AN ENTREPRENEUR'S GUIDE TO JAPAN


MIRRATIV CEO AND FOUNDER SHARES HIS SECRETS TO SUCCESS IN JAPAN'S BOOMING STARTUP SCENE.

TXT ANNE VERHOEVEN
ART MONIQUE VOIGT

JUNICHI AKAGAWA

FOUNDER AND CEO,

If you’ve ever considered entering the Japanese market, now’s the time. Boasting the third largest GDP in the world, consumer purchasing power is strong, while business costs are low compared to advanced startup nations. A recent report from Japan Venture Research Co., Ltd., shows tech investment is skyrocketing — startup funding grew from ¥64.5 billion in 2012 to ¥388 billion in 2018. It’s a climate that nurtures entrepreneurship, with organizations like JETRO offering support for foreigners looking to expand into Japan, and government initiatives like J-Startup proactively supporting startups. Among these, home-grown unicorns Mercari and Smartnews continue to reach new heights in the e-commerce and news verticals.

Mirrativ is in a league of its own — a live-streaming and communication app for gamers recording performance that’s off the charts, with over 2 million users and counting. We caught up with Junichi Akagawa, CEO and founder, who achieved over ¥5 billion in funding in two short years. An ambitious entrepreneur clued into the latest trends, Junichi gives us the inside track on approaches that drive success and how to network in real-life and the digital realm — plus where to connect with colleagues and enjoy your downtime.

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MIRRATIV AT A GLANCE

Founded:

Tokyo, 2018.

Funding:

¥1 billion ($9.3 million) from Globis Capital Partners in 2018. ¥3.5 billion ($32.7 million) in 2019 from multiple corporate and individual investors including JAFCO, Global Brain and YJ Capital.

Mission:

To connect gamers and enrich their playing experience, summed up in the tagline “A smartphone life that is not alone.”

Product:

The Mirrativ app is available on iOS and Android, in Japanese and English. It’s a free app, with in-app purchase options.

Highlights:

In 2019, Mirrativ won a grand prize in the Entertainment apps category for ‘Google Play Best of 2019’ award. In 2020, Mirrativ participated in the “#PlayApartTogether” campaign, led by global gaming companies in the wake of Covid-19. Also in 2020, Mirrativ ran live-streaming campaigns with Nintendo and Tencent, including the launch of ‘Call of Duty:Mobile’ season 7.

JAPAN IS THE SECOND-MOST ACTIVE COUNTRY ON TWITTER BEHIND THE U.S., WITH 48.5 MILLION TWEETERS AS OF APRIL 2020 — ROUGHLY 38% OF THE POPULATION

TAPPING INTO TWITTER

Being a success anywhere, including Japan, takes the right skill set, vision, experience and the resolve to aim high and reach far. But in Japan you can add another “must-have” to the list: an interest and eagerness to connect with your audience, and your peers, using Twitter. In fact, it’s the island nation’s dominant social platform — with 64.1% of all social Japanese network users tweeting in 2019. On a world stage, Japan is the second-most active country on Twitter behind the U.S., with 48.5 million Tweeters as of April 2020 — roughly 38% of the population.

A factor in Twitter's popularity in Japan may be linguistic. Even before Twitter doubled its character count, Japanese users could express themselves more freely by writing in Kanji script — a word in a character, a sentence in just a few characters. In a country where discretion is valued, users can take advantage of the fact that Twitter doesn't require users to use their real names, encouraging multiple accounts per person. "What's unique in Japan is that Twitter users have multiple individual accounts for each gaming app they use," Junichi explains, "so it's common for a user to create a dedicated account just for your app." This provides valuable user data, which the Mirrativ team tapped into early on.

The Japanese Twitterverse is a chatty, decentralized and democratic place, where users tweet and engage with influencers and brands frequently, and vice versa. So a key to startup success, according to Junichi, is how well you use the platform to connect with your audience and customers and build it into your business strategy from the get-go.

