Despite being the 3rd biggest economy in the world, the startup ecosystem in Japan is somehow underdeveloped. While venture capital in the US exceeds 70 billion US dollars, in Japan the number is a mere 1 billion. Historically, the political system is more in favor of large companies and many young people prefer to work for them instead of going down the entrepreneur road. However, the situation is slowly changing and today; students are more open to the idea of starting their own companies.
I had a chance to speak with Ryoji Okuda, founder of a company called Lightened, about what it is like to run a startup in Japan.
Can you tell us about the company?
The name of the company is Lightened. We provide international people in Japan with internship opportunities. We have 11 members in Lightened and 9 of them, including me, are university students. What makes us unique is the cultural diversity and international working environment; 8 foreigners and 3 Japanese are working together, and we use English in the workplace. That’s why we understand the environment surrounding international people in Japan very well. We’ve fortunately passed a startup incubation program powered by Panasonic, a Japanese multinational electronics corporation, and are given a working space in Shibuya for free.
How did you come up with the idea?
It came from my personal experience last year that I was an international student as well. I was studying social entrepreneurship as an exchange student in the Business School of the University of Auckland. Since the very first day when I moved to New Zealand, I was seldom treated as a Japanese. The Kiwi society treated me as a Kiwi, which is what I was impressed with the most during the entire exchange program. As I spent time in New Zealand, I started seeing the environment with cultural diversity as the norm, which surprised me a lot when I came back to Japan.
You know, Japan is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world. International people are often still treated as outsiders and you’ll face problems when you move houses or look for jobs, especially if you don’t speak Japanese. I’ve been working as a student tutor at the University of Tokyo for international students and they often come to me to ask for help in academics and even for daily stuff. Through the tutoring experience, I realized how much the environment surrounding International students needs to improve and I’ve decided to take an action for what students desire, what I wanna do, and what I can do.
One of the biggest problems is job-hunting for international students. Now, 70% of foreign students want to work in Japan but only 30% actually start doing it, which is not good for both international students and companies in Japan. Many Japanese companies regard those without working experiences as ‘risky to hire’, even though they have unique talents. Thus, we started providing a platform for international students in Japan to find internship opportunities since now it is really hard for them to have access to such opportunities.
What kind of difficulties did you face?
There are so many difficulties haha. The biggest one, I think, is that the number of companies which accept international students who don’t speak Japanese isn’t so large. The situation is slowly changing as many of our clients accept them as interns. But it takes time for the whole Japanese society to have an international mindset. We need to keep tackling this issue for the long term.
What do you think is needed to raise the number of international students working in Japan after graduation?
In short, Japanese society has to change. More and more Japanese people, especially executives, should recognize that population is a central problem confronting Japan. By 2050, the population of Japan would drop below the level of 100 million, which means we would lose 20% of the current population in 30 years. A falling birth rate and an aging population mean that the country has far too few young, productive workers. Japan’s economy would shrink in the close future. This is what we need to prepare for. Only after we feel a sense of danger, will our mindset and daily behavior change.
Could you tell us your future goals?
In many contexts in Japan, “diversity” is regarded as what we should increase, but we are grabbing what’s ahead in the future.
Our goal is making differences the norm and creating a bright future for “diversity natives”, people born or brought up during the age of diversity and therefore familiar with differences from an early age. “Digital native” is a phrase we coined from “digital native” :)
Any advice for people who want to start a business in Japan?
Starting your business is easy, but [what is] not is sustaining. Choose problems you really wanna solve, then you’ll have a higher chance to succeed. More importantly, your personality matters. People feel like working with you only after you take care of others and be nice. Last but not least, if you wanna succeed, don’t give up until you achieve your goal!
If you’re interested in finding internships in Japan, you can find information at https://lightened.works/
All images provided by Ryoji Okuda