Section 4―Finding a Japanese Business Partner

I originally planned to set up the business on my own, but I needed more help than I realized. I asked a friend to be my “partner” during the setup phase. She had to invest one yen and come along with me to meetings. After I got my visa, we removed her. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for her. Even if you don’t need someone on paper, I would highly recommend you find a Japanese friend/mentor you can consult with as you establish yourself.  

My Japanese business partner was instrumental in helping me adapt to the Japanese way of working. She explained situations to me, what was said and unsaid. She told me how I could be more successful in my communication style (giving pause, slowing down) and she contributed to my credibility in business situations.

Business card etiquette: hand over in a slight arc, make sure your text is readable to the person across from you.

Illustration by Adrian Hogan

Deciding who to work with was not a decision I took lightly. I was asking a REALLY big favor of friends that I had only known for five months, tops.

I ended up asking my friend Kyoko, whom I had been introduced to by my brother’s girlfriend. They had worked together on the Marshall Islands after college.

Kyoko had work experience in both Japan and Canada, which meant that she intuitively understood the business/bank practices here and could give me context on the cultural gaps that I was missing because I’d only had “western” business experience. She also had amazing attention to detail and was able to explain things simply to me so I understood. 

Before I met with Kyoko, I put together my business plan, financial projections, and a summary from the lawyer of her expected involvement. I also included a timeline with milestones and an estimation of when we could remove her from the company. Once removed, her liability would also end. Over dinner I shared this information and asked that she think it over and get back to me when she was ready. I communicated that our friendship was much more important to me than the company. I was happy to approach other people if she chose not to work with me.

I am lucky she agreed. I wouldn’t be writing this article today without the help of my business partner. It turned out to be a much larger favor to ask than I had realized. When Kyoko and I were approaching banks she had to take half days from work. She also had to call the banks ahead of time to make sure we had the proper paperwork and schedule appointments if possible. After our meetings she would read through the Japanese paperwork to make sure it matched the English version. She wrote countless kanjis for me when we were filling out paperwork and translated during meetings/interviews. It was a part-time job for her that lasted for about six months while we set up the company, applied for my visa, got the corporate bank account, and removed her from the company structure.

I am so, so grateful for her support, professionalism, and confidence in the business. I told her she could make a business out of helping foreigners start businesses, but I think she’s had her fill of the process… We’ll see. She enjoyed learning about the process—she’s always thought about starting her own company. Now that she knows exactly how to do so, she is more confident to try it one day. That is a secondary unforeseen benefit, and I am glad she got something out of it.

Thankfully the process wasn’t a strain on our friendship—we only had a few pockets of condensed time commitments, and then after that I was able to keep the business running on my own and just keep her updated. 

For those coming to Japan without knowing anyone but with ambition, the first thing to do is make friends, both locals and foreigners. Seek out people with similar experiences so you can share learnings with one another. Invite people out for coffee or lunch—and remember to always pick up the bill. Immerse yourself. Personal connections will serve you best, especially in Japan, where introductions carry extra weight.

Some places to start where you can meet people and make friends: 

  • CANVAS - online community for creatives in Tokyo.
  • Pecha Kucha - monthly lecture series.
  • Pause Draw -  monthly sketching meetup.
  • Tokyo Expat Network -  online forum for foreigners.
  • Hit the Road -  running club.
  • Ride the Lightning -  design talks.
  • UX Talks -  design talks.
  • Volunteer with Achilles - running group that "pairs able-bodied runners with athletes with disabilities."
  • Volunteer with Tell - a group that provide mental health services.
  • Japan International Business Network (Linkedin and Meetup) - group for people involved in business locally or internationally. 
  • Zen 2.0 - mindfulness conference.
  • Instagram - Such an easy way to find people that have similar taste and interest to you. 
  • FEW - networking group for women.
  • BusiNest - Incubator program for startups and small businesses.
  • Hub Tokyo -  co-working space.
  • SPAN - design and technology conference.
  • Slush - startup conference.

Illustration by Adrian Hogan

Entrepreneur Spotlight

Name: Josh Smith

Country of Origin: United States

CompaniesMiss Grand Japan and Intergo - Miss Grand Japan focused on beauty pageants and Intergo on translation services. 

Years in Japan: 5

Continuing Josh’s story, Josh and his Japanese business partner, Eriko, met in America when Eriko came to the States to study for a semester in university. They stayed friends and reconnected when Josh moved to Japan. They had often spoken about starting a business together and decided to make it official after receiving enough interest in their product(s) to justify a business. 

Eriko was connected with an investor/incubator that offered services for companies getting started. The investor is an individual that works one-on-one with people, providing them with legal advice, office space, and capital required to get their business off the ground. Josh and Eriko’s investor made the process of starting a company super streamlined. The investor is busy and doesn’t spend time in the day-to-day operations of their companies, but they maintain a positive working relationship and make time to go to dinners together at least once or twice a year.

For foreigners looking for investment in Japan, Josh would recommend getting your business card out there, finding events through Facebook or LinkedIn or alumni associations. Even just spending some time in a whiskey bar and sharing your business card with individuals you meet could lead to something.

Josh also recommends speaking the language. When you have Japanese business partners nothing puts them more at ease than knowing that there is clear communication and mutual understanding.