Bitcoin gets official blessing in Japan

The broader fintech sector is struggling even as cryptocurrencies take off.

Entrepreneurs do not often welcome regulation. For Japanese cryptocurrency start-ups, however, a framework put in place by the country’s financial authorities has been a boon.

Rules announced this year by the Financial Services Agency allow people to pay for goods and services with bitcoin and require cryptocurrency exchanges or remittance operators to be licensed and subject to annual audits. These have given bitcoin official approval.

“The Japanese have felt that cryptocurrencies are a scary thing but trading volumes have increased as many now see it as trustworthy thanks to government approval,” says Yusuke Otsuka, chief operating officer at Coincheck, a bitcoin exchange.

The FSA issued operating licences to 11 bitcoin exchanges late last month. Coincheck has applied for a licence and is hoping to receive approval next month, Mr Otsuka says.

The new digital currency rules come as other governments clamp down on cryptocurrencies. China, for instance, has banned companies from issuing their own virtual currencies and is cracking down on cryptocurrency exchanges.

However, for Japan, cryptocurrencies sit within the realm of fintech. The government and banking leaders hope that this sector’s businesses — ranging from artificial intelligence-led investment advisory groups to cloud data storage — will free up cash sitting in bank deposits and reignite the economy.

There has been domestic hand-wringing over the investment going into fintech ventures in Japan compared with that in other developed countries. Japan’s fintech sector, seen as a laggard, had investments of $65m in 2015. This compares with $12bn in the US, $974m in the UK and $69m in Singapore, according to consultants Accenture.

“We’re hoping that fintech will change economic and corporate activity,” says Takuya Fukumoto, director of industrial finance in the economy, trade and industry ministry. The ministry set out the government’s vision in August, calling for an increase in cashless consumer payments, digitising back-office functions and new technologies to enhance cash flow between companies.

Japanese banks, worried that fintech ventures will become mainstream players, are trying to gain exposure to new technologies by either creating a business or investing in a start-up.

Kazuhisa Shibayama, founder and chief executive of WealthNavi, a “robo-advisory” company that offers customers investment advice provided by AI, has been helped by the government’s push for fintech businesses.

When he started his company two years ago, the financial technology sector was not as well known as today.

“I was only told by venture capital investors after I started that my company was part of the fintech sector and that it was what people described as ‘robo-advisory’,” says Mr Shibayama.

He points out that for many fintech entrepreneurs, technology is only a tool to offer users better services at a cheaper price.

Many feel that unlike Japan’s manufacturing sector, where companies introduced the notion of kaizen, or continual improvement, financial services might have been left behind.

Anecdotally, Mr Shibayama says, the new enthusiasm for fintech among businesses and investors has led to more venture capital firms looking for investments.

However, fintech entrepreneurs and start-ups are scarce, he adds, with young people still choosing the traditional route of looking for jobs in established companies.
The fintech arena also struggles to attract many of Japan’s IT engineers and programmers, who tend to enter the country’s thriving gaming sector.
While some may end up in financial services, the cultural gap between the two industries can be hard to bridge.