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Global Japan
JAN 16, 2017

Japan’s Silicon Valley: Startups Launch Innovation and Collaboration in the Ancient Capital of Kamakura

By Hirofumi Matsubayashi

If you want to find a place to spawn business innovation, paradoxically, you may want to choose a city with a long history. Consider the advantages: unique culture, abundant heritage sites, and deep-rooted local communities.

One such place is the ancient city of Kamakura, located 50 km south of Tokyo.

Recent movements in this city, once Japan’s ancient capital, have indeed made Kamakura more attractive for start-ups. From the ZenHack hackathon workshop housed in a Buddhist temple to a growing “iikuni” crowdfunding platform—big things are happening in the area now dubbed “Kamacon Valley.”

Kamacon Valley (or Kamacon) combines Kamakura and Silicon Valley—an apt name, as most of the organizations’ members work in the IT industry. There are high hopes that the next big tech start-up will emerge from here.

One such company, Kayac, went public on Christmas 2014. The crowdsourcing provider Lancers (funded by GLOBIS Capital Partners) also recently moved their offices to Kamakura.

One of Kamacon’s missions is to “support local people who love Kamakura through the power of information technology.” However, the founders stress that the group consists of people from a diverse range of organizations, not just IT workers.

It’s great that so many companies are finding success, but one must wonder, why do they choose to leave Tokyo?

Some Kamacon members say Kamakura has the best mix of nature and culture. In short, they can enjoy a good work-life balance, something very rare in Tokyo.

Others claim Kamakura has good ki, or natural energy. Traditionally, many of Japan’s creative classes have gathered in Kamakura. Perhaps the area has an inexplicable natural draw for attract creative-minded people.

Kamacon is not just a place for tech innovation. Members propose ideas and produce action plans to improve the quality of lives of people who live in the surrounding areas.

Speed and a sense of ownership are the name of the game, reminiscent of a start-up venture. Both virtual and real communities stimulate each other to produce and refine ideas, which are later finalized in real-world group meetings. 

Kamacon’s founders decided that the best way forward for an organization such as this is through collaboration, not competition. This rings true with the inherent value of consensus-based decision making in Japanese culture.

As most members are volunteers, some people do not understand why members work so hard without pay.

One Kamacon member answered: “We’re so happy to join this group because it’s fun and exciting to be part of a community willing to change and improve the local environment and lives of local people.” 

ZenHack

One of the most interesting and perhaps peculiar events held by Kamacon is ZenHack, which combines a hackathon with Zen Buddhism. The hackathon brings together computer programmers, designers, and other IT pros to collaborate on intensive software projects. Hackathons traditionally take place on university campuses or large exhibition halls. Typically lasting between 24 hours and several days, participants are fueled by copious amounts of energy drinks and junk food. 

Not at ZenHack.

ZenHack dictates that all participants follow the rigorous rules of 13th-century Kencho-ji—the oldest Zen temple in Japan.

All hackers must stay overnight, sleep in communal tatami mat rooms, and eat shoujin ryouri vegetarian dishes. They must go to bed at 9 p.m. and wake at 4 a.m. sharp. After practicing Zen meditation, they are ready to begin the hackathon.

Mr. Imamura, organizer of ZenHack, explains: “From ancient times, changes and societal shifts have been the norm here. Kamakura…has a special power to move and change people.” 

Mr. Takai, a monk at Kencho-ji, agrees. “Kamakura’s culture lies in the nature of continuous change,” he says.

Sounds like the perfect conditions for an IT start-up!

Crowdfunding Project iikuni

Mr. Yanasawa, a Kamacon co-founder, is the president of local IT firm Kayac. One of his current ZenHack projects is a safety campaign dubbed “Run to a higher place when an earthquake hits.”

The purpose is simple: reduce the number of earthquake victims by increasing awareness and educating people how to escape to safety. 

This project is well suited to the location. The epicenter of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake struck 80 km offshore from Kamakura. Over 90 years later, the memory of the natural disaster has faded, but another big earthquake could hit the area anytime without warning.

Kamacon has also started crowdfunding using a new platform called iikuni. The name (meaning 1192 in Japanese) refers to the first year when Kamakura was the capital of Japan.

One of iikuni’s aims is to raise 2.9 million yen to support the earthquake safety campaign. Anybody wishing to support the project can donate (3,000 yen and up) and in exchange receive items such as Patagonia T-shirts, emergency food, and shopping bags.

Kamacon’s Mission isn’t limited to IT. Organizers say as long as activities can improve the local economy and the quality of life of local people, they are welcome. Luckily, interest in the area has continued to grow. Visitors are coming in from across Asia as more people hear about Kamacon and ZenHack.

It’s an exciting time to run a start-up in Japan’s quiet ancient capital.