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Unpacking Tech Opportunities for AI Startups in Japan

Japan’s vibrant tech ecosystem is ripe with opportunities for AI startups in Japan, presenting a compelling blend of cutting-edge innovation, government support, and a high demand for transformative solutions across sectors. From healthcare to manufacturing, the country’s adoption of artificial intelligence is rapidly advancing, opening doors for ambitious entrepreneurs to pioneer industry disruption. In this article, we’ll explore the unique opportunities and challenges that await AI startups in Japan’s dynamic market, offering insights into how they can navigate the path to success.

The Allure of Japan for AI Startups

What Makes Japan a Hotspot for AI Innovations?

Japan has long been recognized for its technological prowess, and the burgeoning field of AI is no exception. Despite challenges like a shortage of AI and machine learning talent, the country is brimming with growth opportunities. Initiatives to simplify access for entrepreneurs, the growing interconnectedness post-COVID, and governmental incentives make Japan a promising hub for startups.

Japan’s AI Ecosystem: A Primer for Entrepreneurs

Japan’s fragmented AI ecosystem can be challenging, especially for those new to the scene. Startups often find themselves isolated, and academia is still catching up with international standards. Yet, efforts to build inclusive communities and more transparent business operations, like Ilya’s “Tokyo Startup Launch Club,” aim to bridge these gaps. It’s a landscape where networking, strategic partnerships, and tapping into localized knowledge can make a significant difference.

Success Stories: Japan’s AI Innovators

One successful AI startup from Japan is Preferred Networks, Inc.. Founded in 2014, Preferred Networks has become a prominent player in the AI sector, particularly known for its deep learning and robotics applications. The company collaborates with major corporations such as Toyota and Fanuc, focusing on developing practical AI solutions in healthcare, manufacturing, and transportation. They have been especially influential in pushing the boundaries of edge computing and deep learning technology, placing them at the forefront of Japan’s AI innovation landscape.

Who Are Japan’s AI Trailblazers and What Can We Learn from Them?

Japan’s AI pioneers are leading by example, developing groundbreaking technologies and fostering innovation despite obstacles like low funding and regulatory challenges. 

AI Giants such as Sakana.ai, Noeon, Crosslabs, and Stockmark, more research-focused companies are some of the few examples we can give regarding AI key players in Japan.

For instance, fintech companies applying AI to credit assessment or engineers building local communities serve as blueprints for newer startups, showcasing resilience and creativity. These success stories reveal that innovative thinking, persistence, and adapting to the cultural nuances of Japan can yield promising results.

Ai Salon Tokyo is the go-to place for AI innovation! In partnership with Blitzscaling Ventures (Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn), monthly events are hosted, where AI startups demo their products. Check out our upcoming events here: LinkedIn and Lu.ma.

Bringing your AI Startups to Japan

Rich in talents and collaboration opportunities for AI startups, Japan is a prime spot for AI companies from other countries to open their branch office / subsidiaries in Japan. This is where Launch Lab Japan can help. Launch Lab Japan offers comprehensive, hassle-free Incorporation services in Japan. They specialize in assisting foreign entrepreneurs with every aspect of setting up a business in Japan, from initial consultation to visa application support. Their experienced team provides personalized guidance to ensure that your business meets all legal requirements and has the best chance of success.

Laying the Foundations of Your AI Startup in Japan

Transforming Japan’s Tech Landscape with AI

Japan’s tech landscape is being transformed by key AI trends such as computer vision for manufacturing, fintech applications, and natural language processing to overcome language barriers. These advancements are helping companies enhance productivity through automation, customer analytics, and predictive maintenance. 

Emerging technologies like edge computing, federated learning, and AI-powered IoT devices are also gaining traction. Japanese startups are leading the way in democratizing AI, making it accessible for small businesses through APIs and cloud services.

Entrepreneurs in Japan benefit from robust support systems, including accelerators, incubators, industry meetups, and government initiatives like eased visa requirements for AI engineers. However, building an effective support network remains a crucial element for continued success.

