A new role for media to connect Japanese startups to the world

Part 3: The birth of a new media platform that focuses on solutions rather than problems - An interview with Toshi Maeda, executive editor of J-STORIES (Last in a three-part series)

May 2, 2024
A new role for media to connect Japanese startups to the world
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J-STORIES - Celebrating its second anniversary in April 2022, J-STORIES, Japan's first solution-focused media, has been reporting on Japanese innovations and groundbreaking ideas that could solve global social problems, both in Japan and abroad. This is a three-part interview series with Toshi Maeda, founder and executive editor of J-STORIES. In Part 1, he shared how he got into journalism and his early days as an English-language journalist, and in Part 2, we asked him about his time as a reporter in the U.S. and the development of an app he worked on as an entrepreneur. In part 3, the final part of the series, he will talk about the launch of J-STORIES, his current thoughts, and his vision for the future.
Toshi Maeda is a journalist and media entrepreneur. After spending 15 years as a reporter, producer and correspondent for international media outlets such as The Japan Times, The Associated Press and Reuters, Maeda founded Pacific Bridge Media and Consulting (PBMC), Inc. The Tokyo-based company has been providing comprehensive media and content support for various companies, governments and media organizations. He launched Japan's first solutions-oriented news platform J-STORIES in 2022.
Toshi Maeda is a journalist and media entrepreneur. After spending 15 years as a reporter, producer and correspondent for international media outlets such as The Japan Times, The Associated Press and Reuters, Maeda founded Pacific Bridge Media and Consulting (PBMC), Inc. The Tokyo-based company has been providing comprehensive media and content support for various companies, governments and media organizations. He launched Japan's first solutions-oriented news platform J-STORIES in 2022.

Once again, going back to the roots of journalism

Toshi Maeda speaking in his office in central Tokyo.        Photo: Emi Takahata
Toshi Maeda speaking in his office in central Tokyo.        Photo: Emi Takahata
Q: Previously, we have heard a lot of stories about your journalism career and now we would like to ask you about "J-STORIES," the first solution-specific media in Japan, which you launched in 2022. When you originally started the company, you developed the app as a tool for individuals to send out news on their own, but what kind of change of heart and mind did you go through before it turned into an online news media?
Maeda: When I started my business, I was so focused on business as an entrepreneur that I had abandoned journalism during that time. However, the app incident and other events made me realize that I needed to go back to my origins and what my identity was. I realized that I was someone who was involved in the news. The conclusion I came to was that I was a news person.
Q: Is your origin still journalism?
Maeda: Yes. I thought that rather than helping others spread information, I wanted to and should be reporting and outputting news myself. Without that, I would not be able to define my identity.
Q: But instead of going back to being a reporter for a major media outlet as before, you decided to start your own media outlet.
Maeda: Yes, I did. Starting up a new media outlet is a lot more work than being a reporter because it requires more funding and you are not just doing reporting. However, in today's world where journalism is changing, I thought that in order to create content that is needed by society and to cover what I really want to cover, I needed to start my own media. Although this was a very challenging project, I was very fortunate to be able to ask for the cooperation of my colleagues and people who had helped me when I was a reporter, such as Katsuro Kitamatsu (now Chief Editorial Advisor of J-STORIES), who was my senior at Reuters, and Sayuri Daimon (now Editorial Advisor of J-STORIES), who was my senior at The Japan Times. They were very kind to me and agreed to cooperate with me. They have been very supportive.
Q: When you start a media company, you have to look at it not only as a reporter writing articles, but also as a business, unlike in the past.
Maeda: Thanks to everyone’s support, my main business of helping companies tell their stories in a variety of ways was growing steadily, so I decided to create J-STORIES because I thought it was necessary to launch a media outlet that would be necessary for Japan and the world, something that existing media outlets could not offer, even if it would not generate immediate profit. This was around the end of 2021.

