The work culture in Japan and how it feels to be part of a local startup community

Some personal insights from an outsider who’s still learning about Kyoto monozukuri lifestyle.

A winter walk thru Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavillion, a popular attraction between visitors. Photo by Toni Heikkinen

One of the habits I developed since I’ve dived into this startup world is checking how cultural differences and perceptions might affect the way entrepreneurs face their daily problems.

It’s not so rare to find genuine avant-garde locals who’re excited to learn more about people from different backgrounds.

The Japanese group of startups at our First Demo Day in Shibuya, Tokyo (December, 2015)

Luckily, the stigma of being in a “venture” (the way Japanese refer to startups) and not belonging to a large institution is changing and becoming more towards respect for our determination and courage to move to a distant island and try something new.

In two years, the startup I work for is becoming known and respected for what we’re doing for the society, so every time I mention I work for Makers Boot Camp, I notice a big smile with great support from most people.

Our team members during HackOsaka 2017.

Some of the formalities Japan has been known for tend to be unusual in a startup ecosystem, specially in the Kansai area, where Kyoto is located. When speaking English — and yes, there’re many Japanese who can speak good English! — you feel people more open to exchange new things.

Against all misconceptions, my experience here has proven that Japanese are very sociable, besides the fact most of them tend to be usually shy at first sight. But after a while, locals can become as friendly and warm as childhood friends.

At our co-working space, as an example, there’s always an exchange of coffee, tea and cute “omiyage” (small treats) without any specific reason. There’re also some events during special times of the year, according to the seasonal festivals and National Holidays.

The New Year celebration at our co-working space (January, 2016)

In general, I feel like I start to belong to this small community that has embraced students, researchers and many other professionals from all parts of the world, like me.

Being a half-Japanese — the other half is a mix of Italian, Portuguese and Native Brazilian, I somehow assumed my case would be an exception… I couldn’t be more wrong!

I met many other Foreigners who also have been here for a while, taking advantage of the fact that in certain fields, Japan is still a new-born and needs more new initiatives to boost the local will.

In this ecosystem with a huge potential of renovation/reinvention (the most urgent deadline due to population ageing), Foreigners have already either established their business or partnered with locals to started challenging the opportunities in terms of products & services, adding their own value to this traditional mature market — still the top 3 markets in IoT (Internet of Things), the industry we’re connected to, as hardware startup supporters.

I had the chance to speak directly to Renault-Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn about his advice for young entrepreneurs. Photo: Slush Tokyo 2017.

I’m aware Japan is far from a perfect living place, and we do have many others issues to solve, being gender inequality of the the ones that have shocked me most. But most of the points I’ve been asked about are old-fashioned standards that don’t belong to our startup approach or that I can’t consider as part of my daily life.

On the Medium post “The work culture in Japan”, Nino Eclarin, a developer from the Philippines working for a Japanese startup, helped me to realised some of his questions are more common than I thought.

After his first visit to Kyoto, where he shared his journey with Hacarus, a sparse-modelling AI startup based in the city, Nino might have noticed some of the same things I found very surprising.

Many tutorials can teach how to behave in a business interview in Japan, so I’d like to share my advise for Foreigners who are interested to join startup ecosystems.

  1. How should a startup get prepared to do business in Japan?

In the same you do business everywhere else. Forget about all the formalities you might have heard of, they might be overestimated if you’re a global startup. First of all, most Japanese global players are getting prepared to work with non-Japanese partners, so focus on how to present your project in an unique way, showing your values, instead of trying to behave like a Japanese.

Fushimi Inari Taisha, the Japanese shinto shrine located in South of Kyoto, represents the unity of the local business community (all gates are supported by companies who sponsor the venue)

You don’t have to follow all the business culture to become part of the startup ecosystem in Japan.

If there’s any specific requirement, some local partner will lead the way to make it easier for you, so you don’t feel lost (part of omotenashi hospitality). If you’d like to learn, experience or if you appreciate the business culture, it’s great to show respect but it doesn’t mean startup people expect you to be like them.

If you’ve been invited for a ceremony or meeting with authorities, try to be discrete and observe others. If you break the protocol, it’s ok.

Our meeting with the Mayor of Kyoto, March/2017, when I broke all possible protocols.

Months after I moved here, I realised there was no purpose to try to be like a Japanese — even thought my father was one of the most traditional man you’d ever find in Japan— my identity had been built in Brazil, in a different reality. And that was the main reason I was hired, so my International background and different skills could bring a different perspective to our global startup.

