Yokohama transforms into a tech innovation hub of East Asia
The city aims to attract foreign talent in technology and research to become a powerhouse beyond Japan’s shores
Yokohama’s investment in resources and incentives to support innovative startup companies is paying dividends as the Japanese city climbs the Global Cities of the Future rankings. In 2020, Yokohama ranked third in the Foreign Direct Investment Strategy category, behind only Greater Montreal (Canada) and Abu Dhabi (UAE). The same report ranked the Tokyo/Yokohama area as the 15th best in the world for startup ecosystems, creating a surge in international attention.
American-born Aaron Benedek founded his startup Nekotronic in Yokohama three years ago. Nekotronic is developing technology that may someday enable safe and efficient high-volume air travel, a “Sky Highway” as an alternative to cars. Although Benedek founded several other startups before Nekotronic, he found the support given to him by the City of Yokohama surpassed his expectations. The city has arranged mentors for Benedek in the local business community and introduced him to potential clients, partnerships, and projects.
Yokohama signaled its commitment to this path when it declared itself “Innovation City” in January 2019. It aimed to create a framework where engineers, entrepreneurs, researchers, and students could easily collaborate to expand their networks and spawn new innovations in the technology field. Furthermore, in November 2022, the city deepened its commitment by establishing the “Startup Location Promotion Subsidy” for any startup, including ones based overseas that wants to establish a small-scale office in Yokohama.
So far, the startup support base, YOXO BOX, has been established to serve as a hub for connecting aspiring entrepreneurs with seasoned mentors, startups with venture capital companies, and peer companies who can mutually benefit from collaborations. YOXO BOX conducts regular events such as the recent YOXO FESTIVAL, where startups demonstrate their technologies and products to peer companies and the general public in a heavily marketed event hosted at a major Yokohama venue.
The path toward becoming a Technology Innovation hub of East Asia is a natural progression for Yokohama. The city is already home to headquarters and major R&D centers for Shiseido, Bosch, and Nissan. With many innovative technology companies in the city, it was already attracting engineers and researchers from around the world. It was only a question of how to use all of that raw talent to spawn startup companies developing cutting-edge technology.
Part of Yokohama’s appeal is that it is a very livable city, with a delicate balance of urban development and natural space, a convenient public transportation system, and plenty of entertainment options both within and near the city. In addition, connections to Tokyo International Airport (Haneda) and Tokyo itself are seamless, and many choose to live in Yokohama even if they work elsewhere.
Robert Heldt, CEO of the creative digital agency Custom Media, is one of them. His daily commute to his office in Tokyo is a convenient 40-minute train ride, but he finds Yokohama a more pleasant environment to raise a family: clean, safe, and convenient. In Yokohama, he owns a house with a garden and a small terrace, something that poses a challenge for those wanting to live in central Tokyo. Heldt also praises Yokohama’s “foreigner-friendly” aspects, with ten international schools and many English-speaking hospitals. Over 100,000 foreign residents from 160 countries make their home in Yokohama, making it one of the most cosmopolitan of all Japanese cities.
TJ Wheeler, a transplant from California working in VR and metaverse technology, agrees Yokohama is a convenient place to live. He cites the many schools within walking distance of his home and safe streets for young children to walk alone. Wheeler also notes that Yokohama has an extraordinary number of green spaces; in fact, over 2,700 parks exist in the city for the enjoyment of its residents.
Although the city has much to offer in terms of quality of life, it is also well-connected to the rest of Japan and the world. The famously efficient Shinkansen bullet train line connecting Tokyo to Kyoto, Osaka, and beyond stops in Yokohama, and Tokyo International Airport (Haneda) is just about 20 minutes away by train, with daily flights to dozens of major cities. Those needing a weekend getaway are close to secluded hot springs resorts with stunning views of Mt. Fuji.
Consider Benedek a fan of Yokohama’s hot springs, something he has learned to appreciate through his wife. Benedek says there are plenty of hot spring facilities around Yokohama, many within a 30-minute drive. Sauna spas have also become increasingly popular with the 20s to 40s demographic with many facilities in the city.
Yokohama is a city well equipped for a “work hard, play hard” culture, attracting a talented class of entrepreneurial-minded individuals to a world-class city that is easy for foreign residents to live in. Time will tell how high Yokohama’s star will rise in the East as an innovative technology hub.