Shifting focus away from reporting on subculture, making "viral" videos  

Source: J-STORIES (Formerly known as Japan Headlines) 
Source: J-STORIES (Formerly known as Japan Headlines) 
Q: J-STORIES specializes in introducing startups and other innovative ideas that lead to solutions to global problems.
Maeda: Actually, in the preparatory stage before that, there was a time when I launched an online media called Japan Headlines to introduce Japanese subcultures and trendy viral topics in English to the rest of the world. I also reported on my own experiences, such as eating ehomaki rolls (sushi rolls) in the middle of Shibuya's Center Street (laughs).
I had about 200,000 followers on Facebook, and I was able to attract a certain amount of viewers overseas, especially in Asia. We also received a good response from overseas media, with Taiwanese media and news agencies using our footage for secondary use.
Q: Before J-STORIES, you had been working on so-called viral online media. What made you change direction from that?
Maeda: After working on the viral online media for a few years, I was left feeling unsatisfied. Of course, I do not think such information is unnecessary or trivial, but I felt that such trending information could be disseminated by anyone, even those with no experience in journalism, and that it was not what I should be doing.
Q: Indeed, there are quite a few online media outlets that deal with Japanese trends and subcultures in both Japanese and English. 
Maeda: When I thought about the future of Japan, I wondered what stories I really needed to tell. In order for this country to become affluent again and break out of its stagnation, new ideas and innovations are needed. As a journalist, I have witnessed in the past that there are many new innovations, ideas, and businesses in Japan, and I am convinced that there still are. What is lacking is the ability to communicate. I thought that I could reinvigorate Japan by helping to connect great ideas and technologies with the rest of the world.

How to get rid of "information gap" on Japan between Japanese and non-Japanese speakers 

Source: J-STORIES 
Source: J-STORIES 
Q: If you wanted to tell Japanese stories overseas, you could have gone back to the news agency you were with before, or to the foreign media. But why did you choose to launch a company of your own?
Maeda: That was certainly one of the option, but one of the reasons is the harsh reality I experienced in the past when foreign media covered Japan. Currently, there are very few foreign media outlets that continuously cover small start-ups in Japan. Over the past few decades, the number of reporters stationed in Japan has been drastically reduced, and of those who remain, those who can specialize in covering the economy are very few. Also, most cover Japan as a whole, including politics, or the entire East Asia region. As a result, the reality is that only major companies that have achieved a certain degree of success can cover the economy, and even then, they are not able to do so due to staffing limitations. The situation is the same for major international news media, and due to staffing issues, I believe that they are only able to cover a few listed Japanese companies on a continuous basis.

Telling Japanese companies: "Mum's NOT the word" when it comes to doing business overseas

Source: PBMC 
Source: PBMC 
Q: I had heard that the foreign media's interest in Japan was declining as Japan's economic power declined and expatriate journalists moved to China and other countries, but in the first place, the media's ability to cover Japan has also declined compared to before.
Maeda: There is also the structural problem of declining interest in Japanese companies among foreign media. Even if a reporter is enthusiastic about covering a certain company, simply introducing the company is not enough to interest foreign editors, and it is common for the article to end up small, or even not be published at all.
As a result of the accumulation of such results, there is a phenomenon in which small startups and local small and medium-sized enterprises have technologies and ideas that are useful worldwide, but they are not communicated to the rest of the world at all.
Q: It is true that there are many innovative ideas and products from Japan that would interest many people overseas, but they are not known to the world because of the lack of awareness among foreign journalists.
Maeda: With the development of the Internet, information is becoming more and more global, but in the news world, only limited information is translated into English, while other information is not translated at all, and the information gap is widening.
In order to break through the current situation, I believe we must start by communicating. Otherwise, local and small companies will end up not seeing the light of day when they have a chance to grow overseas. My motivation was to first create content in English for small startups that have the potential to solve global problems.

