Tokyo Meetup Notes: Japan's Coolest (And Weirdest) Startups

Picture credit: Umihiko Namekawa (more photos from the event can be found here and here)

Our first TechCrunch/CrunchGear meetup in Tokyo (TechCrunch Japan is one of Japan’s main blogs) yesterday night was a blast. Peter Ha was in town and over 100 people attended the event on very short notice, including representatives from Yahoo Japan, telecommunications giants KDDI and NTT, Opera, MySpace Japan, mobile social network GREE and many more. Japan’s super blogger Danny Choo also joined, spending the whole evening in Stormtrooper gear.

There were a lot of companies with iPhone apps in the room: iPhone manga, iPhone Othello, iPhone Meow Cam, even an iPhone newspaper. Here is a selection of some of the web services and iPhone apps from smaller start-ups that were pitched to me yesterday (in no particular order). Next time we really need to schedule more than two hours for these events.

Startup No. 1:

Genkii, a developer of iPhone applications, virtual world and social media projects, presented One Coin Comics. The platform for the iPhone launches this month with a multi-lingual, interactive manga called “Foxfire”. In addition to releasing original comic projects, Genkii told me they will open the platform this spring to other writers and artists. Artists can then submit finished art to Genkii for assembly and release through One Coin Comics, and share the revenue.

Startup No. 2:
CEO CTO Masahiko Tachizono told me that his site Natalie is probably the main hub on the web for news about Japanese pop music in English. Unlike similar sites, all news are delivered directly from Tokyo and the site gets updated a few times daily. Tachizono also said he is currently looking out for strategic partnerships in order to expand distribution, especially outside Japan. Natalie is also available as a Facebook app (in English).

Startup No. 3:

DigiDock is an iPhone development company currently selling Reversi Sister, a pretty unique version of Reversi (a board game also known as Othello), in the iTunes AppStore (in English). The game, which is enriched with anime-style audio and graphics, is actually tons of fun and costs $2.99. Watch a Reversi Sister demo video here.

Startup No. 4:
MyGengo offers crowdsourced human translation (currently in English and Japanese only). After uploading or pasting texts into the order form, users receive instant pricing to order their chosen quality level, and receive completed translations within a few hours through the site. CEO Robert Laing told me his company relies on an outsourced network of pre-tested native-speaker translators to keep business costs down, claiming users can save up to 70% in translation costs this way.

Startup No. 5:
Appliya just yesterday announced a collaboration with SoftBank Mobile (Japan’s third biggest cell phone carrier) that aims at bringing iPhone apps with a Japanese flavor to the global market. The company has released 26 iPhone apps soo far. What Appliya showed me yesterday was Meow Cam. Download it ($0.99) and the iPhone meows when you press the Meow button, causing a cat to be photographed to look into the direction of the camera (video). The Baby Cam, which also costs $0.99, is the corresponding app for infants (video). The Ghost Camera Lite app (free) automatically overlays a Japanese style ghost image on top of every picture you take with your iPhone. This is some crazy stuff and you can find more in their iPhone app catalog.

Startup No. 6:

Japanese print media companies are notorious for being very slow in embracing the web. But Yappa distributes the printed contents of the Sankei Shimbun, one of Nippon’s main daily newspapers, to Japanese iPhone users for free. The iPhone version is available at the same day the newspaper comes out, features all its pages and layout and has been downloaded around 200,000 times since December 12, making it one of the most successful apps in the Japanese iTunes store. Judging from what I have heard, Japan’s conservative publishing industry is not very amused about the Yappa-Sankei Shimbun collaboration.

Cool Japanese geek group:

Some ultra-geeks from Hacker’s Cafe, an interest group of 11 individuals, demonstrated Cyber Star Rally to me. The Cyber Star Rally is basically an outdoor game that involves a person riding a mountain bike trying to collect virtual “stars” (only visible for the player) by using GPS. The Augmented Reality-powered project is weird but also very, very cool (see the video below for more).

Hacker’s Cafe also offers an English blog now, which I can highly recommend (you don’t want to miss stuff like the running web server).

We had a great time (the after-party ended at 4am) and I think the event, which was originally planned as a casual get-together “with a couple of readers”, turned out to be a huge success. Many thanks from Peter Ha and me for coming out. Arigatou gozaimasu!