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Julie Thomas-Toda: An Incredible Connector of People

London, UK
International community mourns a passionate producer and dear friend who championed Japanese talent and touched all who met her, writes LBB’s Laura Swinton
The beaming grin. The sparkling eyes. The uncontainable joy. The precious cargo of daruma dolls waiting to be pressed into the hands of friends new and old. Bumping into Julie Thomas was to be bathed in warmth, to feel like you were the most important person in the world. Her great, all-encompassing love fueled everything she did and it shone, touching everyone around her.

Across the world's advertising production community, countless people are bereft, mourning the fact that they will never again experience Julie’s light and warmth. Julie passed on July 24th 2021 due to complications while in surgery for removal of cancerous lymph nodes that resulted in cardiac arrest. Julie had entered hospital in early April, and over recent months her condition worsened. Julie’s memorial took place last week, appropriately a riot of colourful flowers and a celebration of her Hawaiian roots.

Julie was deeply respected for her work as a producer and pioneer who championed Japanese creativity internationally – but she was also beloved for her kindness and exuberance that left a lasting impact on all who met her. She was also a beloved wife to Yoshi and mother to Kanoa and Kahana and a dear sister to her two brothers Robert and Chris and six sisters Alice, Barbara, Margaret, Rose, Linda and Kristen. Her oldest sister Mary passed away in 2017. She was a loving aunt to all her nieces and nephews and brought them all to Japan during their teen years to explore the wonders of Tokyo with her.

Originally from Honolulu in Hawaii, Julie moved to Japan shortly after graduating from the University of Hawaii with a B.A. in Theatre Studies. There she joined AOI Pro. in 1991, where she worked for 30 years, first as a creative producer and later as chief creative coordinator and global marketing and branding manager. In that time she travelled the globe, producing thousands of commercials for clients like Nissan, Honda, Toyota, Sony, Panasonic, Coca-Cola, Shiseido, Nike, Kirin, Asahi, and Nestle. She developed a passion for discovering and nurturing directing talent. 

Julie’s impact on AOI Pro. cannot be underestimated. Speaking to Little Black Book, the team shared a collective message about how Julie shaped the company, helped raise the bar for creativity and production values - and her infectious sense of fun.

“We have lost a very important person, Julie Thomas, who had become an icon not only for AOI Pro. but also for the advertising production industry in Japan.

“She created an international department in AOI Pro. and contributed to the recognition of AOI to be equated with “global.” She had made it a standard to invite overseas creative staff to Japan, and Japanese staff to go overseas for shooting and editing. She also introduced overseas commercial works to Japan and created an opportunity to learn from them. She always pursued creativity and quality without compromise.

“We have learned a lot from her who was always positive, able to grasp the fun of production work and had power to move things forward.

“What we respect about Julie is that she didn't simply pursue famous people, but loved the hidden possibilities of everyone, be they young or old. And she generously connected them to people in every corner of the world. She wasn't merely a good person, but was a person with a lot of ambition, would sometimes show some annoyance and had some playful slyness. In short, she was an honest person.

“A person like Julie should have had a long and joyful life connecting with the many friends from all over the world.

“It's so regrettable to lose her, but we will continue to pursue her will to turn her beloved AOI Pro. into a better company, one that she could be proud of.

“We pray for her soul. Rest in peace, Julie. Many thanks and love.”

Julie wanted to share the wonders of Japanese creativity with the rest of the world and became a frequent fixture at international advertising industry events. Whether at Adfest, Cannes Lions or Ciclope, she was a cheering presence for anyone travelling solo to such events and in search of a friendly face and supportive word.

At Adfest 2018, Julie interviewed renowned music video director Joseph Kahn on stage and the pair had a strong respect for one another. Speaking about Julie’s passing, Joseph says that he is ‘beyond devastated’. 

