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Startups look to make life easier for new arrivals in Japan

Helping with living arrangements and health care are among new growth businesses

Global Trust Networks acts as a guarantor for overseas residents looking to rent an apartment in Japan. It also has a mobile phone service that caters to foreign clients.

TOKYO -- As anyone who has lived abroad can attest, adjusting to life in a new country can be a challenge, from finding a place to live to visiting the doctor.

In Japan, new services are emerging to make life easier for foreign residents. As the government moves to accept more foreign workers, their numbers are likely to rise, creating opportunities for startups.

A case in point: when a woman from Africa arrived in Japan in October to study, she had a rude awakening when trying to rent an apartment. "Foreign people cannot rent a room," the real estate agent told her without bothering to look into her background.

She reached out to Global Trust Networks, a property business in Tokyo that acts as a guarantor for foreign renters. The company contacted her family back home to confirm her ability to pay. Concluding that she was a good risk, Global Trust concluded a contract with the woman and she was able to settle into an apartment.

Renting an apartment, opening a bank account, signing up for mobile phone service -- transactions that are relatively straightforward for the native born -- can be major headaches for people starting out in Japan.

Subscribing to a mobile service requires a current address, for example, while renting an apartment requires a contact number. To open a bank account, one must have both a current address and a phone number. Global Trust has a subsidiary that specializes in selling both mobile phones and wireless service to foreign residents, helping them escape these Catch-22s.

As of 2017, Global Trust had around 30,000 rental guarantor contracts, up 30% versus the previous year. The company earns much of its revenue from service charges. It also runs a credit card business that is focused on foreign residents, together with the credit card unit of Japanese retailer Marui Group.

Another company that has a largely foreign clientele is Residence Tokyo, which manages furnished apartments that are open to foreign tenants. Residence Tokyo manages the properties and lets renters secure rental contracts with a credit card, enabling them to avoid guarantor fees and the hassle of dealing with property owners who do not want to do business with people from abroad.

Residence Tokyo manages around 540 units in Tokyo, 90% of which are occupied. Most of its tenants are foreign residents. The company has raised funds from a venture capital unit of Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings and other investors, and plans to use the money to construct new apartment buildings on idle land near the utility's substations.

"I want to tackle traditional practices in Japan that impose unnecessary costs on foreign people," said Residence Tokyo CEO Koji Nosaka.

Finding a place to call home, however, is only the first step to building a life in a new country. At some point, people must deal with doctors or hospitals if they get sick or injured. Chief among the pitfalls for new arrivals is the language barrier.

Enter MediPhone, a company that offers long-distance interpreting via an app.

According to Japan's Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 80% of the approximately 1,700 hospitals surveyed nationwide accepted foreign patients in 2016, but only 15% had medical interpreters. MediPhone has a network of more than 500 registered interpreters offering assistance in 17 languages. The service is now used by about 1,900 hospitals in Japan and demand is expected to grow.

As of the end of June, there were a record 2.64 million registered foreign residents in Japan, up 3% from the end of 2017. Earlier in November, the cabinet approved a bill to revise the immigration control law to allow more foreign workers into the country. The bill is now being debated in the parliament. If it becomes law, the government plans to introduce a new guest worker program in fiscal 2019 starting in April that could bring in up to 340,000 foreign workers over five years.

That influx is likely to encourage more startups to cater to their needs. Among those serving this market is One Visa, a Tokyo company that handles visa paperwork for corporate clients with foreign employees.

Albert Okamura, the company's head, has worked at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, which gives him an insider's knowledge of its procedures. About 300 companies have contracts with One Visa, up 70% from just six months ago.

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