Funding Dreams: Where to Look for Startup Capital in Japan

Securing funding in Japan can be challenging due to conservative investment practices, with most investors hesitant to contribute substantial amounts. Startups should explore diverse funding sources, including international VCs, strategic corporate partnerships, and government-backed grants.

In Japan, there’s a significant availability of capital, especially for AI startups, due to the relative scarcity of innovative ideas and entrepreneurial talent compared to the US. This makes it easier for AI startups to secure funding from local investors. However, raising capital as a non-local remains a substantial challenge. Given Japan’s still-developing startup ecosystem, non-Japanese founders often find it more practical to build and raise capital outside Japan before entering the market. Even local entrepreneurs frequently incorporate in the US to access easier funding. While the landscape is gradually improving, the struggle for capital remains a notable obstacle.

It’s important to note that Japan should not be your primary destination solely for capital. If you can’t raise funds outside of Japan, you will likely struggle to do so here as well. Even if your product is a good fit for the Japanese market, it’s crucial to establish successful use-cases outside of Japan first. This strategy enhances your chances of attracting local investors and succeeding in this unique market.

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Challenges and Solutions

Get Your AI Startup Visa in 5 Steps

Step 1: Choose the Appropriate Visa

For startups, the most suitable visa is the Business Manager Visa. If your business idea is in the IT field, you might also consider applying through the Startup Visa program (currently available in selected regions).

Step 2: Plan Your Business

  • Business Plan: Draft a comprehensive business plan including market research, target customers, finances, and how you intend to fund the business.
  • Investment: You should invest at least 5 million JPY or hire at least two full-time employees who are either Japanese nationals or permanent residents.

Step 3: Gather Necessary Documents

  • Application Form: Obtain the Business Manager Visa application form.
  • Business Plan & Investment Proof: Include your business plan, bank statements showing the investment amount, and proof of office space in Japan.
  • Company Registration Documents: If your company is already registered in Japan, include these documents.
  • Resume and Educational Certificates: Provide documents showing your educational background and work experience.
  • Residence Certificate: If you already live in Japan, submit a copy of your residence certificate.

Step 4: Submit the Application

  • Immigration Office: Submit your application to the Regional Immigration Office in Japan.
  • Certificate of Eligibility (COE): Your application will first be reviewed for a COE, a document verifying that you meet visa requirements. Once the COE is issued, submit it with your visa application to a Japanese consulate.

Step 5: Finalize Your Visa

  • Receive Visa: Once your visa is approved, you’ll receive your visa stamp or sticker from the consulate.
  • Arrive in Japan: Upon arrival, you will receive a residence card.

Overcoming Common Startup Challenges in Japan

Launching a startup in Japan comes with unique challenges that can hinder progress if not addressed effectively. Among the most notable are limited access to specialized legal counsel and accountants, as well as conservative investment attitudes. Here are some strategies to overcome these obstacles:

Limited Access to Legal Counsel and Accountants:

  • Establish Local Partnerships: Collaborate with local firms that specialize in startup services. Building relationships with legal and accounting professionals who understand the Japanese market can provide critical guidance.
  • Leverage Government Resources: Utilize resources from organizations like JETRO, which offer support and connections to vetted service providers.
  • Network within the Startup Community: Engage with other startups and entrepreneurs in Japan to share insights and recommendations for reliable legal and financial advisors.

Conservative Investment Attitudes:

  • Build Strong Credibility: Demonstrate a solid track record and present clear, compelling business plans to gain investor trust. Highlight any successful use-cases from other markets to showcase potential.
  • Long-Term Relationship Building: Focus on building long-term relationships with potential investors. Regular communication and demonstrating steady progress can help overcome initial skepticism.
  • Seek Global Collaboration: Partner with international investors who may be more familiar with and open to innovative ideas, thereby bringing a global perspective to local investment discussions.