In a tribute on Facebook, shared here with Joseph’s permission, he said: “She was as kind of a person as I had ever met with a genuine curiosity of the world and the people within it. She moved from Hawaii and integrated herself with Japan and all its nuances. When you spoke with her it was like speaking with a unicorn - someone who magically walked both west and east effortlessly. Absolutely the most positive person I have ever known. She was also my biggest supporter with such a strong belief in me, to a point I'm afraid I can't really match her perception. Even separated by an ocean she always felt active in my life, constantly loving every picture of Lola and Lotte. It feels beyond comprehension to lose such a friend and believer, and the industry feels a little colder now. Yet there is one thing I can think of that brings a little light: the fact she existed is a testament of the good of human beings.”

Throughout her travels and international productions, Julie made many friends, and the outpouring of grief on her Facebook page has been overwhelming. One of her close friends, Yanina Barry, EP and owner at Good Films, had the chance to explore Tokyo several times with Julie as her guide, taking her to special temples and local hidden gems. 

Yanina said: “The international response has been both astonishing but also unsurprising.

“One of Julie’s most amazing talents was that she remembered everyone – every face, every name, who they were and what they did!   She was encyclopaedic in the breadth of her knowledge within the industry. And she treated everyone with the same respect and care.

“I think another important aspect is her dedication to finding and promoting excellence in creativity. She was always fascinated by work/directors.

“Julie embraced Japanese culture and the way she seemed to seamlessly meld her American perspective into a Japanese aesthetic was unique and very respected. It was very much appreciated by Japanese professionals, often struggling to introduce ‘foreign’ customs and procedures into Japanese work.

“She enjoyed introducing US traditions to her neighbourhood – especially Halloween!  And she enjoyed taking part in Japanese neighbourhood events and traditions, such as Ontake San Bon Dance.

“But all this is just the background noise to her dedication as a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife and a friend and a colleague.”

Kim White, executive producer at The Network Producers, was also incredibly close with Julie. She describes Julie as a ‘glue within the industry’ – something that has been demonstrable in the broad but tightly woven network Julie built.

Kim said: “Jules was an incredible connector of people, at all the festivals we went to around the world, she would constantly be introducing people to one another - with glee, enthusiasm and a lot of funny and animated stories.  She was a sort of glue within the industry I feel, everyone was at ease with her.  Happy to pave the way for anyone she could, with no want for anything out of it.  You don’t see that often in this industry.  She was a strong and enthusiastic force - it’s really hard to comprehend that she is gone.”

In March 2019, I was lucky enough to visit Tokyo as part of a delegation from the UK’s Advertising Production Association and there I saw Julie in action. After knowing her for several years, I was astounded seeing her hard work in action (and make no mistake, herding a gaggle of producers is hard work!). It was not something Julie did out of obligation but generosity and a tireless desire to bring communities together. Julie coached us on Japanese business customs and helped smooth our way to agencies like Dentsu and Hakuhodo. I had the pleasure of spending time with Julie many times at international industry events in locations as diverse as Thailand and Berlin and can attest that even though I might meet Julie two or three times in any given year, each time she made me feel like we were the best of friends.
Julie’s example inspired others to adopt her passions and causes. Mitsuaki Timo Otsuki is one such person, who has followed Julie’s example of sharing Japanese creativity with the world. Timo said: “Julie, you were the first person to bridge Japan and the international market. I know exactly the reason that made it possible: it was your passion, your smile, your love for the industry.

“You were really kind to me and everyone and I learned a lot from you. I still can’t believe you are gone. It seems like we will still be bumping into each other on some award shows.

“This world and industry will be definitely different without you. But I am sure all the children you have taught about the industry will do a great job going forward, to bridge and continue what you have been doing.

“I will miss you so much but am sure you will continue to smile and help others up there too. Rest in peace.”

For anyone who had the good fortune to cross paths with Julie, you may have found yourself gifted with a plump little Daruma doll (a symbol of perseverance and luck), Yanina has a little secret that reveals just how much thought Julie put into these gifts for her friends around the world: “Of course, her distribution of Darumas is legendary – but you may not know that they were not all alike.  Julie would go to different temples and buy different Darumas for different people.  Her friends were gifted very special ones.”

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