Saturday, November 19, 2011

My Tokyo Business Entry Point visit

While I await the verdict on my permanent resident visa application (I'll know in April 2012 at the earliest) I'm starting to look into the steps I'll need to take to set up shop. I'm about to head off to Tokyo Business Entry Point (TBEP) (2014 note! The service's name has now changed to "Business Development Centre Tokyo and the direct link to their site is here), a free consultation service "providing a wide range of useful information for foreign-affiliated businesses and entrepreneurs who are already operating or are considering establishment of a business base in Tokyo."

Although very welcoming, their site describes their services so broadly "…available to answer various questions.." that I'm not sure if my 'little shop' idea is really in line with the kind of enquiries they prefer to deal with. The email exchanges have been encouraging however, so I'm looking forward to visiting. I'm hoping they'll be able to tell me the kind of licenses I will need for the different activities I'm thinking of doing, and the costs and procedures involved in getting them. I'll post a write-up of the consultation, and let you know what kind of things TBEP is interested in helping with.

... A little while later...

Gosh, well that was very nice! I spent a pleasant hour with two kind gentlemen in the partially screened-off section of a sprawling open plan government office that is Tokyo Business Entry Point. TBEP is part of the Bureau of Industrial and Labor Affairs, and when I visited had offices on the 30th floor of the North Tower of the No.1 Tokyo Metropolitan Government building directly above Tochomae station. Please note! TBEP have moved to a new location, JP Tower close to Tokyo Station.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (old office of TBEP)

Quite the view! 
It started with a little light form filling, and then the gentleman I had been in contact with picked up on some of the things he'd looked into following my email.

His first recommendation was to try to spend as little as possible at the outset and build the business before thinking about a space. Of the three parts of the business I had explained to them, he recommended me to start with the cooking school: "you don't actually need a license" they went on to suggest I use my kitchen, or a community centre kitchen to get going without much start-up money, and gave me a list of those of types of places in Minato-ku. I feel a little reluctant about the suggestion. I think it might be easy to get pulled into this type of casual activity, and it might keep me from sorting out my own business space. I felt that the lessons would be more incidental to the cafe space, but it could be a great way to get more experience and to build a community base even before the shop opens. Wouldn't lessons in the shop and lessons in a community centre be quite different though, and the participants also be of a different type? Clearly more thinking to do…

Regarding having a cafe space, the main thing they wanted to talk to me about was the need to partner with someone because a business producing or selling food requires having a designated hygiene manager. I had heard about the health certificate, seen them framed on the walls of the Matsuya fast food chain, and asked if I might be able to get one myself. They told me to check with my local health centre, but imagined it would be quite difficult because I'd probably need to do an exam in Japanese. Well I think I've found my next research project!

They gave me this list of the steps to get a business permit to open a restaurant in Tokyo. They also recommended that I consult with real estate agents who deal with closed businesses - this would help me find a ready furbished space with the oven and equipment I'd need, and hopefully work out more reasonably than me buying everything new. They gave me the names of two agents who specialise in these types of properties. This was a great piece of advice, I just hope I can be lucky enough to find something affordable, nice enough, in one of the locations I have in mind… Exciting!

When asked what kind of legal entity a cake shop usually is in Tokyo, they replied that a stock company kabushiki kaisha would probably be best as it's now possible to start one with 1-yen capital, and it would help me appear credible for any loans, partners and customer interactions. They mentioned that if family and friends want to help me start the business in the form of loans, then I could consider having them as board members or 'employees', and pay back those loans in the form of 'salaries' because loans don't look good on company books. I have a feeling that there could be a lot of strange pathways and loopholes to navigate in the course of running a business in Japan.

Speaking of shades of grey, I was very embarrassed to ask my next question. I didn't know how to phrase it. I certainly didn't want to use the word 'yakuza' and was aware that asking a government worker their opinion of whether I needed to worry about organized crime when considering starting a business in Tokyo might not be the best bet. After some verbal squirming along the lines of "well, Nishi Azabu is near Roppongi, and.. you know, protection money, that kind of thing" they caught my drift and reassured me that it wasn't something I needed to worry about, particularly as my cake shop would be closed well before nightclub hours. I felt silly, they were quietly amused.

I asked them what they usually do at TBEP when not advising about cake shops, and found that the range is quite extensive. They defined themselves as similar to JETRO but dealing with mainly small and medium sized businesses, whereas JETRO deals only with large companies. They also give advice to foreign businesses for their day-to-day needs such as which hospitals have English speaking staff. They are currently helping a medium sized company based in Osaka set up an office in Tokyo, and they have been visit the trade departments of various embassies to see what help they can give international companies looking to find partners or set up in Tokyo. I checked, but they said there isn't any kind of enquiry that they don't want. Their only limitation is that when giving introductions they always have to give more than one option, in order to remain impartial, which from the enquirer's point of view doesn't sound like much of a problem at all ;)

So yes, it was a useful and enjoyable visit, I didn't feel rushed or belittled at all. It was nice to have all my questions considered carefully - there wasn't one insincere smile when they talked about the tiny cake shop, and they added quite a few spontaneous suggestions for me to consider. I understand now why the TBEP site is so vague about what they do, they really do accept all kinds of enquires! We spoke partly in Japanese and partly in English, but they can handle enquiries purely in English, and I'd recommend booking a free consultation with them if you like me are wondering where to start with your business idea.

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