Instead of trying to change all the time, I decided to enjoy this experience being myself: if there is anything specific I appreciate, I’d adopt as my own customs for my benefits. If not, I’d skip it.

During the visit of Le Club de Paris for Directors of Innovation, after all formalities, we made a break at this wagashi (Japanese sweet) workshop where the male attendees were excited to learn new skills!

2. Dressing code for Startups in Japan

For my 1st job interview, the dressing code was casual — not only mine, but also of the Co-Founders who were interviewing me. The more I meet startups, the more comfortable I feel to dress up in a way I feel better.

Expectation: the dressing code for job interviews, like the standard B&W. Reality: supporters and startup team members dressing code is casual and reflect their own style.

3. How young are Japanese startup leaders?

Young enough to shake hands with Foreigners and speak English naturally. You can already meet some local leaders inspired by International role models of leadership who value and respect every team’s opinion. In our daily life, we’re honest with each other, expressing ourselves whenever we don’t agree with any specific thing. As female team members, a key point is that we that we’re also respected and taken seriously.

I must confess that was not my previous image about Japanese leadership, starting from my own father’s conservative legacy.

Our three Co-Founders are serial- entrepreneurs who decided to take the risk to hire a Foreigner as their 1st employee.

4. As in any startup, making mistakes is part of the process!

We daily learn from our mistakes and are encouraged to try again or change our approach, instead of felling ashamed or spending too much time apologising. No guilty feelings and we try to move on to the next challenges.

5. Is there any flexibility at all?

We comply with the Japanese legislation (of course!) but flexibility is part of what a startup should offer — this should also be applied to other companies, not only startups.

Earlier this year, we joined a Startup workshop at Kyoto D-Lab by Aalto Design Factory (Finland) to brush up our skills.

6. Excessive extra hours aren’t part of the job description

We don’t want to be part of sad statistics about overwork in Japan, so we’re encouraged to have a life balance, with enough free time to rest, exercise and also enjoy the opportunities around town. We even have a corporate incentive to learn new skills or practice some hobby! I’ve been learning Japanese and it’s been a very challenging activity for my tired Western-centered brain.

This anime bar is a 10 min walk from our office.

Right now I’m also strongly committed to improve my lazy routine with frequent sessions at a local Welness Club — Oak 21, where I get some indulgence in a hot bath tube and also some range of massage chairs, after working out.

7. Weekends are a big thing when you’re in a place like Kyoto!

So what’s the point of being in such a vivid millenary city, full of energy and life, surrounded by hills, culture and history, if you can’t enjoy the location?

The Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is a 40-min away from our HQ in central Kyoto.

8. Are there enough startups in Japan?

Definitely not enough yet (in terms of quantity and quality), but there’re quite a few startups in a good path and many others that will slowly get there. It’s a young ecosystem with limited capital, that is about to change due to new policies and government incentives, in order to overcome the failure averse mindset.

I was surprised to find some attractive opportunities currently available for the ones willing to join startups in Japan. Just check Angel List — I found 20 startups hiring now, with some of them offering more than one open position each. Developers and even marketers are highly valued!

9. Where can startups find a basis to work in Kyoto?

Remote Year Group 1 brought around 40 Foreigners to our co-working space for a New Year Party. (Jan/2016)

During my journey, whenever I have the chance to meet global trotters as awesome as I met recently, I see how lucky I am for being able to start a new path in such a developed country, where safety and infra-structure surprises even my Scandinavian friends!

The first group of entrepreneurs I met in Kyoto in January 2016 was part of the Remote Year, an American startup that chose Kyoto as one its 12 cities (the only one in a developed country).

In the case you’re also lucky to be able to work from Kyoto, I’d suggest checking some of our co-working spaces and local atmosphere.

  • FVC Mesh: one of the few 24/7 co-working spaces, where our HQ is currently located(rooms in 2 floors) and all kinds of local people. Mostly long term SMEs but also a few digital nomads once in a while. Monthly membership available for a good cost-benefit.
  • Impact Hub Kyoto: a brand new open room in an old NTT building with a very local neighbourhood. The area is a bit far from the main city but it has its own charming environment.
  • Oinai: central located, near Impact Hub Kyoto, with a cozy atmosphere and sharing culture.
  • 385 Miyako Place: a new place with the most privilege view ever (and a hammock!)
  • MTRL Kyoto: an old-style typical house turned into a FabCafe, where we host our series of Monozukuri Hub meetups.

And if you’re considering working for a startup, write me and stop by for a coffee!

Kobe is 1h train ride from Kyoto, and besides the Kobe beef, you can also experience the first China Town of Japan.