Why Bilinguals In Japan Should Try A Startup

We Japanese-English bilinguals in Japan tend to be too complacent. There are so few of us, yet so much demand, that comfortable jobs are available with little to no effort. Foreign companies, or “gaishis,” need bilinguals, and Japan is one of the few places where even some of the most educated don’t speak English. That is why Google or Facebook or Goldman Sachs are more likely to hire you if you speak both languages. Tokyo, in particular, is a place where you can have a great salary with minimal effort, while living in one of the most comfortable cities in the world.

In other words, life in Japan is pretty great as a bilingual. So why give all that up to work at a dinky startup?

Because you are missing the bigger opportunity.

When Alibaba went public in 2014, it was the largest public offering of all time. The $25 billion IPO transformed Jack Ma, the founder, into an overnight celebrity. Every newspaper you’d pick up would have his face grinning back at you. He made it. He was now one of the greatest technology entrepreneurs of modern day.

“Technology entrepreneurs.” When we say that we tend to imagine a gang of engineers in hoodies coding away into the middle of the night. But Jack Ma challenges that notion. He never wrote a line of code. He wasn’t proficient in any of the common programming languages of Silicon Valley. Instead, he chose an entirely different language. English. He was an English teacher before any of his internet ventures.

This later proved to be an important choice. I doubt that he spoke to Masayoshi Son in Japanese when he wanted to raise money from Softbank. Son certainly didn’t speak to Ma in Mandarin. It was Ma’s English that enabled him to work effectively across borders. It helped him raise money, strike deals, and tell the story of Alibaba to the world. It was also his English that gave him an important edge when the internet arrived in China in the 1990s. He knew what was coming. He saw what was happening in Silicon Valley long before many in China could even get started.

As a bilingual, you have the advantage of information asymmetry. Fifty-six percent of all online content in the world is in English. With all the news, blogs, forums, tweets, and videos coming out every day, obviously not everything is translated. Journalists can’t possibly cover everything, so they pick and choose. They are the gatekeepers of information, meaning vast amounts of information never reach the non-bilingual audience, and the information that does is given its own spin by the translator.

So as a bilingual, you are likely to know about new business models much faster, have access to more content, and more third-party analysis than your competition. You can read into what models are actually working, how others pulled it off, and where they made mistakes so that you don’t do the same. You have an exceptional arbitrage advantage.

Many might assume that the arbitrage advantage is primarily relevant to time machine models, or business models taken from another market and replicated locally. Amazon vs Rakuten, Uber vs Grab, and Yelp vs Tabelog are some examples. But it’s not. English is the universal language of the scientific community, so even high technology startups with bilingual co-founders have an advantage over their local peers.

Another, less obvious advantage, is the ability to sell your company to a foreign buyer. Let’s assume that you’ve used your arbitrage advantage, discovered a time machine opportunity, and gotten a head start on your local competition. At some point, a foreign counterpart will probably have to think about Japan, and Japan is not an easy market. It’s unique. Many even call it “Galapagos.” Cultural and legal entry barriers coupled with your first-mover advantage make acquiring you a lot more palatable than competing with you. Even if you have competitors, they are likely to not speak English, which makes you a more feasible target to integrate. Foreign acquirers also tend to pay more, which is a plus!

You may be thinking, “You make it sound so easy. Startups are hard. Why give up what I have now?”

Well, because you can always go back.

Failure may be looked down upon at most Japanese companies, but not at “gaishis.” Foreign companies tend to value your entrepreneurial experience. It signals that you are a go-getter. You are bold. You are just what they need. After all, in many cases their Tokyo office is much smaller and essentially a startup trying to grow. As long as you are also competent and hardworking, there will always be a place for you.

Ma certainly had many extraordinary qualities that also made him successful. It is not like English was the only thing he had going for him. But without English, none of his other qualities would shine like they do today. Japan also has terrific examples of exceptional bilingual founders. Soichiro Minami of Bizreach, Daisuke Sasaki of Freee, and Akiko Naka of Wantedly to name a few. But given the advantages, I continue to be surprised why I don’t see more.

If you are bilingual, and have some entrepreneurial spirit in you, I think you should go for it. Don’t waste your enviable position, because the upside of starting a successful company is infinite, while the downside of failing is essentially zero.

p.s. If you do start a company, please get in touch. I may want to fund you 🙂 Our startups are also hiring. 

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  • Marvin Mots

    Thank you for this optimistic encouragement. Japan might be the best place for a foreign entrepreneur for several reasons. Major changes in Japan throughout history seem to be prompted by technology advances from outside or new ways of thinking that are brought to Japan from the outside. Foreigners have a special role in this respect. It may be easier for a foreigner in Japan than for a Japanese………………………

    For various reasons that I dont have time to explain here, there is more freedom to do truly new things in Japan than in America, in the hardware and chemical industries. I have had surprising experiences in this regard.