Bridging Gaps through Communication and Training:

  • Targeted Training Programs: Invest in training for your team to understand the nuances of the Japanese market, including cultural and business practices.
  • Effective Communication: Ensure clear and consistent communication with stakeholders. Transparency and regular updates can build confidence among investors and partners.

Regulations and Ethics in AI Startups in Japan

Navigating Japan’s regulatory landscape is crucial for startups, especially in sectors like finance and healthcare. Compliance with local laws and ethical guidelines is essential for building a sustainable and trustworthy business.

Understanding Local Laws:

  • In-Depth Research: Conduct thorough research on the specific regulations governing your industry. This includes data protection laws, financial regulations, and healthcare standards.
  • Consult with Experts: Engage with legal experts who specialize in Japanese regulations. Their expertise can help you avoid common pitfalls and ensure full compliance.

Prioritizing Ethical Guidelines:

  • Establish Clear Policies: Develop and implement clear ethical guidelines for your AI applications. This is particularly important in sensitive areas like data privacy and automated decision-making.
  • Ethical Training: Provide regular training for your team on ethical practices and the importance of compliance. This ensures everyone understands their responsibilities.

Building a Sustainable Business Model:

  • Focus on Trust: Prioritize actions that build trust with your customers and stakeholders. Transparent operations and adherence to ethical standards can significantly enhance your reputation.
  • Sustainability Practices: Incorporate sustainability into your business model. This can involve adopting eco-friendly practices, supporting social initiatives, and ensuring your business contributes positively to society.

How to find legal help for your AI startup in Japan

The Legal 500 provides country-specific Q&A guides that offer an overview of investing laws and regulations in Japan. These guides are invaluable for understanding the typical forms of foreign direct investments, the scope for ownership by foreign investors, and other regulatory details crucial for operating in Japan. For a detailed guide on investing in Japan, you can visit The Legal 500.

Chambers and Partners rank and identify leading legal service providers in various fields, including FinTech, which is closely related to AI startups. Their guides and rankings can help you find top law firms in Japan that specialize in financial technologies and could provide the legal support necessary for Japan’s complex legal environment. Learn more about FinTech legal specialists in Japan on Chambers and Partners.

From Idea to Launch: The Initial Steps

The Journey of Starting Your AI Startup in Japan:

Starting an AI startup in Japan requires careful planning, market research, and a clear understanding of Japan’s unique business landscape. Key early steps include validating your concept through market analysis, ensuring that your product or service addresses a specific gap or pain point, and forming connections with the right partners and mentors who can provide valuable insights into the Japanese tech ecosystem. Joining local startup accelerators or incubators and participating in pitch events can also help refine your business idea while attracting initial interest and support. For tech businesses, it’s essential to hold your intellectual property (IP) in a formal entity, such as a KK (Kabushiki Kaisha) in Japan or a Delaware C-corp in the US. Starting a tech startup as a sole proprietorship is not advisable due to the potential legal and financial complexities. Establishing a structured corporate entity not only protects your IP but also provides a more solid foundation for growth and investment.

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Legal and Business Essentials for New Startups:

Setting up a business in Japan requires understanding regulatory requirements, which may involve business registration, intellectual property protection, and visa arrangements for foreign entrepreneurs. Establishing the appropriate legal structure early on is crucial to align with long-term business goals and ease fundraising. Moreover, finding a reliable legal counsel and accountant should be prioritized, as these professionals will help navigate intricate regulatory frameworks and manage taxes, which can be complex.

Check out our article on corporate taxes in Japan to guide you through your taxes.

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Funding Your Vision In Japan (Not recommended)

Securing Funding for Your AI Venture:

Securing funding remains a challenge due to Japan’s conservative investment climate. However, you can take advantage of various government initiatives supporting startup growth, such as the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry’s (METI) initiatives and Japan’s Startup Visa Program. Local venture capital firms are also increasingly recognizing AI’s potential, so it’s essential to develop a robust business plan and network with investors who have an affinity for AI and tech innovations.

