Monday, January 9, 2017

What Does a Korean Hostel in the Middle of Tokyo Says about Internationalization of Japan

The author is a big user of hostels.  Being cheap locations with many people to meet and relative safety of numbers, they generally fit the author's intention to travel on the shoestring and bump into random people in random places.  Interestingly enough, the author had never before stayed in hostels in Tokyo, despite having lived in the country for over seven years.  The current trip gave him that particular opportunity, as he specifically sought out perhaps the cheapest place to sleep in central Tokyo, with the price tag of about 180 USD for a whole week and a half of stay.

First, to profile the hostel.  It is located squarely on the backstreets in the middle of Shin-Okubo, popularly known as Tokyo's biggest Koreatown that became trendy in the past years due to the popularity of Korean pop music among the city's younger (Japanese) crowds.  Korean food stores, dance studios, and entertainment centers dot the landscape, drawing both Korean-Japanese residents for everyday purchases and tourists from Korea looking for a taste of home in the otherwise confusing foreign mess that Tokyo can be for foreigners without the language skills.

But the neighborhood is much more than a hangout for Koreans and Koreaphiles.  The neighborhood is also home to plenty of other foreigners and businesses serving their needs, none of which have any ties to Korea.  Groups of students, laborers, and businessmen of Chinese, South Asian, and Middle Eastern descents casually stroll its neon-lit streets, filling the air with a diverse set of foreign languages rarely heard on Japanese streets.  It is amidst this rather international location that the author's place of residence, a little underground den primarily for Korean travelers, run by a nice Korean guy (who does not speak Japanese), exists.

It is a hopeful sight for Japan, which in the author's personal experience, has been a less than ideal environment for foreign workers in the recent past.  Of course, plenty of problems continue to exist in corporate Japan, ranging from overwork to women's unequal status/pay, but such does not seem to deter foreigners from coming to visit, and in due time stay for longer period to take up whatever business opportunities that came along with the steadily increasing number of foreign visitors to the country.  For all of Japan's internal problems, foreign arrivals and residencies are definitely on the increase.

Indeed, speaking to former (foreign) coworkers, there is a sense that the problem is no longer one of simply differing mindset between foreigners and Japanese.  The problem is now much more centered on the limitations of the traditional Japanese corporate institutions that does not react fast enough to technological changes.  Paradoxically, it is technological changes that remains Japan's primary competitive advantage in the global markets and need to be continuously pushed to the very cutting-edge if Japan is to remain economically relevant.  This issue transcends one's nationality or ethnic background.

In particular, larger Japanese companies, including the one that the author used to work for, are constrained by the traditional powers, almost authoritarian and absolutist in nature, given to senior leadership.  Their limited comprehensions of the sheer potential held by some innovative products and services have led to (and will continue to lead to) many great business ideas being killed before they are even born, despite highly competent staff, both Japanese and foreign, who are perfectly capable of creating and operating them for large scale public use.

Clearly, to rely on these large companies for innovation will prove less and less suitable as the required pace for innovation to stay competitive increases.  But a (still comparatively) small group of nimble startups is emerging to transform the Japanese economy into one that is no longer dependent on legacy industries (whether it be automobiles or consumer electronics) for majority of output.  And perhaps not so surprisingly, many of these startups are staffed, and even led, by young foreign residents of the country.  Their ability to sniff out opportunities and quickly act upon them have been shaped by the challenges of navigating Japan.

Thought this way, it would not be hard to imagine a place like Shin-Okubo to be a hub of small-time foreign entrepreneurs creating brand-new values for a still-growth-deficient Japanese economy.  Sure, many of the entrepreneurs here may not be tech-savvy, but what they share with the most innovative of tech startups is their willingness to take the unusual routes in a Japanese economy bound by many unwritten social rules, as well as their willingness to think beyond Japanese needs, pertaining to both target markets and personnel needed to get work done.  A few more Shin-Okubos should do wonders for this economy.   

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