Ever since St. Francis Xavier arrived in Kagoshima in August 1549, official Japan has preferred foreigners of a certain type: prestigious leaders who are status-quo-oriented and have a large organization backing their ventures here.
On the other hand, small, scrappy foreign entrepreneurs wanting to start a Japan-based business have not historically been the kind of guests Japan’s political and social elites welcome to take up residence. Especially if they are young.
Today, as is the case with young Japanese, foreigners with dreams of succeeding in Japan tend to overwhelmingly think of Tokyo as the place they’re most likely to get an official or unofficial welcome. Kansai, by contrast, is all but off the radar. And that, said Wayne Kim, founder of Kinder Kids International School — which now has 18 branches in Kansai, Chubu and Kanto — is not necessarily a bad thing.
“It depends on the industry, but there’s a lot less foreign competition here in Kansai than in Tokyo,” Kim said. “Wages are also less. Kansai lags a little bit behind Tokyo in terms of technology, but personality goes a long way here.”
Carlos Rameriz, governor of the Kansai Canada Business Association, has lived in the region for over two decades. He said young foreign entrepreneurs involved in sectors that Kansai has traditionally been strong in, like pharmaceuticals, fashion, steel and chemicals, might do well.
“And IT systems, especially if you have innovative software for back-end office management, are also an area of opportunity because lots of small businesses in Kansai are lacking these kinds of office systems,” he said.
Cost is probably the biggest reason to set up shop. By some estimates, Kansai is between 15 and 20 percent cheaper to live and work in than Tokyo, meaning that even with the added costs of an occasional business trip to Tokyo, it may still be cheaper on the whole to be based in Kansai.
Disadvantages include not only a smaller customer base, but also the need for a higher degree of Japanese ability than is usually required for doing business in Tokyo. Finding competent English-speaking employees for your startup can also be a challenge — most of Kansai’s best English speakers tend to end up in Tokyo or even find jobs overseas.
It also takes more time, and more face-to-face communication, to establish and maintain customers in Kansai than in Tokyo. You have to go and sip lots of green tea and engage in idle chit-chat. Telecommuting, teleconferencing and Skype calls are not yet being used in Kansai to the extent they are in Tokyo or even abroad. That can be a surprise to those who expect all business to be done quickly and electronically.
So in the end, it’s a certain kind of foreign entrepreneur who succeeds in Kansai, usually someone who doesn’t like crowds, isn’t worried about being feted by Japan’s social and political leaders, and will spend time and money delving deeply into Japanese society rather than looking at the country as simply another East Asian market where their company might be based.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.