fields of TK to a hipster loft in the Mission — to ask him how he learned to articulate his own unique self-expression. Tomo pulled together some post-its, plugged some visuals into InDesign, and The Tofu Project was born. The two tapped their Japan-based co-founders Unae, Daisuke, and Yushi, and the team of five got to work planning their first event.

Here’s a video we made in the summer of 2011, featuring Lisa’s dogs Ruby (2003-2015) and Malcolm, whom we hired to represent our brilliant new idea:

For the inaugural flagship program in 2011, the Tofu team carefully selected nine extraordinary entrepreneurs from Japan and ran them through a week-long program in California. Sessions were designed in partnership with innovative Bay Area companies like Pixar, Google, Pivotal Labs, 500 Startups, and IDEO; our friends from Blue Planet and Gotomedia led us through public speaking and design thinking workshops. The nine Japanese went home inspired, invigorated, and connected to a new network of extraordinary innovators and mentors. Many of the success stories from this event continue to this day, and some are documented on our main page.

 In 2012, we “reversed” things by bringing 12 innovators from the United States to Japan for a week-long interactive, immersive journey into the history and creativity of Japan. Reverse Tofu included a visit to a Fukushima high school, where the nuclear disaster took away the chance for kids to follow in their parents’ footsteps as fishermen and farmers; an empathetic brainstorm session with a surf community from the tsunami-stricken coast of Miyagi prefecture; and a bucket-to-table experience at the oldest eel bowl restaurant in Tokyo. We ended the trip with a one-day event about entrepreneurship and branding hosted by our guests, and then spent the weekend relaxing seaside at a new innovation space belonging to our sponsor Digital Garage.

In 2014, we dialed in the scale of our flagship event by inviting four social activists and creators from Japan back to San Francisco. They were Fumino Sugiyama, a transgender LGBTQ activist from Tokyo, Yoichi Ochiai, one of the most celebrated media artists of his generation; Yusuke Kato, a social entrepreneur in Fukushima (and one of our hosts during the 2012 event); and Hitomi Okada, a celebrity education advocate who uses clay as her main medium for self-expression.

 Here’s a video in which Yoichi recaps his experience at the 2014 event:

Today, we have launched two new features that now constitute our core offerings and enable us to reach even more people, both in person in the cities we operate in and virtually, all over the world:

Lecture series = a suite of videos and project summaries featuring inspiring speakers and initiatives from our past events. Some highlights include a talk by author Daniel H. Pink about how to give good speeches and a talk by MIT Media Lab’s Sputniko! about the future of good design.

Workshops = custom-designed, culturally targeted workshops in Tokyo and San Francisco that focus on teaching Bay Area-inspired design, leadership, self-expression, and storytelling skills in Japanese. Our first clients have included corporate executives, entrepreneurs, social activists, and expats. For more information about our workshops, contact info[at]thetofuproject[dot]org.


Why Tofu? 

Because Tofu is a staple Japanese food product that is loved all over the world and cooked in many different ways. Our vision is for the people of the Tofu community to be as versatile and well loved and healthy as tofu.


How Can I Get Involved?

1. Sign up to receive updates

If you would like to stay up-to-date on upcoming events, new video releases on our website, and opportunities to volunteer or participate in a future Tofu endeavor, please subscribe to our Facebook page.

2. Invite us to your organization to host a workshop

If you would like to hire us to host a workshop at your organization, please email info[at]thetofuproject[dot]org with your name, the name and address of your organization, the estimated number of people who would take the workshop, and what you hope to achieve through the workshop. The Tofu workshops work best for groups of 8-25 people and take about three hours each. We highly recommend this for anyone who feels like their team could use improvement in self-expression, leadership, public speaking, creative thinking, introspection, global awareness, or just needs a fun bonding experience in a safe environment.

 3. Sponsor a project or donate to Tofu

As an educational not-for-profit organization, we rely on sponsorships and donations from people like you to be able to continue to do our good work. Our team works on a volunteer basis on weekends, but we still need to cover operational costs.

 4. Come work with us

We are currently seeking a part-time program manager to join our team. Candidates must be bilingual in Japanese and English, have some experience in using social media to rally people around a cause or interest area, and be very organized. If interested, please send a resume with a cover letter email to info[at]thetofuproject[dot]org by May 1, 2015.