Starting up a business in Japan is tough — the paperwork alone is enough to put many off, not to mention the language barrier and cultural differences. But for some Kiwis who call Japan home, the opportunity to bring a touch of Aotearoa to the Land of the Rising Sun has proven impossible to pass up. Tao Lin meets three Kiwis with unique businesses in Japan.
THE LIFE COACH
When an earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan in 2011, Jayne Nakata had to decide whether to leave or stay in her home of the past nine years.
Originally from Te Anau in Southland, but based in Iwaki City in Fukushima Prefecture since 2002, Nakata decided to stay and has been rewarded for her loyalty ever since.
Her journey began when she started studying Japanese as a 13 year old. She later went to Japan to teach English and 16 years later, Nakata is a prominent life coach, retreat coordinator and podcaster, as well as a passionate advocate for Iwaki City.
Nakata says she started her business hosting retreats when she became a mother and wanted more flexibility in her life.
“I struggled with being a mother of small children with no extended family nearby to help with childcare,” she says.
“I wanted to have fulfilling work that gave me the flexibility to work when I was able or take extended trips to New Zealand to give my children much-needed English immersion time.”
She also added a life coaching arm to her business, becoming one of the first life coaches in the area who can coach in both Japanese and English.
At the same time, she saw many of her former students had traditional Japanese inns that were struggling to get customers following the Fukushima disaster. So, she decided to start creating retreats in Yumoto Onsen in Iwaki City and to also help local businesses with English translations and advising on what the average foreigner visitor to Japan wants to experience.
A recent project Nakata worked on was helping a 1300-year-old shrine create an experience where visitors could have the calligraphy they create turned into a protective amulet.
“The priest didn’t realise just how special this kind of experience would be for a foreign guest. It’s a huge gift for him too, to rediscover his culture through the fresh eyes of foreign guests."
Getting into business in a fairly unknown market in a non-native language has been challenging. But something that has helped Nakata has been the reputation she has built in her 16 years living in Iwaki City. Local business owners know her and there is an unparalleled level of trust that comes from having experienced the same difficulties together as a result of the 2011 disaster.
“Residents here love to exchange their disaster stories on first meeting, which I think bonds people together more quickly,” Nakata says.
“Also, when I tell people that I was pregnant at the time, it somehow gives me more respect as someone who has stayed on despite the challenges.”
While she originally started her business just for herself, Nakata says it is inspiring to see the impact it is having on those around her.
“Seeing that my business both with coaching local women and with bringing much-needed visitors to the area has a positive impact gives me a huge sense of achievement and drive to keep going.”
THE RUGBY SCOUT
The 2019 Rugby World Cup may be generating a lot of interest in Japan as a rugby destination, but one Kiwi has known the benefits of playing rugby in Japan for years.
Luke Bradley has been placing rugby players in contracts in Japan since 2013 and runs his company LRB Sports to help players get contracts, as well as take part in sports camps and tours.
Some of his achievements so far have included placing more than 30 female players in professional contracts in Japan, running camps with former All Blacks players and leading a tour with a team from Gisborne to play four of Japan’s top women’s teams.
After playing rugby as a kid, Bradley picked it up again after moving to Japan in 2007. He started helping players get contracts in Japan voluntarily after being approached about it and ended up turning it into a business.
“I’m inspired to work hard for these players because they deserve the perks that come with a Japanese contract. They are well looked after here, they are treated very well in an environment where they can really shine on the field and off," Bradley says.
“I know that Japan is a place that will really push you mentally and physically and my players often return home with a higher work ethic, fitter and a more open view on life in general.”
Bradley himself knows just how tough and character-building Japan can be, having gone from knowing almost no Japanese when he first arrived to being able to communicate at a business level.
Aside from the language, doing business in Japan comes with its own myriad of unspoken rules and etiquette.
“Relationships drive businesses in Japan. So it’s important to be respectful, polite and diplomatic at all times. I was a little casual at first, but soon found my footing,” Bradley says.
“I would rush in and try to seal a deal on the spot. Not knowing that patience is very important when doing business in Japan.”
On the positive side though, people are genuinely willing to help. Bradley recalls one instance when he was looking for a place to run a rugby camp and a kind stranger went with him 50 minutes out into the countryside to show him a small field.
Last April, Bradley decided to move back to Gisborne, but continues to run his business and travel between Japan and New Zealand.
“I try to create opportunities for young athletes to work towards. Of course, I will always push them to play at the pinnacle, which is New Zealand. But if that doesn’t work out, I want them to have the opportunity in Japan.”
THE HEALTH FOODIE
Compared to many other countries, including New Zealand, Japan trails a little behind when it comes to the health and wellness movement. The focus on living healthier lifestyles is a recent growing trend in Japan and one that Don Roxburgh sees as an opportunity to bring a touch of New Zealand to Japanese consumers.
Roxburgh started his company Wholesum Japan Co after being made redundant in 2016 and wanting a change of direction. He wanted to help connect Japan and foreign markets somehow and saw health food and natural skincare as a way to do that.
The use of food additives is prevalent in Japan and more and more people are looking to foreign products for more naturally-derived food and beauty products, Roxburgh says.
“We see a unique way to tell a truly New Zealand story and also to be on the forefront of introducing the benefits of Kawakawa, Harakeke seed oil and Manuka oil to a market that is now very familiar with the health benefits of Manuka honey.”
Currently, Wholesum Japan imports and distributes food and skincare products in Japan, while also offering market entry consulting services for those wanting to do business in the country.
While he did not having a background in food and retail when he started his business, Roxburgh did have 17 years’ experience working in finance and investment, which gave him insight into the daily operations of businesses in Japan.
He is also fluent in Japanese, having lived, studied and worked in Japan for more than 24 years and he had a strong network of people he could turn to for information and business advice.
Even so, he says he was surprised by some of the hurdles he faced in setting up his business, such as the level of detail and preciseness required to register his company and the time it took to open a bank account.
He says New Zealanders may also be surprised to know that despite Japan’s image as a technologically-developed nation, it is behind New Zealand in many ways. Many businesses in Japan still use fax machines, it is still the norm to use and carry cash and many companies still require paper invoices.
It is still early days yet for Wholesum Japan, but the number of suppliers is growing and Roxburgh has successfully placed products in some of Japan’s high-end grocery and natural product stores.
“New Zealand has a strong reputation in Japan for health and wellness. For smaller New Zealand producers, access to Japan early in their business growth gives them an opportunity to gain export expertise in a very large and discerning market with loyal customers."
- Asia Media Centre