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Global Japan
JAN 16, 2017

Japan’s Silicon Valley

By Hirofumi Matsubayashi

Tech start-ups in Japan, many of which began in Tokyo, are leaving for the peace and quiet of an ancient Zen capital slightly to the south. Once they get there, what happens is not what you might expect…

New Innovation in a Historical Location

If you wanted to find a place to spawn new, trendy upcoming and business innovation, where would you go? Paradoxically, you may want to choose a city with a long history.

Surprisingly, it may have inherent advantages, such as unique culture, abundant heritage sites and deep-rooted local communities, to provide the space and inspiration for new ideas. 

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 a hackathon workshop housed in a Buddhist temple called “Zen Hack” to a growing crowdfunding platform “iikuni”—big things are happening in the area now dubbed “Kamacon Valley.” 

The Silicon Valley of Japan

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 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. Kamacon has around 150 members, with a 1000-yen membership fee (non-members can join meetings if they pay 1000 yen a time). 

But since there are so many IT firms and related businesses in Tokyo, why do people choose to leave the city? 

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. So perhaps Kamakura actually has some magical powers to attract creative-minded people. 

Utilizing Japanese Tradition to Revitalize Kamakura

Kamacon is not just a place for tech innovation. Here, 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.

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.” 

This approach is built on consensus-based decision making, something traditionally valued in Japanese culture

However, in rapidly changing environment such as an IT start-up, constantly trying to reach a group decision can quickly render ideas outdated. So, if some members think it’s worth making progress alone then they will just start without the rest of the group. 

It’s this trial-and-error approach that is essential for changing a business environment, particularly in the IT industry. 

Zen Hackathon

One of the most interesting and perhaps peculiar events held by Kamacon is the “Zen Hack“: a combination of Zen Buddhism and a hackathon. A hackathon is an event in which computer programmers, designers, and other IT pros collaborate on intensive software projects. 

Hackathons traditionally take place on university campuses or large exhibition halls and last between 24 hours and several days. Often participants are fueled by copious amounts of energy drinks and junk food. 

Not at Zen Hack. All participants follow the rigorous rules of the 13th century Kencho-ji temple—the oldest Zen temple in Japan.

All hackers must stay overnight, sleep in communal tatami mat rooms and eat shoujinnryouri vegetarian dishes. Participants 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 Zen Hack explains: “From ancient times, changes and societal shifts have been the norm here. Therefore Kamakura, I believe, 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.” 

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. He introduced me to one of his current Zen Hack projects, a safety campaign dubbed: “Run to a higher place when an earthquake hits.” 

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

This project is fitting, as the epicenter of the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake struck 80 km offshore from Kamakura. 

90+ years since, the memory of the natural disaster has faded, but it’s quite possible another big earthquake could hit the area some time soon. 

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 as little as 3000 yen. Donors can receive items such as Patagonia T-shirts, emergency food, eco-bags and more. I thought this was a worthwhile project, so I decided to do my bit and chip in. 

Kamacon’s Mission

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. 

Interest in the area has continued to grow, as visitors come not only from Japan but across Asia, as more people hear about Kamacon and Zen Hack. 

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