BUILT ON TRUST

When taking your first steps into Japan’s startup scene, keep in mind that “Japanese IT and startup communities are very open and more casual than traditional companies," according to Junichi. “While their English isn't always the best,” he explains, “their mindset is really open, and they're always searching for new business ideas." But don't expect to step off the plane and network — you'll have to build a foundation first. Trust is the backbone of professional and personal relationships in Japan — including startups, where IP protection is of utmost importance.

To get your foot in the door, he explains, "It's important to find someone established in the community who can introduce you." Junichi suggests making connections online before meeting as a preliminary step. "One of the keys is a reference from a mutual friend...Japan is definitely an 'introduction culture,'" Junichi explains. A Facebook Messenger introduction from a mutual contact should do the trick — it's a respected online networking method amongst Japanese business professionals.

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GROWING YOUR TEAM, FUNDING THE DREAM

If you're on the lookout for talent, or an investor, or both, Twitter again reigns supreme. "The latest trend among Japanese startups is how to connect with the candidates directly through social media," he explains, "so even for hiring, Twitter is very effective." And it works both ways: "People are deciding through tweets where to go for an interview."

Beyond social scouting, Junichi suggests bypassing LinkedIn — the career platform isn’t as popular in Japan — and tapping into local job platforms and Tokyo startups such as Wantedly, BizReach or YOUTRUST. While millennial-focused Wantedly promises to match candidates with companies based on mutual values, YOUTRUST connects you to opportunities based on shared connections, with BizReach focusing on executive roles.

For networking and investment seeking, Junichi recommends conferences such as Industry Co-Creation (ICC) and Infinity Ventures Summit (IVS). IVS is an invite-only, currently-virtual conference with the longest history in the industry that brings together the broader community of executives and investors in the tech / SaaS industry. When approaching local VCs, references are (again) your golden ticket. "The Japanese VC scene is small compared to the U.S.," he reveals, "so if you want access to Japanese VCs, Japanese entrepreneurs who are funded by them already can be your foot in the door." Be sure to do your research — relevance to the Japanese market is key when it comes to success with Japanese investors.

IN JAPANESE CULTURE, EATING AND DRINKING TOGETHER IS AN IMPORTANT WAY TO GET TO KNOW AND UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER

CONNECTING OVER FOOD AND DRINK

Home to approximately 160,000 restaurants — 226 of these decorated with Michelin stars — there’s no doubt that Tokyo is a foodie’s dream. The city’s culinary prowess is both internationally applauded and a cinematic muse — “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories,” and “Our Little Sister,” to name a few.

If it's your first visit to Japan, you could try to network your way into an exclusive seat at a legendary sushi master's restaurant, like Jiro Ono's Sukiyabashi Jiro in Ginza. But the joy of Japanese dining, according to Junichi, lies in less lofty places. With high-quality seafood the norm in Japan, standard Kaiten-zushi or conveyor-belt sushi spots offer excellent-quality sushi at great value for money. Midori and Misakiko in Shibuya are a few of Junichi’s top picks.

As the Japanese startup scene is more casual than traditional corporations, he also recommends the local Izakaya bars as ideal places to unwind with business associates. Izakayas are informal dining spots serving drinks and snacks — a Japanese equivalent of a Spanish tapas bar. These casual and atmospheric spots, Junichi explains, are the home of “nominication” — building relationships over drinks and conversation, believed to help strengthen professional and social bonds. "In Japanese culture, eating and drinking together is an important way to get to know and understand each other — which I learned from my days in the U.S. is a universal concept. Everyone in the U.S. office became familiar with the term “nominication”, ”explains Junichi.

When it comes to a must-try dish, the Hiroshima-born CEO says you can’t go past okonomiyaki. A signature of his hometown, the pancake-like savory dish is made with a mixture of cabbage, spring onions, pork belly or seafood, topped with seaweed and bonito flakes, mayonnaise and a secret sauce. He explains with pride that “in Japan, there are two okonomiyaki ‘religions’ — one is from my hometown Hiroshima, the other is Osaka. It’s a kind of food mafia, symbolic of the historic rivalry between the two cities.” While not as common in Tokyo, Jaken Nou in Shibuya and Hide in Hatanodai for Hiroshima-style and Kiji in Shinagawa for Osaka-style are both worth a visit.