Rather than just pointing out problems, shining a light on those offering solutions to social and environmental challenges

Source: PBMC
Source: PBMC
Q: I see, so with J-STORIES, you can send out information about the companies you want to feature in English as much as you like.
Maeda: Yes. In addition to that, there is another reason why I wanted to create my own media outlet which is to shine a positive light on people who are taking on challenges, rather than just covering them.
In the past, what I have done in the world of journalism was to dig up and visualize every "problem" that exists in the world. Making problems visible is and always has been important, but I regret that I have not focused enough on the people who are trying to solve them. As I get older, I have personally come to realize that I don't want to be the person who only points out problems or complains about them. I didn't want to end the rest of my life criticizing those around me; rather, I wanted to live a life where I could be supportive of those around me, where I could rejoice in their successes, and as a human being, I wanted to be that kind of person.
Q: Certainly, a critical spirit is an important aspect of journalism.
I don't mean to deny the importance of a critical spirit in reporting, especially when it comes to power. However, when covering start-ups and other people and companies that are taking on challenges, I don't think it is enough to just criticize them, especially as the values of traditional journalism are changing. I know startups well because I have done them myself, and you can criticize them as much as you want. Even the best startups will be able to do as much as they want if they try to be stingy. But my interest was to create something that would focus more on how much potential it had as a solution. That is why I launched J-STORIES.
When I looked into it, I found that solution-based journalism existed in Germany and the United States as well. I was encouraged to learn that there are media outlets around the world that are already working with the same awareness of the issues as we are. I felt that if that was the case, I had to make sure that I was doing the same in Japan.

Covering entrepreneurs from an entrepreneurial point of view

Q: You came from a start-up background, and because you took on many challenges as an entrepreneur, you were able to understand the hardships of start-ups that you would not have been able to if you had only been a reporter.
Maeda: It is a bit presumptuous of me to say that I understand, but I always want to be as close as possible to the people being interviewed and think about what I and the media can do to bridge the gap with the rest of the world, rather than just listening to their stories and writing articles about them. For example, we are not only trying to increase page views as an online media, but also to approach overseas venture capitalists and media people who are interested in their technology and attempt to build bridges with them, and I would like to strengthen these efforts. We would like to strengthen our efforts in this area.
Q: Specifically, what is J-STORIES doing, and what do you want to strengthen?
Maeda: Introducing companies to venture capitalists is an area we still need to work on, but we have met with the management of several venture capital firms that are investing in Japan and introduced them to companies we have featured on J-STORIES.
In addition to venture capitalists, we have also received comments from international NGOs and overseas engineers who saw the article in J-STORIES, saying, "This technology is wonderful and we want to use it overseas as well. We also receive requests from international NGOs and overseas engineers who have seen the articles in J-STORIES to introduce startups mentioned in the articles, and we actually connect Japanese companies with overseas organizations.

Connecting Japan-based startups with overseas investors 

Photo Courtesy of Toshi Maeda
Photo Courtesy of Toshi Maeda
Q: So it’s not like you just publish an article and call it a day. Do you also follow up afterwards?
Maeda: It is still early days, but we are very conscious of this. This is something that a venture capitalist once told me. From their point of view, they are interested in Japanese companies and start-ups, but they don't know who to contact as a contact person. On the other hand, there are also foreign venture capitalists who wish to sell more to Japan. As a future challenge for us, we would like to take more concrete actions, such as not only sending information on Japanese startups overseas, but also communicating information from overseas VCs to startups in Japan, providing content and supporting communication to serve as a bridge between the two sides.
Q: What do you mean by concrete actions?
Maeda: The next step is a database of startups. This is not a numerical database, but a database of non-financial information, such as the real faces and stories of entrepreneurs, as well as a database of overseas venture capitalists.
We also think it would be useful to be able to use the database to immediately detect which startups have what kind of solution to a major problem in the world. For example, when a drought occurs in a country, the database could instantly detect a list of technologies and services that are useful for water shortages, and the local authorities, NGOs, engineers, etc. working to solve the problem could immediately contact the key people at the startup. This is how we envision it. In the mid- to long-term, we would like to provide communication and legal support until the necessary materials and technology transactions are concluded. This is a bit ambitious, but the idea is to build on top of the current "media" an online "trading company" that is linked to the world news and is small and efficient.
This is a very important part of our next business model, and it is very important to prioritize the development of our services in this area. First of all, we are currently in the process of building a database.

