National

'Wakyo' entrepreneur networks bolstering Japanese startups overseas

by Kazuya Endo

Kyodo

An alliance of overseas Japanese entrepreneurs is promoting activities modeled after a global network of ethnic Chinese businesspeople.

The members cooperate in overcoming difficulties they frequently come across when dealing with foreign business and lifestyle practices.

They call themselves “wakyo,” a pun on the Japanese word “kakyo,” which is used to refer to overseas Chinese who enjoy a strong global network of mutual support.

The first wakyo group was set up in Hong Kong in 2004. Now there are 17 wakyo chapters in China, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Myanmar as well as Japan. A plan to establish a European chapter is currently taking shape.

Last fall, some 2,000 people attended the fifth world wakyo convention in Bangkok, which was led by Yoshinari Yatagai, 50, head of the Thai chapter.

With the number of Japanese starting businesses in Thailand rising sharply since the late 2000s, with the country’s steadily growing economy, the local wakyo group now boasts about 40 members.

Yatagai, assigned to Bangkok by a travel agency in April 1988, now runs his own tour company in Bangkok serving elderly and disabled people.

In 2008, Yatagai was asked by the head of the Tokyo wakyo association to set up a chapter in Thailand. He wasn’t interested because his company had just gone bankrupt.

But he was eventually persuaded by his mentor, who said, “You should help others succeed precisely because you are in the worst period of your life.” He founded the wakyo association in Thailand in November 2009 and sought support from Yasushi Odahara, 45, president of Thailand’s biggest staffing company, which has 90,000 registered employees and 8,500 Japanese client companies.

“Human connection is the only way you can survive competition with China and South Korea,” Yatagai said.

To Odahara, now a permanent resident of Thailand, Japanese posted overseas by big companies aren’t aggressive enough.

“If you launch a business overseas, whether you and your family can secure food to eat is at stake,” he said. “Your determination would be different.”

Odahara, who went to high school in Japan and university in the United States, described Japan’s current economic situation as an airplane losing altitude.

The passengers may be unaware, but “if you see the plane from outside, you recognize that it could crash,” he said.

“More people will leave shrinking Japan to start businesses abroad,” Yatagai said. “We would like to serve as a place to support them.”

Yatagai and Odahara handed over leadership of the association to younger members after the world convention last year.

After nearly accomplishing its initial objective of promoting information exchanges and understanding, the pair are now looking at establishing a wakyo association covering the entire Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The region’s member nations are scheduled to establish an “ASEAN Economic Community” in 2015 to pave the way for achieving regional economic integration. Japan’s entrepreneurial alliance should be reinforced throughout Southeast Asia now that it is no longer conventional to view a single country as a market, Yatagai and Odahara said.

The two will propose the ASEAN wakyo scheme to the world wakyo convention set to be held in Hong Kong this fall.

“I will live here forever because I can work so comfortably,” said Yatagai, who has a Thai wife and two daughters.

Odahara has a Japanese wife, daughter and two sons.

Their children, who have never lived in Japan, will become “nisei (second-generation) wakyo,” Yatagai and Odahara said in unison.

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