If you are a foreign startup looking to enter the Japanese market, collaborating with JETRO and exploring grant opportunities can be beneficial. There have been instances where startups, such as those based in Singapore, have received grants of up to $1 million to enter the Japanese market, though these cases are rare and often require a good deal of luck. Generally, Japanese grants and subsidies are relatively small, and the extensive documentation required for application and progress reporting (often spanning over five years) can be burdensome. Therefore, while exploring these opportunities, it’s essential to weigh the potential benefits against the administrative efforts involved.

Diverse Avenues for Startup Funding:

Japan’s funding landscape has expanded beyond traditional venture capital. Crowdfunding platforms like Campfire and Readyfor are gaining traction as effective tools to validate products and attract initial funding. Additionally, angel investors and corporate venture capital arms are increasingly willing to invest in innovative AI startups. By leveraging these platforms, entrepreneurs can gain access to various funding sources and increase their chances of attracting the right kind of investment for their specific needs.

Check out the list of next event where you could showcase your company: Tokyo AI start up List.

In any case, securing investment in Japan requires strong credibility and a robust network. Building these relationships is a long-term endeavor, making it challenging for non-Japanese entrepreneurs or those without a significant presence and network in Japan to successfully launch a startup here. Establishing trust and credibility is crucial, and the process is seldom straightforward or quick. Therefore, it’s often not advisable to attempt launching a startup in Japan without these essential foundations in place.

Talent and Expansion Strategies for AI Startups in Japan

Talent Acquisition and Retention for your AI startups in Japan:

Finding the right talent in Japan’s competitive market is crucial, particularly for AI startups where specialized skill sets are in high demand. Many startups are adopting global recruitment strategies to attract data scientists, machine learning engineers, and software developers. Effective talent acquisition involves tapping into universities, coding bootcamps, and online communities focused on AI. Once the team is built, retaining top talent is a priority. This requires offering attractive benefits like competitive salaries, flexible working hours, career development opportunities, and fostering a culture of creativity and ownership where employees feel empowered and valued. 

Looking out for some tips for HR in Japan will be helpful for the establishment of any company, even more so for expanding domains like AI. 

Fostering a Winning Culture: Team Dynamics in the Fast-Paced Tech World:

A positive work culture in the Japanese corporate culture is essential to keep team dynamics healthy and sustainable in the fast-paced tech environment. This starts with clear communication, setting realistic goals, and encouraging teamwork and innovation. 

Creating an inclusive environment where diverse ideas are respected and actively seeking input from all team members can lead to unique solutions and boost morale. Regular team-building activities can also strengthen collaboration, while mentorship and professional development programs help employees stay motivated and grow their skills. 

Developing the Future AI Solutions

The Future of Japan’s Tech Innovators:

Japan’s tech landscape is rapidly evolving with the growing prominence of AI. Key predictions include a surge in AI-enabled automation across manufacturing, logistics, and customer service, helping Japan address its aging population and labor shortages. Autonomous vehicles, advanced robotics, and AI-driven healthcare solutions will likely become more prominent. Collaborations between academia, the private sector, and the government are expected to facilitate the growth of an AI ecosystem that leverages big data and machine learning for societal benefit.

A good reference to consider is the recent SushiTech event, which stands for Sustainable High City Tech Tokyo. This event underscores Japan’s focus on societal welfare and sustainable urban development. It highlights the country’s commitment to integrating advanced technology with social and environmental responsibility, reflecting Japan’s broader vision for the future. This focus on society and welfare is a critical aspect of the Japanese market and should be a consideration for any startup looking to establish a presence here.

Trends in AI Startups to Watch Out For

Future trends will likely focus on refining natural language processing (NLP) for improved customer interaction, enhancing predictive analytics for proactive decision-making, and developing edge AI for real-time data processing in IoT devices. Additionally, AI startups are anticipated to explore ethical AI frameworks, ensuring transparency, bias mitigation, and compliance with emerging regulations. These innovations will empower various sectors, from retail and finance to healthcare and agriculture, offering scalable solutions that meet diverse needs.

