Fukuoka is making a name for itself as Japan's startup capital, attracting entrepreneurs from far and wide in a bid to boost its economy.
The city has significantly lowered corporate tax rates for startups and implemented sweeping regulatory reforms, making it easier to launch a business as part of Mayor Soichiro Takashima's drive to grow Fukuoka into a hub of innovative technology and services.
The moves became possible after the city was chosen in 2014 as a national strategic special zone, a sort of test site for measures that could eventually be expanded across the country.
Takashima, a 44-year-old former TV anchorman, has said he hopes to turn Fukuoka into Japan's version of Seattle, the U.S. city that is home to giants such as Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp.
Aside from the tax cuts and regulatory reforms, one of the ways the city is encouraging entrepreneurs is through the Startup Cafe, a facility that provides a place to plan and receive advice.
Nestled in a former elementary school dating back to the 1870s in the trendy Daimyo area, the Startup Cafe houses a number of advisers who speak English, Chinese and other foreign languages for general inquiries, with regular visits by lawyers, accountants and financial advisers for more specialized advice.
There have been more than 7,000 visits by would-be entrepreneurs, ranging from middle school students to a woman in her 80s who was looking for a way to sell handmade "geta" sandals. The facility has helped launch at least 165 companies so far.
"It's really never too late to get started," says Junichi Anazawa, manager of the facility.
The space is open from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. seven days a week in order to accommodate people who are working through the early stages of their business while still holding day jobs. Run by Culture Convenience Club, the company behind the Tsutaya video rental and bookstore chain, it also provides a Wi-Fi equipped work space and a literal wall of books on business management.
While many of Japan's regional economies have suffered from shrinking populations as people flock to Tokyo, the number of people living in Fukuoka has continued to grow, further increasing its attractiveness as a place to start a business.
That is doubly true for foreigners, who under the regulatory reforms can expedite the visa application process. For example, they can bypass the requirement to have both funding of at least 5 million yen and at least two full-time employees.
"We really think Fukuoka is the best place to start a business (for people from overseas) and to grow that business," says Hideo Makinose, an adviser at the Startup Cafe. "Nowhere else in Japan will you get more support."