Commerce Connect Tokyo:
Overcoming Foreign Investment Challenges Empowered with a Supportive Community

What factors should startups and companies from abroad consider when doing business in Japan? The executive director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan (CCCJ) shares insight on how to prepare for success.
Ishida Noriko in front of the office in Toranomon Hills in Minato City, Tokyo. The CCCJ, which will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2025, boasts over 400 member representatives across 35 business sectors.

— How have the last two years been as executive director?

I started working here during the pandemic, there was a reduced number of events and activities. Since the government reopened the borders in October 2022, many visitors from Canada have returned. It's also been nice to enjoy face-to-face events again.

— What is unique about the CCCJ?

We are a very tight, close-knit organization. It's a bit like an extended family that supports each other and is driven to a common goal. We get new members from various channels with the majority coming through word of mouth, and typically, any new members invariably know some existing members. The Canadian community is relatively small in Japan. According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, there are around 10,000 people from Canada living here. In some ways, that can make it easier to establish connections. The CCCJ members always willing to help each other and provide connections based on their expertise of doing business in Japan.

— Can you give us an example of a CCCJ member, either an individual or company, doing great things in Tokyo?

The newly established Market Access Advisory Committee (MAAC), We believe, could become very important in terms of attracting Canadian startups and businesses to Japan. It's led by Shailesh Shukla, who's the president and managing director of the consumer goods company, Reckitt Benckiser. As well as having vast knowledge and hands-on-experience himself, he's also invited people from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and the governor of Gunma for talks about what businesses and individuals coming to Japan should know in advance to the Market Access Advisory Committee's (MAAC) Forum earlier this year. This is a country looking to attract foreign companies and investors, so this committee will prove to be invaluable.

Latest business insights and government initiatives were presented to CCCJ members as well as non-members at the MAAC's first hybrid forum held in April 2023 in Tokyo. Photo: courtesy of CCCJ

— What do you think Japan can learn from the Canadian startup ecosystem?

When it comes to startups, I think Canada has a more "open to risk" business thinking, especially compared to Japan. In Canada, they're more prepared to take on new challenges in an uncertain market. And, if they fail, they'll learn from the experience and adjust the business strategy to try again. I would like to see more Canadian companies coming to Tokyo, as I think many have done well here.

— What makes Tokyo a special place to do business?

Everything happens in Tokyo. As everyone knows Tokyo is a mega city full of friendly people and a business hub of Asia. It's a vibrant place that offers business opportunities and provides a diverse environment for families.

Furthermore, Tokyo's uniqueness extends to its individual stations, the business and financial districts of Toranomon and Otemachi to the vibrant fashion hub of Shibuya, each owning a distinct character. Tokyo also presents excellent opportunities for building relationships, not only within the private sector but also with institutions like the Tokyo Metropolitan Government that serve as an invaluable partner in fostering connections and facilitating collaboration, further enhancing the business landscape.

— What are some factors startups from Canada should consider before doing business in Japan?

Recently, I've come to realize that having knowledge about a culture is just the beginning; true understanding is key. It's not only important to observe how things happen in a certain way, but also to delve deeper into why they happen that way. One aspect that stands out is the decision-making process, which can often be lengthy in Japan. However, this shouldn't be interpreted as a sign of a project not progressing or encountering obstacles. It simply reflects the unique business procedures in this country. Admittedly, practices like exchanging business cards and Temiyage (gift-giving), might pose challenges for people from overseas, but overall, I firmly believe that Japan is an exceptional place for conducting business. There is an abundance of opportunities and a rich startup ecosystem waiting to be explored.

Ishida says understanding the intricacies of decision-making and business practices is key for startups.

— How about the biggest challenges facing Canadian companies in Tokyo?

When promoting foreign direct investment (FDI) in Japan, one of the biggest challenges is the language barrier. The reality is, Japanese is only spoken in this country, whereas English is a global language. It looks like the government is attempting to provide more of the documents, required to start a business in Japan, in English so as to avoid any misstep during the startup phase. However, things like registering a company and opening a bank account remain very difficult for individuals and companies coming from overseas. The key is to form relationships with people and groups who can help. That is where we come in. We're a member-driven organization and once you join you will have access to local resources and help from the CCCJ.

— What can the TMG do to help Canadian companies and entrepreneurs in Japan?

More support when it comes to multi-language documentation, which is a big hurdle. In addition to that, I would love to see more financial support for small companies. Even if they are not creating much profit, they need to adjust to the level of taxation in Japan and that makes it very difficult.

— Can you tell us about any upcoming events or initiatives at the CCCJ?

There are three pillars to our mandate: events, communication and advocacy. Our members are always looking to network, so it's so important that events are finally coming back. Something that we're all particularly excited about is the success of our inaugural TPP Cup and the return of our signature event, the Maple Leaf Gala. Regarding communication, we have our website, quarterly magazine—The Canadian, weekly email newsletters, and social media accounts. And, in terms of advocacy, it's essential to regularly liaise with the TMG, local governments and business organizations, the Canadian Embassy as well as other foreign chambers in Japan to ensure our members have the right tools to succeed in this amazing city.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan
Interview and writing by Matthew Hernon
Photography by Anna Petek