Leveraging AI for Social Good

Startups Driving Social and Environmental Change:

Many AI startups in Japan are harnessing technology to address pressing social issues. Examples include using machine learning models to optimize resource distribution in disaster relief, predicting and preventing infectious disease outbreaks, and identifying supply chain inefficiencies in agriculture to reduce food waste. Startups are also leveraging AI to tackle environmental challenges like pollution and climate change, developing predictive models that inform urban planning and sustainable energy usage.

How Your Startup Can Make a Difference:

AI startups can drive meaningful change by aligning their business strategies with social and environmental goals. By prioritizing ethical AI development, startups can address concerns such as algorithmic bias and privacy issues while maintaining transparency with stakeholders. Partnerships with NGOs and government agencies can open up new opportunities for social impact, whether through developing accessible health monitoring tools, reducing environmental footprints, or providing educational platforms that improve workforce skills. Ultimately, integrating social good into core business models not only fulfills a moral imperative but can also differentiate startups in a competitive marketplace.

5 Tips for AI Startups in Japan 

  1. Build a Supportive Community: Ilya’s Tokyo AI (TAI) is a testament to the importance of community-building. Creating a network of like-minded entrepreneurs and engineers fosters knowledge-sharing and collaboration. It can help startups stay up-to-date with the latest AI trends and gain valuable advice from seasoned professionals.
  2. Understand the Funding Landscape: Japan’s conservative investment climate means that securing significant funding is challenging. Explore government grants and consider alternative funding options like crowdfunding and international investors. 
    But we would strongly advise getting fundraising outside of Japan. Tailor your pitches to align with Japanese investor expectations and understand their unique concerns about risk and ROI.
  3. Navigate Legal and Administrative Hurdles: Setting up a business in Japan can be complicated due to stringent regulations and administrative processes. Secure reliable legal counsel early to understand visa requirements, banking regulations, and accounting standards. A clear grasp of these challenges will ensure smoother operations.

Mistakes to Avoid: Lessons Learned from Japan’s AI Entrepreneurs

  1. Don’t Underestimate Talent Challenges: Japan faces a shortage of AI talent, they constantly look for IT Jobs from foreign sources, which can impede growth. Avoid relying solely on local hiring. Instead, implement global recruitment strategies, and offer competitive salaries and benefits to attract and retain the best engineers.
  2. Overlook Fragmented Market Dynamics: The Japanese AI startup ecosystem is still fragmented, leading to limited communication between different sectors. Make concerted efforts to engage with academia, government initiatives, and other startups to bridge gaps, foster collaboration, and identify opportunities for synergy.

What is an insider’s point of view on the AI startups in Japan?

Ilya is a Japan-based entrepreneur with global experience launching startups in the US and Singapore. With his deep background in Machine Learning and AI, he is now building the AI ecosystem in Tokyo to make it a global AI hub. He also co-founded the Tokyo Startup Lunchclub community with Francisco Dalla Rosa Soares, to help global entrepreneurs land in Japan.

AI Startup Landscape: 

Japan’s AI startup ecosystem remains fragmented, with limited communication among industry and academic players. The U.S., on the other hand, enjoys a highly interconnected and collaborative environment. However, Ilya notes that “post-COVID events have increased communication and engagement in Japan, creating new opportunities”. 

To overcome the talent shortage, some Japanese companies either establish costly US subsidiaries as Centers of Excellence or open offices in India or Vietnam.

This approach strains both corporate and government budgets, but startups and government initiatives are striving to build a local talent pool to address this need.

At the same time, Japan is attracting interest from foreign AI and ML engineers. Despite lower salaries compared to other tech hubs, global talent is drawn to Japan by its appealing lifestyle, affordable and quality healthcare, and well-functioning infrastructure. Additionally, salaries in this sector have started to increase, and to attract the necessary engineering talent, they are expected to continue rising. This growing interest and improving compensation landscape make Japan an increasingly attractive destination for tech professionals.

Japan Has a Shortage of Talents. 

