[From June Issue 2013]
Although some people say that the taxes and infrastructure of Japan makes it difficult to start up a business here, non-Japanese startups do exist. But due to the reluctance of Japanese companies to hire non-Japanese, until now, these foreigners had no choice but to become translators or restaurant owners serving up their native cuisine. These days, however, the numbers of a new breed of non-Japanese company presidents are swelling.
“Japanese people are very enthusiastic about their hobbies. Ordinary office workers go to schools after five pm to learn English, or to take music classes. I thought I’d like to teach guitar to people who have such a love of learning,” says American, Michael KAPLAN. Overcoming many difficulties, he established American Guitar Academy, a guitar school in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo.
Having majored in guitar at college, Kaplan is a professional guitar instructor with a master’s degree. He had taught guitar in the USA. When he visited Japan on holiday in 2006, he loved the country. “With its beauty and cleanliness, it made a good impression on me and I came back in 2008. Because Japan is a wealthy country, many people love art. There are so many people who go to art museums, and there are many jazz-clubs, too. Jazz is close to my heart, so the numerous jazz fans impressed me very much.”
Kaplan wanted to teach guitar in Japan, so he looked into how to do this. Then he found out that not only is it difficult for non-Japanese to live in Japan, but that it is even more difficult to start up a business. It’s hard to acquire a visa, also, if you want to start up a company, it’s necessary to establish an office, but landlords are reluctant to rent to non-Japanese. “Some people advised me to use a small place with only a telephone line and post box as an office. But I had my Japanese friends help to convince a landlord to rent out an office to me.”
Kaplan came to Japan to open his school in February, 2011. He was badly hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake that occurred one month later, but he says with a smile, “Dreams come true if you don’t give up. If there are difficulties, all you have to do is just change your approach and try again.” His policy of teaching guitar in English went down well, and now the number of his pupils has swelled to 80, he has taken on new instructors. “My next goal is to make my school the most recognized guitar school in Japan,” he says.
Having established Langtech, a software company, that produces apps, in his native country, Canadian Alain BRETON continues to develop his business in Japan. The Great East Japan Earthquake was the trigger for starting up his business. “Until then, I was an English teacher, but after the earthquake, work dried up. I had a lot of time on my hands and I needed to earn money to live,” he says.
Breton visited Japan in 2004 while travelling around many countries. “It was April,” he remembers. “Tokyo was filled with cherry blossoms and people were happily enjoying cherry blossom viewing; after seeing this I fell in love with Japan,” he smiles. “Of course after a while I found out that I had come during the best season in Japan, but even to this day my positive feeling about Japan hasn’t changed.”
Breton returned to Japan once again as an English teacher, while also attending a Japanese language school. Then he got the idea for the business he runs today. “There were many Chinese and Korean students in my class. They improved really quickly.”
Taking into account his experience at the Japanese language school and the environment he grew up in, Breton, who speaks English, French, and Spanish, came to the conclusion that vocabulary was vital to learning foreign languages. “The reason why Chinese and Korean students learned to speak faster was because there are similar words to Japanese in Chinese and Korean. That is why I developed the educational app ‘LEXI’ in which you touch a photo of an item when you hear a native speaker saying the name of that thing out aloud. Colorful pictures help with memorization, so you can learn words while playing a game.”
He then received an email from a user asking him to“please make an app for children.” “Children of immigrants and children who have learning difficulties want to use iPads and iPhones, so they can learn without becoming bored. That is why I quit my job as an English teacher and established my company.” He is saddened by the fact that, except for teaching a language, it is very difficult for non-Japanese to make a living in Japan. “Because there was little variation in the routine of an English teacher, I wanted to change things up and to continue developing my skills. Starting up a business has made my life more varied and I am very happy now.”
There are some people who choose to start a business by collaborating with Japanese partners. Ariawan, an Indonesian national who went to university in his own country and was hired by a big corporation, left his job after six months. He then established an IT company with three of his friends. “The corporation managed their business in an inefficient way. I created software and recommended it to them. They then said, ‘Start your own company. We will buy in your software from that company.’”
Ariawan eventually wanted to go abroad to study further. So, he sold his company and came to Japan. After getting a master’s degree, he began to work in Japan, where he met and partnered up with Japanese citizen, KAKIYAMA Takehiro. The two established FlutterScape Inc. in May, 2010.
“Kakiyama was in charge of setting up our company,” says Ariawan. “Our company runs a membership based shopping site named MONOCO that sells unique merchandise. I am in charge of the technical side of our website.” Though they’ve gone through some tough times, sales have increased by 20% in one year and they now employ a staff of nine of various nationalities.
“English is mainly used in our company. Our headquarters is currently located in Tokyo, but we might move to a country with more favorable tax laws. As for myself, I wouldn’t mind going back to start a business in Indonesia someday. Because the economy is now rapidly growing,” says Ariawan. It seems that even in Japan, the time has come for people and businesses to move beyond borders.
Text: SAZAKI Ryo