How to Start a Business

Considering Expansion to Japan? Here’s Advice from a Korean-Japanese Professor with Entrepreneurial Experience

Asia Tomorrow Original
June 12, 2024

For startup founders considering entering overseas markets, particularly Japan, this piece of advice might sound familiar:

"Japan is currently offering a lot of support for startups. However, the business culture is different from Korea, making it a challenging environment to navigate."

Indeed, for entrepreneurs facing daily decisions, Japan is an attractive yet daunting market. This often leads to hesitation with questions like, 

"So, should we enter the Japanese market or not?"

To address these concerns, we have insights from an expert. This article features Professor Rie Kang of Hosei University.

In an interview with Asia Tomorrow, Professor Kang shared her journey as a successful Korean-Japanese entrepreneur, her transition to academia, and insights into Japanese business culture. She emphasizes the unique opportunity for Korean startups to enter the Japanese market.

Source: Professor Rie Kang

From Wedding Business Success to Professor of Entrepreneurship

Q. First, could you please introduce yourself?

Hello. I am Professor Rie Kang from the Faculty of Design Engineering at Hosei University. I specialize in teaching entrepreneurship and have been developing a comprehensive entrepreneurship education program for students ranging from elementary school to university in Tokyo since the spring of 2024. Recently I am also also active as the Director of Entrepreneurship Education for university students in Shimata Prefecture.

Q. You have expanded your career from a journalist to an entrepreneur, and then to an academic. Can you tell us more about this journey and the reasons behind it?

I graduated from Waseda University and joined Asahi as a top recruit. At the time, as a third-generation Korean-Japanese, there were no people in my circle working for large corporations, and entering a large company as a regular employee felt like a startup in itself.

While working as a journalist, I encountered a business idea at the age of 25, resigned, and started a business. I succeeded quickly and thought I was a business genius! (laughs)

Believing I could be even more successful with more education, I wound up my business and entered Waseda Business School. Through my studies, I realized that my success was due to luck. However, I became fascinated with the study of entrepreneurship and have since balanced entrepreneurial activities with research in this field.

Q. What business idea did you pursue at the age of 25?

I ventured into the wedding business. I imported dresses from overseas and organized weddings in Hawaii. I understood the customers' needs well as I was at a marriageable age myself. On the other hand, most of the executives in the wedding industry were older back then. My business stood out by catering to young female customers, leading to my success as a startup founder.

Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught? A Japanese Professor’s Perspective

Q. Why did you start teaching entrepreneurship? What motivated you to educate others on this subject?

Returning to graduate school, I realized that some people are inclined to take risks, while others are not. If someone can't take risks, they can't start a business, regardless of the idea. This risk aversion doesn't change much in adulthood. If we don't teach children how to take risks, we won't see an increase in entrepreneurs.

As a Korean-Japanese, I grew up surrounded by entrepreneurs and naturally learned to take risks. This led me to believe in the importance of teaching entrepreneurship to younger generations to foster new entrepreneurs.

Professor Kang and her research team opening a free 'Venture Class' for elementary/middle school students and their parents, source : Rihyei KANG
Source: Chunichi

Q. Can you teach someone to take risks? As a researcher in entrepreneurship, how do you teach risk-taking?

In my case, I show students how to take risks by involving them in business projects or ventures with me. I demonstrate when to take risks and when to be cautious. This practical approach helps students learn.

For example, I often ask my students or staff, "Is this situation worth taking a risk?". If it is, we take the risk; if not, we proceed cautiously.

It’s natural to make mistakes, but I also teach the importance of being particularly cautious when the cost of recovering from failure is high. For startups, poor decisions can lead to lost opportunities. This indicates that risk management is a crucial skill for early stage entrepreneurs.

Advice for Korean Startups Eyeing the Japanese Market

Q. There’s been a lot of news about the revitalization of Japanese startups recently. Is this true? What are your thoughts on the current startup ecosystem in Japan?

Recently, the Japanese government has finally started to actively build a startup ecosystem. While they are investing substantial funds, the process lacks speed and remains overly cautious. The tendency to minimize risk even in startup investments is a core issue.

