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Taking the biz plunge

There's never been a better time to strike out on your own here

by Laura Fitch

Japan has long been a point of interest for economists worldwide, picking itself up after World War II to create a gargantuan economy that, despite the post-Bubble crash, is still one of the largest in the world. But these stats do little to shed any light on what it’s like doing business on the ground level.

So how is working as an entrepreneur or freelancer in Japan?

According to one interviewee, working in Japan can be akin to “sticking a pencil in your eye.” But recent changes to laws designed to stimulate the economy make starting and owning your own business here easier than ever.

A growing number of foreigners here are choosing to strike out on their own, either freelancing their artistic or creative talents, or creating their own businesses to fill niches that they observe in the market around them.

“I came here first to make money for my circus performance course,” says Michelle Coverley ( www.freewebs.com/circusperformer/ ) now a circus performer who came to Japan originally to teach English to fund her training.

“But I came back because I realized there’s a market for me here.”

Coverley now performs at various venues, including trade shows, festivals and parties, either alone or with a troupe of two other acrobats. She makes a good living, easily enough to support herself, and picks up some English classes on the side for extra cash.

After coming to Japan to teach English with one of the major “eikaiwa,” Anthony Brathwaite felt that something at his job was lacking.

The company he worked for was mainly concerned with profit, and as a result he felt the teaching was below standard. The school was overstaffed and the relationship between management and staff was strained. He decided he could do it better.

He created a system where his company is accountable for student satisfaction. If they are not happy with their teachers, they can choose another one that is more suitable to their needs. He runs his business with a small core of permanent staff and is in contact with about 1,000 teachers, and holds monthly events for students and teachers.

Treating both customers and staff well, he says, is a crucial point in his business. “Treat your staff well and they will work well for you.” His teacher introduction service, Prism Networks ( www.prismeikaiwa.com ), opened its doors 4 years ago and boasts high-level officials, executives and entertainers among its clients.

“Tokyo is a gold mine for risk-takers,” he explains, noting the Japanese aversion to risk. “Just find a need and fill it.”

Jaime Reban-Jones and Nik Jones own party promotion company, the Reban-Jones Project, based in Tokyo. In addition to running various music events around the city, such as their monthly music event Phresh ( www.phresh.jp ) at downtown club Milk, the pair are looking to incorporate different elements into their promotions, such as art and food catering.

This kind of creative conglomeration can find a comfortable home in Japan’s metropolis where the sheer volume of people provides a market for just about anything.

In the beginning, the entrepreneur has two basic options; the “yugengaisha” (literally limited company) or the “kakuningaisha” (confirmed company). The yugengaisha requires proof of a minimum of 3 million yen in assets to incorporate plus the additional filing fees, which including translations can run around 250,000 yen. If that price is too rich for the entrepreneur’s blood, the kakuningaisha offers the chance to incorporate without the 3 million yen up front.

Instead, the upstart has 5 years in which to earn that 3 million yen, either in cash or in assets. If unable to do so by the deadline, the company will be dissolved.

For those interested in checking out up-to-date information on Japanese business laws and investments in English, the Japan External Trade Organization ( www.jetro.go.jp ) offers a wealth of information on everything from government procurement to investment advice.

Many find that the rules for running a business independently in Japan to be more than user-friendly.

According to Beezer, CEO of Beezer Photos ( www.beezerphotos.com ) who has been working as a freelance photographer in Tokyo for 13 years, in addition to running a photography school and contributing to numerous projects in the Tokyo area, “Japanese laws are very pleasant compared to other countries in regard to taxes and visas. The bureaucracy is easier to deal with. Less in your face.” He also notes that most of the necessary information is available in English.

But financial and legal savvy is only one aspect of running a successful independent career. Another important spice in the mix, especially in Japan, is a network of contacts with local people. The high value placed on “wa,” or social harmony, makes the cultivation of personal relationships and balance extremely important, in social interactions as well as in business.

Brathwaite advises to “always remember you’re a guest in this country” and act accordingly. What may be seen as a go get ‘em attitude desirable in a business partner in other countries may be interpreted as overly aggressive here and lead to rejection. This means learning to network and do business in different ways.

Some people “think they can waltz in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” says Simon Jackson, president of Northpointnetwork,( www.northpointnetwork.com ) a company that acts as the middle man between Japanese and Russian oil development companies, and project director for Ridgerunner Architectural Design ( www.rad-development.com ), a company that has built and is now marketing modern, upmarket ski homes for foreigners in Hokkaido. “But the door’s not open.”

Jackson notes that he has made many more contacts through his volunteer activities than through regular networking channels. He cites an example of being prepped to meet a chairman with the advice of “don’t talk business.” So he talked volunteerism instead, and landed a useful contact.

Brathwaite says that he has never had to go to a company for Web design or other such business expenses. He has found more than enough people willing to advise him on business matters by trying to integrate into the community.

“I always met someone who would help me,” he says. What would he say to those wanting to strike out on their own? “Stop wasting your time in Roppongi. Get down to the local bar.”

Getting to know people also means listening. For foreigners who are used to directness in business dealings, learning the subtleties of Japanese communication can be frustrating, and language skills are definitely a benefit.

“Muzukashii” literally translates into “difficult,” but the actual meaning is more like “not really” or “I don’t want to,” observes Jackson. “It takes time and effort to find what works.”

One of the things that can work as an advantage is simply being a foreigner, which can help when it comes to being remembered for available jobs, says Coverley.

Jackson agrees: “As a foreigner, doors will open for you more than others.”

Or they will most of the time. Although playing the foreigner card may be beneficial in some cases, in others it may work against you, Beezer says. It means that you’re competing with the locals, and in terms of working a trade like photography or design, it is worth it “to maintain a strong base of contacts from home” in order to export your work, he says.

At the end of the day, it comes down to hard work, resilience and as Jackson says, “tenacity and the ability to keep smiling.”