Considered to have started in 869 AD, the Gion Matsuri is one of Japan’s most famous annual festivals. This year, he embraced the digital world.
For the 2022 event in July, an interactive online map has been made available to show where and when to see the 34 huge ornate floats that paraded through Kyoto city on two separate days.
Using GPS, he showed the location of each float. And you can also use the map to find your friends and chat with them. Additionally, if you clicked on a building or street, you could read its story in Japanese or English.
The person behind the technology is Machi Takahashi, chairman and co-CEO of Kyoto-based digital mapping company Stroly. A mother of two children, she is one of the few female entrepreneurs in a country where the start-up scene is still very much dominated by men.
“I was surprised that [the festival organisers] would let us scan their map, because I thought these traditional cultural holidays were quite conservative,” she says.
The website-based digital map can be accessed by scanning a QR code. Hideo Yoshii, who is in charge of looking after one of the larger floats, says Stroly might have been put off if he just wanted to put QR code stickers or signs on the walls.
Instead, Stroly created a pretty postcard that had not only the QR code printed on it, but also the design of a traditional Japanese card. This completed the atmosphere of the ancient event and was also used as the design for the digital map made by Stroly.
“Before the pandemic, we distributed a leaflet, but tourists had difficulty getting around the city,” said a spokeswoman for the city’s tourism department.
“By using Stroly’s digital map, the police officers on the ground have found it much easier to explain to visitors where to go. We have also managed to cut our paper waste by a third,” she adds. .
The idea of starting a digital map making business came to Ms. Takahashi and her husband and co-founder Toru when they were both still working at the Kyoto-based ATR technology research institute. He is Chairman and Co-CEO of Stroly.
One of their first clients was the film industry theme park Toei Kyoto Studio Park in 2010.
“We asked Mr. and Mrs. Takahashi to create a Nintendo DS game,” says Norihiro Yamaguchi, who was the boss of Toei Kyoto Studio Park at the time.
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The GPS-based map and game the Takahashis produced involved park visitors having to locate seven actors playing on-screen villains.
Six years later, the Takahashis left the research institute to start Stroly as their own company, with the theme park remaining one of its main customers.
“Thanks to smartphones that allow users to access the Stroly map in different languages, visitors can know the details of our shows and facilities,” said a spokesperson for the park.
Stroly has now produced nearly 10,000 interactive digital maps, including one highlighting the vibrant nightlife of central Tokyo’s bustling Shinjuku district. This was commissioned by the government of the capital.
Other maps show where to find the best cheese in the Tokachi dairy region of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, as well as work for customers outside of Japan.
For members of the public, Stroly’s maps are free to use. Instead, it makes its money by charging its customers, mostly in tourism and transport, annual subscriptions.
“When I first started thinking about starting my own business in 2015, there were no women in this field of information technology, so I had to find my way in this community,” says Ms. Takahashi.
“I had to contact [US-based Japanese entrepreneur] Ari Horie of the Women’s Startup Lab in Silicon Valley, instead of [anyone] in Japan, to help me.”
Stroly was then selected as one of the first start-ups to be mentored by a new regional business support agency called Osaka Innovation Hub.
It was there that Ms Takahashi managed to secure funding from Japanese investment bank Daiwa Securities. The company also later received money from Kyoto City’s start-up fund.
The difficulty faced by female entrepreneurs is not unique to Japan. Even in the United States, only 2% of venture capital, which invests in new start-ups, went to women last year.
In a Vogue magazine article last month announcing she was ‘getting away from tennis’, American sports star Serena Williams said that was part of the reason she started her own investment fund , Serena Ventures.
“Sometimes things look the same,” Williams wrote. “Men are writing these big checks to each other, and for us to change that, more people who look like me need to be in this position, giving money back to each other.”
Ms. Takahashi agrees. “Decision-making roles are also mostly [held by] Men. I think they just can’t understand the issues and issues being addressed by women entrepreneurs,” she says.
The Japanese government had wanted to use the five years from 2015 to 2020 to almost triple the proportion of female managers in the country to reach 30% of the total. However, the current level is only 15%, compared to a global average of 31%.
And according to the country’s Financial Services Agency, less than 1% of Japanese venture capital firms are led by women.
Kathy Matsui runs one such company, MPower Partners, which she recently set up in Tokyo with two partners, Yumiko Murakami and Seki Miwa. A former vice president of investment bank Goldman Sachs Japan, Ms Matsui is best known for her “womenomics” campaign since the 1990s, which encouraged the Japanese government to improve its gender ratio in business.
“I would say the vast majority of entrepreneurs and founders we’ve met so far here in Japan are male,” she says.
“But when you think of start-ups, they’re trying to use innovation to create disruptive businesses, life-changing technologies. What if you exclude half the population from your potential talent pool as a start-up -up, you’re already trying to win a marathon on one leg rather than two.”
Back in Kyoto, Ms. Takahashi’s success in finding a gap in the digital tourism market may be an exception to the male-dominated rule. There’s no denying that it’s still an uphill battle to create greater equality within the Japanese workforce.
So, does she have any advice for young entrepreneurs, and women in particular?
“Dive into the ecosystem,” she says. “It’s very easy to get to know someone in the field, and once you know someone, that’s a great network you need to grow your business.”
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