J-STORIES's inaugural global startup event, Japan Global Innovators' Forum (JGIF), was held in Tokyo in March 2024 in partnership with Mainichi Future Creation Lab and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Q: It will soon be two years since you started J-STORIES as a media outlet. How do you feel about its accomplishments so far?
Maeda: We are communicating information about Japanese startups in English to the rest of the world, especially to parties and potential supporters who are trying to solve various problems with pinpoint accuracy - this year (2023), the number of people who share this vision of ours has increased greatly. We have received a lot of encouragement and endorsement, making this a very happy year for us. For example, since this summer, we have been given the opportunity to regularly introduce J-STORIES articles in J-WAVE's program "JAM THE PLANET".
On March 15, 2014, we co-hosted an event to support Japanese startups to expand their business overseas by connecting Japan and overseas online. In addition, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government will participate in the event as a partner and will provide us with the Tokyo Innovation Base, a venue for startup events operated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in Yurakucho. The Mainichi Newspapers and the Economic and Commercial Office of the Embassy of Spain are also supporting the event. We are very pleased that more and more partners are supporting the direction J-STORIES is heading and attempting to take.
At the March event, we aim to provide a forum for Japanese entrepreneurs and overseas VCs to meet and exchange ideas, and to receive direct feedback from overseas investors and media on the potential of each of the participating Japanese startups that are interested in expanding their business overseas.

Building on the "Japan brand" and trust overseas 

Source: PBMC
Source: PBMC
Q: I understand your vision of J -STORIES growing bigger and bigger and not stopping at just posting news. Finally, do you have any message for our readers, especially for entrepreneurs who would like to support them through J-STORIES?
Maeda: I would like to say thank you to our readers, and we appreciate your feedback on the article very much, whether it's positive or negative.
Also, if I could give some advice to start-up business owners, it would be to look overseas, not just Japan. I meet many people from overseas in the course of my work, and I am always surprised at the high regard they have for Japanese companies and Japan itself. They have a much stronger impression of the Japanese brand than we realize, as our predecessors have worked hard to build trust around the world. There are high expectations from overseas venture capitalists for Japan's future as a unicorn.
Q: There may be many companies that would like to expand overseas, but not everyone may not be able to communicate in English unlike you.
Maeda: I hope that they will not be intimidated and go overseas as much as possible. In the 60's and 70's, Japanese companies were going overseas at a tremendous pace and were boldly doing business even though their English skills had room for improvement. We should regain that kind of spirit and show the world Japan's potential. Japan's population continues to decline rapidly, but there is a need for various Japanese technologies overseas, so there is a market overseas as well.
For example, when I talk with people in South America, they sometimes say to me, "Foreign companies are coming to South America one after another, and various projects are being promoted there, but we really wanted Japanese companies to come here. Since the Japanese companies would not come, we had no choice but to let companies from other countries proceed, but as a result, there have been a lot of troubles, with various disputes and eventual exploitation”. He said that Japanese companies are trusted among local people, and in fact, all local people want to work with Japanese people.
In this day and age, you can easily approach foreign countries online. As a communication tool, there are times when English presentations are needed even online, and we always support the production of such tools. Therefore, we urge you to boldly communicate with people overseas, challenge yourself, and expand your business overseas as well. We would be happy if J-STORIES can serve as a catalyst for such a move.
Translation and editing by Chika Osaka
Top page photo courtesy of Toshi Maeda
For inquiries about this article, please contact jstories@pacificbridge.jp
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