The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

With the support of the Osaka Innovation Hub in the Grand Front Osaka complex, the Kansai Business Programs Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) held a regional event for current and budding entrepreneurs.

Three successful non-Japanese entrepreneurs who have started businesses here—Douglas Schafer, ACCJ Food & Agriculture Committee chair, Michael Bobrove, ACCJ vice president-Kansai (2006–2009), and Thomas Bertrand, founder of Bento&co—were invited as speakers.

They represent four market segments: beverages, health care and technology, and kitchenware.

Delivered as a panel discussion in Japanese, the event was moderated by Kiran Sethi (president, Jupiter International Corporation, and ACCJ Kansai vice president), who began with a question about how each panelist had started their business. Naturally, they each had a different story.

Seizing Opportunity
When Bertrand was a student at Kyoto University, he wrote a blog about daily life in Japan. His tales of daily experiences attracted many of his French readers who are fans of Japan, and expanded his blog visitors to 800 a day.

While considering how to earn money from his Internet platform, Bertrand had an online conversation with his mother in France, during which she told him that she had received from Japan a bento box, which she really liked. He immediately thought that exporting bento boxes might be a good business opportunity.

The very next day, the entrepreneur went to a shopping mall and spent ¥30,000 on bento boxes. He sold them through his blog, and business went well. He then contacted bento box makers and started an e-commerce site—Bento&co—to expand his business.

Bertrand’s company, which was launched from a house in Kyoto Prefecture in 2008, currently exports bento boxes to 90 countries.

Taking risks, Overcoming challenges
During the panel discussion, some of the challenges faced by non-Japanese entrepreneurs were covered. Schafer, a 23-year resident of Japan, had faced a number of difficulties as an expat in the country.

On one occasion, a client had refused his offer of business because, according to the customer, Schafer could not possibly understand the sensory impression that food makes on the Japanese tongue—in other words, the Japanese sense of taste.

This rejection was in relation to products made by Toyo Beverage K.K., which the entrepreneur had co-founded, as well as technology start-up TenTen Technologies Limited.

Overcoming such challenges by constant, sincere effort, Schafer ensures optimum results by focusing 100 percent on all his business deals. Little by little, he has developed a relationship of trust with clients, who have gone on to become regular customers.

Bobrove’s story, based on his more than 25 years in Japan, was equally instructive. His company, HealthyIM K.K., connects expats to wellness and healthcare facilities, products, services, and professionals in Asia.

Although he entered the market at a sub-optimal time—May 9, 2013—Bobrove was confident that creating a good system to provide information would add value and, in time, attract customers.

To this end, he accompanied his team on hospital visits and interviews with healthcare workers in Asia to create a database of quality medical facilities. This enabled him to establish a rapidly expanding service that meets the needs of users.

Indeed, Bobrove admits that he subcontracts a web developer in Los Angeles whom he has never met, which epitomizes the kind of risk-taking creativity needed to establish an online business presence at a competitive price.

All three entrepreneurs shared many stories of successes and challenges. An important takeaway was that everyone has to overcome difficulties when starting a business.

To do so, one needs creativity and the desire to go the extra mile. Indeed, all three speakers’ experiences, business solutions, and positive results have become differentiating markers of their companies.

After the event, no doubt the audience was filled with a new sense of how one might become a successful entrepreneur in Japan.


Shun Okuno  is Kansai branch manager at en world K.K., and a member of the ACCJ Kansai Business Programs Committee.