Japan is currently struggling with a talent shortage in machine learning and AI. According to Ilya, educational programs are insufficient compared to global hubs like London, New York, and Singapore, which produce a steady flow of highly skilled professionals. Nevertheless, he sees great potential for improvement as the market matures and startup processes become more accessible.

Salaries and investment remains underwhelming 

Salaries in Japan remain relatively low for engineers, posing a barrier to attracting top talent. While they are gradually increasing, the pay still trails behind what engineers can expect in the U.S. Fundraising presents another challenge; Japanese investors are often hesitant to support large funding rounds, whereas U.S. startups routinely secure investments averaging between $2.5 million and $3 million. 

In Japan, investment tickets tend to be much smaller at every stage, with pre-Seed and Seed seeing around $100k-$250k ticket sizes per institutional investor). While we can see some reasonably sized rounds of around $2-3m, in Japan these tend to require de-risking in terms of revenues or product stage. In the US, you can see the same rounds for teams with no product, and you can see $5-7m Seed rounds, especially in AI. While it’s unhealthy to drive valuations and round sizes to unsustainable levels, Ilya thinks larger deal sizes and higher valuations are helpful in building a reserve for global competition, as well as attracting more talent with stock options.

Challenges due to language barrier and gatekeeping 

Finding legal counsel and accountants in Japan remains a challenging and slow task for startups. Japanese companies face another challenge due to lower gross profit margins compared to foreign firms, which have successfully integrated new technologies.

Japan is full of opportunities

 A significant opportunity lies in Japan as businesses desperately seek new AI products to boost efficiency. Many companies have survived on low interest rates despite low gross profit margins, but rising rates could threaten their survival. New AI technologies could provide the efficiency needed to avoid failure. Despite these challenges, Ilya remains optimistic about Japan’s potential in the AI startup space. With increased communication, supportive communities, and government efforts to simplify business operations, the country may see significant growth in the coming years.

Global Expansion for AI Startups in Japan

Global Market Entry: Strategies for Japanese AI Startups:

Japanese AI startups looking to expand globally must conduct in-depth market research to identify regions with high demand for their solutions and fewer regulatory hurdles. Partnerships with local distributors, agents, or consultants familiar with local business environments can expedite market entry. Additionally, participating in international accelerator programs can provide startups with crucial mentorship, resources, and introductions to key stakeholders in foreign markets.

Cultural Adaptation: Tips for Japanese Startups Going Global:

Cultural differences can significantly impact business success abroad. To ease market penetration, startups should adapt their messaging, branding, and business practices to align with local customs and consumer behavior. Investing in diverse, culturally aware teams or local hires will also help establish a stronger foothold in new markets, enabling better communication and relationship-building.

Building International Partnerships

Cross-Cultural Collaboration: Building International Networks:

Collaborating with global partners requires cultural sensitivity and strategic alignment. Forming alliances with organizations that complement a startup’s strengths can lead to win-win situations, such as co-developing innovative products, sharing market insights, or leveraging each other’s distribution networks. Building a reputation as a reliable and proactive partner will open doors to long-term collaboration.

Leveraging Global Events and Communities for Growth:
International trade shows, conferences, and networking events offer unparalleled opportunities to gain market insights, showcase innovations, and build relationships. Startups should actively engage in these communities to strengthen their visibility and credibility. Digital platforms like LinkedIn, specialized forums, and industry associations also provide valuable spaces to exchange ideas and cultivate connections.

AI startup in Japan Meeting

Now it is time for you to act

Japan’s AI landscape presents a unique set of challenges, but strategic community-building, networking, and understanding of market dynamics can empower startups to overcome obstacles. Whether you’re planning to go global or strengthen your local presence, now is the time to seize emerging opportunities and secure the partnerships that will fuel future growth.

Take the initiative to explore new partnerships, refine your market entry strategies, and embrace a mindset of continuous learning. The AI revolution is gaining momentum, and your startup could be at the forefront of driving impactful technological change across borders.

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