Making it in Japan―The Story of Starting a Business in Japan

I came to Japan without a concrete plan, and now, a year later, I am running my own business. In reflecting on this journey for myself, I decided to share my experience. Consider the following a process document that breaks down what I've learned into specific milestones. For each step, I've also included anecdotes from other entrepreneurs, as well as useful resources. 

Illustration by Adrian Hogan

Along the journey we'll cover: getting the idea, finding a lawyer, deciding which business to start, working with a Japanese partner, leasing an office, accounting, applying for a visa and opening a corporate bank account. There is definitely not one right way to start a business. All you need as you embark on the process is a little bit of audacity, a lot of humility, and the willingness to learn from your mistakes. 

Similar to my experience, the entrepreneurs I interviewed didn’t move to Japan with the goal of starting a business. They moved to Japan because they loved the culture/country, and while designing their lifestyle, a business was born. 

My friend Luis once said, “A city chooses you, you don’t choose a city.” When it comes to my move to Japan, that couldn’t be more true. There was an unmistakable feeling of home when I stepped off the train onto the amazingly quiet but chaotic station platform in Shinjuku. The feeling of belonging was compelling (and intriguing) enough for me to make the jump and leave my life in San Francisco behind. 

I didn’t choose. There wasn’t a choice. Here was just right. 

I’ve been in Japan for one entire year now. In that time I've learned conversational Japanese and started my own business creating immersive experiences for individuals and companies.

I started my company while I was on a tourist visa. This meant I didn’t have a Japanese phone number, permanent address, or residency card. All of these details had implications on my process. I’ll discuss this more in the Finding a Japanese Partner section, but first, let’s examine how I decided to start a business.



When I did the interviews for this article, I sought out foreigners who had gone through the incorporation process. This criterion, meant that I didn’t interview anyone doing freelance work, working for domestic companies, or doing interesting side projects. For any freelancers reading this, there are still applicable sections for you such as finding an accountant, a lawyer, or a coworking space. Discussion of visas and taxes will likely be the most different. 

Section 2―Finding a Lawyer

In Japan, there seems to be a communally accepted way of doing things—one right way—and it touches everything from taking a bath to throwing out your trash to legal processes. If you want to deviate from the norm in any way in your process (company structure, office structure,etc) you may have to speak with more than a handful of lawyers/consultants before you find someone willing to work in that way. If you ask enough questions and are patient, workarounds will arise. Go through your network to find good recommendations of individuals to work with. 

Illustration by Adrian Hogan

At the time I started the incorporation process, I didn’t know many people to go to for referrals. Instead, I went on GaijinPot, a media site for foreigners with everything from travel advice to language schools to job postings, and asked for incorporation and immigration lawyer recommendations. 

I got a response quickly. I messaged that law group along with two others I had found on Google and asked for quotes. 

Illustration by Adrian Hogan

All three came back to me with the same basic timeline and cost:

  • Timeline: 4 months, 1 month for incorporation and 3 months for a visa
  • Cost: 5,000 USD, 1,500 USD for incorporation and 3,500 USD for a visa

After meeting the lawyers in person, I decided to go with the recommendation I received on GaijinPot. Their offices are by Mitsukoshimae. In our first meeting we talked through what we had discussed over email (my needs, timeline, costs). I then signed a letter of intent and gave them a 1,000 USD deposit. They provided all the documents with explanations in English, which helped when I referenced it later.

From my understanding, lawyers working with non-Japanese-speaking clients charge a premium. This is because they need to do double the paperwork—they create English documents for you and Japanese documents for official submission. If you have a partner who speaks Japanese fluently, you may be able to save money by only working with someone in Japanese and not both Japanese and English.

My lawyers took care of:

  • Translating all my documents (business plan, applications, etc) into Japanese and preparing everything for submission
  • Ordering my inkans
  • Representing me at the immigration office
  • Delivering a visa (one-year business manager visa)


Lawyers recommended by myself and fellow entrepreneurs:

Illustration by Adrian Hogan

Entrepreneur Spotlight

Name: Mark McFarlane

Country of Origin: England

Company: Tacchi Studios, a digital product consultancy that does both mobile and web design and development.

Years in Japan: 8+


Mark fell in love with Japan when he visited a friend in Tokyo back in 2007. He stayed for a month and toured around. At the end of that month he knew he had only scratched the surface and decided to come back.

He found a job teaching English. While Mark had experience teaching IT and computer science in England, he knew it wasn’t what he wanted to do forever. His university degree was in computer science and, while he didn’t necessarily plan to go down that route, he fell in love with the iPhone when it was launched in the same month he arrived in Japan. When he wasn’t teaching, he spent his time doing iOS and Android application development, first as a hobby and then for clients as a freelancer. His client projects grew so much that they became full-time work. Mark left teaching and Tacchi was born! Tacchi Studios is a digital product consultancy that does both mobile and web design and development. The first lawyer he worked with came through a recommendation from another developer friend. The lawyer  cost 100,000 JPY and successfully got Mark an engineering visa.

When Mark approached his lawyer asking for his help in sponsoring a foreign employee's visa, he was advised to change his company structure in order to do so. But changing his company structure wasn’t something Mark was interested in doing. He ended up having to speak with four or five lawyers before he found someone that was able to, both keep his current company structure and sponsor a foreign visa. Together they have sponsored not only Mark’s visa, but also his brother’s (twice). This lawyer costs between 100,000 JPY and 200,000JPY for the first engagement and between 50,000JPY and 70,000JPY for visa renewals.

When it comes to finding the right lawyer, Mark advises folks to be clear about what they want and to speak with more people than you normally would. You may hear no eight times, but that ninth yes will make all the difference.

Other interviews with Mark: