More foreigners than ever are becoming entrepreneurs in Japan. So how did the humble gaijin go from teacher-romancer to founder-disrupter? As we’ll see, it’s all about making Japan a better place to live. But first, a gaijin history lesson.
FIRST WAVE: 1868-1899
If you shipped up in Japan as a foreigner anywhere between 1635 and 1868, the omotenashi was frankly terrible. According to the Sakoku Edict issued during the rule of Iemitsu Tokugawa, foreign sailors trying to enter the country faced immediate and grisly death, unless they were among the Dutch and Chinese merchants granted limited trading rights. Conditions could be described as below-par for anyone looking to start a business in Japan.
Things changed with the opening of Japan and the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The oyatoi-gaikokujin (‘hired foreigners’) were academics, technologists and military men brought to Japan at the invitation of the Meiji Government. The aim was to close the economic and military gap between Japan and western nations, before closing the country again to foreign influence. At the peak of this enormous technology transfer, foreign experts are said to have accounted for a third of the national budget.
It wasn’t planned to last and nor did it. A series of military victories helped to consolidate Japan as a regional power. The Imperial Rescript on Education of 1890 reinforced the divinity of the emperor and curtailed foreign influence. Special rights for foreigners were revoked in 1899. This first wave of foreign influence on Japan had depended completely on patronage, which could be withdrawn as easily as it was granted. The era of the foreign expert was over, or so it seemed.
SECOND WAVE: 1980-2007
Technically, you could trace the second wave of gaijin influence on Japan as far back as 1945 and the occupation years. That period certainly threw up individuals who crossed the cultural divide and became Japan Hands, people who could be trusted to interpret Japan for the outside world and bring it into the postwar political consensus. However, for the sake of our story, we’re going to start in the 1980s, the era of Japan Inc. and the most urgent demand for internationalisation since the Meiji era. Suddenly, Japan became more than an exotic diplomatic posting; it was now a fabulous place to launch one’s career and earn some yen.
The fabled JET Programme, established in 1987, had little to do with education. Stung by criticism of its trade surplus with the USA, the Japanese Government – or rather the Ministries of Internal and Foreign Affairs – devised a programme that would create jobs for young Americans and foster a more sympathetic attitude towards Japan. The programme was quickly expanded to other English-speaking nations and continues to this day. For those who couldn’t get onto JET, there were private-sector alternatives that promised tickets to the same party.
Another kind of playbook emerged for making it in Japan. First, learn the language and drink deeply in the culture. Then, master a skill considered quintessentially Japanese. Finally, attain Buddha status. Or at least enjoy reasonable fame as a gaijin ‘talent’. To this day, Japan maintains a weakness for basking in the admiration of its foreign acolytes. That these Japanophiles were also considered experts on all things outside Japan remains a problematic feature of the national psyche.
The late 20th Century also witnessed the first genuine stirrings of gaijinpreneurship. Foreigners could and often did establish businesses of their own. But these ventures tended to cluster in the linguistic and cultural divide between Japan and the world. Language schools, translation agencies, and business consultancies proliferated. Entrepreneurial as they were, such ventures continued to depend on Japanese custom and cultural smarts for their existence.
LOOK OUT! BIG CHANGES: 2008-2011
A few short years would see a massive flux in the foreign population of Japan. In 2008, the global financial crisis drove out much of the expat set. Belt-tightening across Japan also meant the near-collapse of the English conversation school industry, traditionally the largest employer of foreigners. The Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011 prompted a further exodus.
Population decline, first recorded in 2011, was the trigger for an aggressive expansion in the numbers of foreign students and tourists. There would be an increase in foreign graduates of Japanese universities and a surge in short-term visitors. If you were here the whole time you could easily have missed it, but something fundamental was changing in the foreign community in Japan.
THIRD WAVE: 2012-PRESENT
Today, there’s no lack of entrepreneurial hustle among the foreign community in Japan. But today’s gaijinpreneurs view Japan as simply a base, not an identity. They want the obvious benefits of living in Japan, but not necessarily the role of cultural ambassador. They want to create and build, not just interpret and explain. Third-wave gaijinpreneurs do much more than simply connect Japan to the outside world, though there’s still quite a lot of that too.
Think of the breathtaking pleasures of living in Japan. The misty mountains erupting out of the plains. The train weaving reliably through the boxy clutter. The air-conditioned stillness of the combini with everything in its place. The sense of order and a well-curated life. Gaijinpreneurs get to enjoy it all. But they may get around to solving the imperfections too, the things one could previously only complain about. The language barrier. The banking system. The price of fruit. The peculiar difficulty of finding a decent sandwich.
The more you look around, the more you see it. Old gaijin rivalries have been replaced by a hyper-networked community that’s not so much disrupting Japan as making it a more livable place. Matching platforms, wayfinders, rentals, meetups and experiential travel are some of the products of third-wave gaijinpreneurship. A lot of this is servicing the huge growth in inbound tourism; in fact, it’s now possible to run a successful business in Japan without a single local customer.
Long-term, expect more Japanese people to become users of these products as well. Both the local and foreign startup scenes are already well integrated. Ecommerce, fintech, coworking spaces, virtual teams and social media are the pillars of a new floating world of entrepreneurship that makes many of the old assumptions about doing business in Japan redundant. The media and business establishment have also lost their power as the final arbiter of what gets accepted in Japan.
GAIJINPRENEUR HEAT ZONES
WORDS: DAVID WILLOUGHBY/WORKERS U. IMAGES (FROM TOP): OSKAR KRAWCZYK/UNSPLASH, NIPPON.COM/YOUTUBE, LOUIS LO/UNSPLASH. VECTORS: NOUN PROJECT.
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