How hard is it to get a Startup Visa to move to Japan?

Learn how two French Entrepreneurs managed to launch their business in Asia, from Fukuoka.

Still thinking that setting up business in Japan is impossible? Meet Yasmine Djoudi and Thomas Pouplin, founders of Ikkai, and considered one of the first foreigners to receive a startup visa in Fukuoka

In 2014, Yasmine Djoudi and Thomas Pouplin flew to Fukuoka from France to participate in a student exchange program. Two years later, they had successfully received a new startup visa and launched a peer-to-peer platform Ikkai. It offers students a way to make extra-money on the side by completing short-term jobs, ranging from a few hours to a few days.

Applying for a startup visa in Fukuoka

Considered one of the first foreigners to ever apply to the startup visa, Yasmine and Thomas were working with Fukuoka city to try to make to process smoother for the next applicants. From their experience, the most difficult part might be gathering all the documents such as the proof of the apartment you’ll be renting, once you get the visa.

Fukuoka Mayor Soichiro Takashima presented Ikkai co-founders Confirmation Letters of NBIP

Officially, the startup visa is a business manager/investor visa that only lasts around 6 months.

The big advantage about the startup visa — like a business manager/investor visa — is that it allows a more accessible criteria:

  • No need to own/register a company in Japan
  • No need to have a minimum of 5 million yen capital
  • No need to hire two employees to be able to get it
UPDATE: From March 26–27th 2019 Startup Visa policy expanded to Aichi Prefecture (Nagoya), Gifu Prefecture (Gifu), Kobe city, Osaka city. Source: Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
As of now, 6-month startup visas for entrepreneurs willing to set up business in Japan are issued only in Tokyo and Fukuoka. In 2018, Japanese government is planning to introduce one-year startup visa that will allow its holders to reside elsewhere in the country.

Setting up business in Fukuoka

From a business point of view, Thomas believes Fukuoka has a lot to offer to entrepreneurs.

The city is offering a startup visa to that makes it easier for Foreigners to get started. There is also a rent subsidy program in which entrepreneurs can get half of their office and personal rent covered (up to 1million yen). Tax reduction have also been implemented for startups operating is some specific industries. Local banks have startup loans with low interest rate (1.3%). The burn rate (time you can use a certain budget to cover salaries, rental and cost of living in general) is also much lower in Fukuoka, when compared to other Japanese cities, like Tokyo and Osaka, allowing entrepreneurs to get much more done with the same amount of funds.

Thomas and Yasmine studied at Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka

In their specific case, Yasmine and Thomas used to be exchange students in a university in Japan and already had some contacts in Fukuoka. It made more sense for them to start a business in a place where they had an existing trustable network.

Thomas: On a personal note, we just love the city, it’s very livable, the food is great, people are very nice and since the city is not so big, there is no wasting hours commuting, which makes it more pleasant to live here.

Another good place to get your startup off the ground — Kyoto

Kyoto has a good potential to be the next ecosystem in Japan. It is known for the strong link between innovation and traditional craftsmanship.

Students make up 10% of the city’s population in Kyoto — the highest ratio in Japan, followed by Fukuoka with its 7%. According to the startup database, the number of startups is nearly the same, with 12 companies in Kyoto and 14 in Fukuoka.

READ MORE: 7 reasons why you should prototype in Kyoto, Japan

Main Challenges for Thomas and Yasmine:

Lack of Japanese language

When we arrived, we barely spoke Japanese so communication was definitely an issue but we were lucky enough to find an intern who helped us tremendously.

Lack of information or lawyers giving us contradictory pieces of advice.

We spent a lot of time figuring out the do’s and don’ts as well as the fastest way to get things done. However, setting up the business itself wasn’t that difficult.

English staff

Fukuoka isn’t yet the most international city of Japan, therefore, finding English staff was a bit challenging.

About Ikkai

Students can get much more diverse experiences through Ikkai than with only one student jobs. Ikkai tasks can also help them acquire or polish interesting skills such as programming, design, sales etc.

For companies, ikkai is essentially cheaper than the competition. It also gives them access to a new pool of talents to help them solve punctual problems that do not require full-time or part-time workers. So far, students have been put aside from that kind of jobs in Japan.

Ikkai is also offering an additional service, called “Career by ikkai”, that helps companies find interns and fresh graduates based on their skills, interests and personality. They are going against the traditional shukatsu model and take a much more data-driven approach in order to reduce the turnover in companies and help students find a job they are truly passionate about.

Thomas: Sharing economy in Japan is still young and not engraved in the culture. I think there is a huge notion of trust in all sharing economy related businesses. Luckily for us, we are mostly dealing with companies outsourcing with students so our clients have that trust factor. The individual-students connections are much tougher to make.

In addition, Yasmine Djoudi, Alexa Huth and Thomas recently started a consulting company for foreign entrepreneurs who want to establish their business in Japan and Japanese companies that are looking to expand geographically and need help localizing their materials. They help startups to navigate the more difficult aspects, connect founders with the people and useful businesses and support startups as they grow and progress.

In 2017, ikkai has raised JPY 20 million (US$180,000) from a group of angel investors.

Fukuoka and Kyoto startup scene

Thomas thinks that Fukuoka and Kyoto are doing great things but their offers are different and could be complementary. Kyoto already has boot camps established which can allow entrepreneurs to get their idea out of the ground and Fukuoka could help with the visa situation and funding.

My main criticism on the Japanese startup ecosystem in Japan is the lack of unity, cities are trying to do it all by themselves instead of relying on each other’s strength, says Thomas.

This problem is even more emphasized in Tokyo, where several hubs open within the city and it can be confusing and cut opportunity to founders instead of helping them. Being part of one big strong community is the key point to benefit the largest amount of stakeholders in a win-win partnership.

Fukuoka is the sixth largest city in Japan, having passed the population of Kyoto. Its economy ranks seventh in terms of GDP while Kyoto is on the 26th position.

About hobbies and passion

Thomas and Yasmine always been really into startup things but they truly developed a passion about building a strong startup community. This is one of the reasons their consulting firm Spear was born. It’s a mix between their passion, the experience they’ve acquired, the information and tips they gathered doing their own startup and this desire to help the foreign community who wants to start something in Japan.

Do you want to get your business off the ground in Japan but don’t know where to start?

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