PIC GEORGE KEDENBURG III

ETIQUETTE 101

While Junichi describes the startup scene as “relaxed“, here are a few tips that won't go astray on your first visit to Japan.

Greetings:

Bowing plays an integral part in Japanese etiquette, even more so while social distancing applies. While there are different styles, simply bending at the waist with your feet together will be appreciated — hands by your side for men, hands in front for women. Be sure to lower your gaze while bowing, as maintaining eye contact is considered impolite.

Shoes off:

Traditional Japanese dining means low tables and cushions on a tatami-mat floor rather than tables and chairs. Always remove your shoes before stepping on a tatami, and avoid stepping on cushions besides your own. Shoes that slip off and on quickly and a fresh/neat pair of socks won't go astray!

Dining:

It’s polite to wait for everyone’s meal to arrive before commencing — at which point you may wish to show your appreciation with the phrase itadakimasu — “I gratefully receive.” When using chopsticks, be mindful not to point them at another person or wave them in the air. If sharing communal dishes, use the opposite (thick) end of the chopsticks to serve yourself and stick to one edge of the plate.

Business cards:

Known as meishi, business cards are a must-have for any visit — double-sided English / Japanese even better. Expect to hand out 3-4 cards per small meeting and 10-12 cards per large meeting, and between 50-100 per day if attending a conference or trade show. When giving your card, always hand to the person directly using both hands — never slide it across the table. When receiving, always say “thank you”, accompanied by a slight bow of the head.

Kampai:

Pouring your neighbor first and refilling each other's glasses is customary in Japan. Kampai is the customary drinking salute — but be sure to wait for everyone’s glass to be full before toasting.

Check, please:

As a general rule, the person who invited everyone to a meal should pick up the check. In any dining or retail environment passing your payment directly to the cashier isn't polite — instead, place your cash or card in the small tray provided. In general, avoid tipping as it's not customary and can cause confusion — exceptions include a private tour guide, who might appreciate a tip for outstanding service.

IF YOU’RE IN TOWN DURING SUMMER AND A MUSIC LOVER, FUJI ROCK IS A MUST VISIT

ESCAPE TO MUSIC MECCA

Japan offers diverse natural beauty in any season. If you're in Tokyo for winter and keen to hit the slopes, nearby Nagano boasts natural hot springs, excellent skiing and a charming historic town to explore. Spring is synonymous with cherry blossoms in Japan, and Yoshino, in the Kii Mountains east of Osaka, is one of the most spectacular destinations during the sakura season.

According to Junichi, if you're in town during summer and a music lover, Fuji Rock is a must-visit. A die-hard fan, he attended the first Fuji Rock Festival in 1997, held at a ski resort on Mount Fuji, and has since attended every festival — with a stack of festival merch to show for it. On any given year, greats such as Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers might share the main stage with electro-pop names like Sia, Lorde or Bjork, alongside R&B and hip hop talents like N.E.R.D or Kendrick Lamar, or local acts like Shikao Suga or Elephant Kashimashi — all against a serene mountain backdrop.

Fuji Rock takes place at Naeba Ski Resort in Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture, around 90 minutes from Tokyo via Shinkansen bullet train. As a festival experience, it's a far-cry from Glastonbury's grunginess, with cleanliness, respect and safety a big drawcard for its diverse fans. If camping isn't your thing, ski-lodges or guest houses in Yuzawa or Mitsumata offer a more comfortable place to lay your head after a day of rocking out — but be sure to research and book way in advance. Foodies won't be disappointed with the selection of food trucks and stalls, and the region is known for its sake — which Junichi recommends.

While visiting Japan might be on hold, now’s the time to focus on research and networking. And with Junichi’s tips, you’ll have more insight into how to connect in the right way — first online, and in the future over an Izakaya beer.

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