(Refer to : Why tech startups should focus on the Japanese market now : Advice from Cross-border Expert)

Q. What are the characteristics of the Japanese startup ecosystem? How does it differ from Korea?

Like other countries, Japan's startup ecosystem is centered around universities and related stakeholders. However, the main difference is Japan's strong domestic orientation. With a large domestic market, Japan has less inclination to expand abroad, and the recent depreciation of the yen further limits their ability to venture overseas.

Q. More Korean ventures are considering entering the Japanese market. What should they prioritize when doing so?

Japan's culture is resistant to change, which results in a slower pace. This can be hard for ventures to understand. For instance, entering the Japanese market often involves multiple inspections and seemingly unproductive meetings. It’s critical to differentiate between meaningless repetitions and meaningful deliberations. Experience and discernment are key to navigating the Japanese market.

Q. How can you tell if repeated meetings with Japanese business partners are meaningful or not? Can you give an example or analogy?

For example, observe if the members attending the meetings gradually become higher-ranking officials, or if the discussions consider various risk aspects. This helps distinguish if meetings are merely time-wasting or if they are genuinely thorough. Initially, this might be challenging, but looking at the career paths of the meeting attendees can provide clues. 

2023, Hosei University's Faculty of Design Engineering overseeing the Japanese Business Model Competition, source: Professor Rie Kang

“Startups Can Bridge the Gap Between Japan and Korea”

Q. What will you be discussing at the underdogs Action Seminar in July? Why did you choose this topic?

At the upcoming Action Seminar of underdogs, I will be discussing the "Possibility of Building a Joint Startup Ecosystem Between Japan and Korea."

As a Korean-Japanese, my dream is for both countries to collaborate and create unicorn companies. I am confident that Korea and Japan can form the strongest partnerships by complementing each other's strengths and weaknesses.

Q. Your vision of "Building a Joint Startup Ecosystem Between Japan and Korea" is impressive. Why do you believe the two countries can become strong business partners?

Japan and Korea share several social issues, such as low birth rates, aging populations, and the rapid dominance of capitalism. This makes them uniquely positioned to collaborate and leverage each other’s experiences to find solutions.

Currently, Korea seems to be following a similar path as Japan did when it was known as "Japan As No.1," eventually losing that status and experiencing a prolonged period of stagnation.

While it is challenging for both countries to maintain long-term political and geographical amicability, an ideal scenario would involve political rivalry alongside strong economic cooperation.

This kind of relationship is difficult to establish within the context of large corporations with vested stakeholders. Hence, the role of startups becomes vital. In a startup ecosystem that values speed and growth, free from rigid regulations, Korea and Japan can truly collaborate.

For instance, about ten years ago, there was a surge of anti-Korean sentiment and hate speech in Japan. Despite this, the entrepreneurial community largely ignored this atmosphere, showed no interest, and even worried about me. Conversely, I sometimes experienced blatant ethnic discrimination from large corporation employees influenced by baseless anti-Korean narratives. This highlights the difference in mindset of innovators.

Q. Lastly, could you provide some advice to the readers of this article, especially those attending the underdogs Action Seminar?

In Japan, Korea is often referred to as "a close yet distant country." For me, this is also true. Despite the similarities in appearance, the core cultures of Japan and Korea are fundamentally different. This creates numerous opportunities for mutual complementarity.

The perception of ventures and Korea within Japan has changed. The younger generation in Japan is fascinated by Korean culture, and my students proudly mention that their professor is Korean. Many Korean university students I meet can understand basic Japanese and Japanese culture due to their exposure to Japanese anime online.

(Refer to : Why Korean startup founders should start a business in Japan now)

Moreover, both governments are allocating significant budgets to foster startups. A rare and unique opportunity has arisen. I believe that those who seize this opportunity will become successful entrepreneurs. I hope the upcoming Action Seminar will be a meaningful event where we can discuss concrete strategies for the joint growth of Korean and Japanese startups towards 2025.

Written by underdogs



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