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Should Nordic tech companies be kawaii in Japan?

Photo: Slush/Heidi Kähkönen
  • Published 13/05/2016
  • Last updated 17/05/2016
Both the Nordic startups and the Japanese investors had many questions when a delegation of 20 Nordic startups and ecosystem leaders met with the Japanese startup scene during a two-day #NordicMade visit, organised back-to-back with Slush Asia.

During two days in Tokyo, the delegation met with local investors and media as well as showcased a lineup of Nordic founders, building important bridges to the Japanese tech ecosystem. 


The delegation included eight prominent Nordic startups: Acast,, Tradeshift, Enevo, Mindfield Games, Solid Clouds, WeClean, and DeeMe.


The Japanese market, dominated by major corporations, has traditionally been hard to enter for international companies. The startup scene in Japan is still young. Founding a startup is a rare career choice, but the situation has started to change.


”The Japanese startup ecosystem is growing fast. I’m very impressed with companies that have come from the Nordics, including Ikea, Nokia, Skype, and H&M. The Nordic founders go beyond their countries to build business, and I think Japanese startups could learn from that,” says Akiko Naka, founder of Wantedly Inc, a fast-growing Japanese social networking service for business.


Nordics praised for technology, but need to adapt their marketing strategies


According to industry specialists, the Japanese market can hold great opportunities for Nordic companies. Both the Japanese and the Nordic markets are characterised by an extremely strong mobile market.


“However, Japanese consumers often have a different mindset when it comes to the aesthetics, functionality and the UX of mobile apps,” explains Tetsuya Waida, ‪Group Strategic Planning Director at Hakuhodo. Founded 180 years ago, Hakuhodo is the oldest advertising agency in Japan, and one of the hosts for the Nordic delegation.


“Nordic companies are extremely good in terms of technology, but often struggle in adapting their marketing strategy to the local market. Supercell is a great example of a company that has been successful in adapting their marketing to the Japanese market,” says Shinichi Takamiya, Partner and Chief Strategy Officer at Globis Capital Partners.


But how could Nordic companies be more successful? According to the investors, it comes down to appreciating the taste of Japanese consumers and learning to localise your business.


“Japanese especially value cuteness, kawaii, simplicity, humor and – of course – translating the games or services in Japanese,” explains Takamiya.


The Nordics are stronger together – with local support


Besides learning about Japanese consumers, Nordic founders got advice on how to navigate the Japanese legal system and grow business through partnerships.


The key? Having strong local support when building an office in Japan.


“Find the right partner. Use your connections. That’s the best thing to do,” says Aki Okubo, country manager for the Danish startup Tradeshift, already operating in Japan.


“I’ve learnt that as with every business, you have to be local. Otherwise you won't succeed. It’s also good to emphasise being Nordic, as the Nordics have a good reputation in Japan and throughout Asia. It’s easier for others to enter the market if someone paves the way,” says Måns Ulvestam, founder and CEO of Swedish Acast.


Leveraging the success of the Nordics to strengthen and develop the region as one of the leading startup hubs globally, was also the key thought behind the #NordicMade delegation.


“The Slush brand is built on the Nordic location and culture. Travelling around the world, I have realised that people respond more favorably to the Nordic brand than any of the individual country brands on their own. We were welcomed in Tokyo with open arms,” says Ghita Wallin from Slush, one of the organisers behind #NordicMade.


”It has been valuable to spot the similarities and differences between the Nordics and Japan. There is a great opportunity to stimulate innovation through closer collaboration,” says Frederik Waitz from Nordic Innovation.


While fostering early-stage innovation through their own initiatives, Nordic Innovation under the Nordic Council of Ministers also work alongside private actors as a full-circle offering for growing companies. All to support and accelerate the position of the Nordic entrepreneurship scene.


“By fronting a new market together as a Nordic unity, we are often able to create more value in terms of talent, critical mass, investment, contacts, impact and awareness than the startup communities are individually,” adds Waitz.



The #NordicMade magazine and photos


Read the #NordicMade magazine - it zooms in on the different Nordic ecosystems and the startups with us in Tokyo


Also, check out our photo series from Tokyo here: