Matt Meets Asia: Tokyo Edition!

In the land of the rising sun, respect, tradition, and attention to detail are common practice. Japan has always been an economic powerhouse in our global marketplace with innovative brands like Sony, Toyota, and Nintendo around since the 1980s. In 2015, we’re waiting to see what is next. In a great position to scale out a product or service to a global audience, the younger generation is looking into startup culture to move the economy forward in this new day and age.

This is going to be biased.

From my Japanese roots, I knew what I was getting into. I knew I would love this place. What I didn’t know was the extent of the culture and how it would manipulate me. From ramen and curry rice, to an intricate metro line and lively hot spots such as Shibuya and Shinjuku, Tokyo was a city I would not soon forget and most likely return to as soon as humanly possible.  

This culture was built around the concept of respect and attention to detail. Something we don’t really give a s**** for in the states. It was refreshing to be given such prestige by the dip of a “bow” at somewhere like a fine dining restaurant, but it was more bewildering in areas more commonplace such as our local 7 Eleven. This was an amazing insight into a somewhat new culture to me, yet oh-so-familiar.

Japan has always been a force to be reckoned with in the global marketplace, but startups here are lagging behind. Since I only had a week in this beautiful country, and exciting city, I can’t say much except for what I glimpsed. One view I respect, is that of Taylor Beck, a writer for Fast Company, who showcases the immense risk that one would have to take to become an entrepreneur in this country. I wanted to know more, so I began to ask around.

I took my first look into the startup scene in Tokyo almost immediately. Upon my arrival, I met with my team in Tokyo to make sure they were completely set up for our AngelHack Series hackathon that would take place that weekend. Planning to fill a room of 100 developers, designers, and entrepreneurs takes a bit of coordination, believe it or not. As we met with leaders and managers of the Japanese corporation we would be collaborating with, my team members took a deep bow, and acknowledged their gratitude. I followed their lead.

Unlike any other city I had worked in, the attention to detail was palpable almost immediately as we huddled up around a table and discussed each moment of the event down to the minute. With a team of 10, we had each task outlined without any room for error. This was the most well coordinated event I had ever seen, and it made sense to me why this culture had been so great at building top notch products with such attention to detail. To be honest, if I took them back to LA with me, we could probably give some Hollywood event producers a run for their money.

After we had completed the event setup, we all went out for a steamy and savory bowl of ramen where I would get to speak with a few of my event ambassadors about startups here. “We haven’t really been interested in startups, but everyone is changing their minds,” says one of my ambassadors. I was curious, and continued asking if the tradition of business culture had anything to do with it that. We went back and forth, as I continued to probe more about the startup ecosystem here.

“Here in Japan,  stability with a large company – you know, wearing the same black suit, white collared dress shirt, and black tie everyday – is the life most Japanese parents want for their children.”

As my team continued, I learned that going “against the grain” in Japanese culture is hard to find, but tradition and respect for your superiors is second nature. The business culture here is centered around a hierarchical design, which pays gives all its attention to detail. It’s a culture different from my own business culture, but there were other strengths that this startup ecosystem had behind it that the people should leverage.

So, how do we innovate, how do we turn over a new leaf for the youth in Japan who want to build their dreams while preserving tradition? They knew there were huge roadblocks that would prevent them to getting where they wanted to be, yet seemed hopeful for the future of Japan.

It’s a process, and will be for quite some time.

With all of this on my mind, our hackathon kicked off. From Saturday to Sunday, I got to meet some men and women with perseverance and guts who were passionate for new technology, and wanted to stand out as the black sheep by going against the grain, and innovating the industry for Japan. Project after project, I met more and more individuals who only wanted one thing: a chance to represent Japan’s new startup ecosystem. From the 30 teams that we had present in front of judges, and hack all weekend, there could only be one winner. After the judges made up their minds on who would represent Tokyo, our winner, “Kakushika” was announced.

After the hackathon, I was able to connect with one of our judges, Dave Corbin from Tech in Asia. We began to discuss the problem here in Japan with population size, the declining percentage of youth, and how difficult it was to be a pioneer in a country that strongly holds on to hierarchy and tradition. Almost immediately, he began to mention more pros than cons here in Tokyo. Yes, it would take time for Tokyo, Japan to be as competitive as San Francisco or Tel Aviv in startups, but they are moving this culture forward. From the government’s increased involvement in startups, to corporate collaborations between startups, our friend here was patiently waiting for change.

“We’re seeing a lot of action coming to Japan. Especially with various events coming into Tokyo, for instance, you guys (AngelHack) are here for the first time. There’s been an atmosphere of opportunity. But, it’s become a matter of how the old guard treats the new guard, and corporates are finding more and more ways to work with startups.”

Dave Corbin, Tech in Asia

The people, the government, and corporations have their eye on the startup community here in Tokyo, Japan. Although, this Japanese startup community still has to figure out the balance between tradition and innovation, and those two don’t always get along. Their products, and technology have always been the insignia of quality, but right now it’s all about how traditional businesses decide to collaborate with startups who are more nimble, and have specific skills sets. In the end, it will come down to how we decide to inspire the Japanese youth that will stir up Japan’s economic vitality, while holding tight to tradition.

Signing out.

Matt Wright