Hacking meets Zen in Japan's Ancient Capital

 
2015/09/10

Innovation in a Historical City

I believe a city with a long history has inherent advantages, such as unique culture, abundant heritage sites and deep-rooted local communities.

Some people believe such locations are well-suited for business innovation. One such place is the ancient city of Kamakura, located 50 km south of Tokyo.

Recent movements in this city, once Japan's ancient capital, have made Kamakura more attractive for start-ups.

From a hackathon workshop housed in a Buddhist temple called “Zen Hack” to a growing crowdfunding platform “IIKUNI”—big things are happening in the area dubbed “Kamacon Valley.”

Kamacon Valley

Kamacon Valley (or Kamacon) is a portmanteau of Kamakura and Silicon Valley, an apt name as most of the organizations members work in the IT industry, and there are high hopes the next big start-up will be born here.

One of Kamacon’s missions is to “Support local people who love Kamakura through the power of information technology.” Although the founders stress that the group consists of people from a diverse range of organizations—not just IT workers.

As of August 2015, Kamacon has approximately 150 members. The membership fee is a reasonable 1000 yen and non members can join meetings if they pay 1000 yen a time.

As there are so many IT firms and related businesses in Tokyo, why do people choose to move out of the city?

Some of Kamacon's members say that Kamakura has the best mix of nature and culture. In short they can enjoy a good work-life balance, something very rare in Tokyo.

Others claim Kamakura has good “qi,” or natural energy. Traditionally many of Japan's creative classes gathered in Kamakura. So it may true that Kamakura has some magical powers to attract creative minded-people.

Meetings at Kamacon

At Kamacon, members propose ideas and produce action plans to improve the quality of lives of local people.

Speed and sense of ownership are the name of the game, something which is quite reminiscent of a start-up venture.

There are both virtual and real communities here, each stimulate the other to produce and refine ideas, which are later finalized in real-world group meetings.

Kamacon's founders decided that the best way forward for an organization such as this is through collaboration, not competition.

Most members are volunteers but some people do not understand why members would work so hard without pay.

One Kamacon member answered: “We’re so happy to join this group, because it’s fun and exciting to be part of a community willing to change and improve the local environment and lives of local people.”

This approach is built on consensus-based decision making, something traditionally valued in Japanese culture.

However, in rapidly changing environment such as an IT start-up, constantly trying to reach a group decision can quickly render your ideas outdated. So, if some members think it’s worth making progress alone then they will just start without the rest of the group.

It’s this trial and error approach that is essential in changing business environments, particularly in the IT industry.

Zen Hackathon

One of the most interesting and perhaps peculiar events held by Kamacon is the “Zen Hack.” A combination of Zen Buddhism and a hackathon. A hackathon is an event in which computer programmers, designers, and other IT pros, collaborate on intensive software projects.

Hackathons traditionally take place on university campuses or large exhibition halls and last between 24 hours and several days. Often participants are fueled by copious amounts of energy drinks and junk food.

Not at Zen Hack. All participants follow the rigorous rules of the 13th century Kencho-ji temple—the oldest Zen temple in Japan.

All hackers must stay overnight, sleep in communal “tatami” mat rooms and eat “shoujinnryouri” vegetarian dishes. Participants must go to bed at 9 p.m. and wake at 4 a.m. sharp. After practicing Zen meditation, they are ready to begin the hackathon.

Mr. Imamura, organizer of Zen Hack explains:

“From ancient times, changes and societal shifts have been the norm here. Therefore Kamakura, I believe, has a special power to move and change people.”

Mr. Takai, a monk at Kencho-ji, agrees: “Kamakura's culture lies in the nature of continuous change.”

Sounds like the perfect conditions for an IT start-up.

Crowdfunding Project: IIKUNI

Mr. Yanasawa, a Kamacon co-founder, is the president of local IT firm Kayaku. He introduced me to one of his current Zen Hack projects, a safety campaign dubbed: “Run to a higher place when an earthquake hits.”

Its purpose is simple: to reduce the number of earthquake victims by increasing awareness, and educating people how to escape to safety.

This project is fitting as the epicenter of the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake struck 80km offshore from Kamakura.

Ninety two years has passed since then and the memory of the natural disaster has faded, but it’s quite possible that another big earthquake will hit the area sometime soon.

Kamacon has also started crowdfunding using a new platform called “IIKUNI.” The name (meaning 1192 in Japanese) refers to the year when Kamakura was the capital of Japan.

One of IIKUNI's aims is to raise 2.9 million yen to support the earthquake safety campaign.

Anybody who would like to join and support the project can donate as little as 3000 yen. Donors can receive items such as Patagonia T-shirts, emergency food, eco-bags and more.

I thought this was a worthwhile project, so I decided to do my bit and chip in.

Kamacon's Mission

Kamacon’s Mission isn't limited to information technology. Organizers say as long as activities can improve the local economy and the quality of life of local people they are welcome.

Interest in the area has picked up recently with visitors coming not only from Japan, but across Asia as more people hear about Kamacon and Zen Hack.

It is an exciting time to be a hacker in Japan's quiet ancient capital.

For more information on Kamacon visit: http://kamacon.com/
Zen Hack: http://www.zenhack.jp/
Hirofumi Matsubayashi
AUTHOR
Hirofumi Matsubayashi
GLOBIS faculty

Mr. Matsubayashi worked at a chemical agent manufacturing company and was engaged in international trade and sales. After completing his MBA program at the University of Michigan, he joined Johnson Professional where he was in charge of development of mid and long-term corporate strategy and of coordination of global divisions.

Mr. Matsubayashi is now a faculty member at GLOBIS, teaching Marketing and Strategy. He also gives marketing and strategy advice to municipal government officials, consulting services, as well as business seminars to neighboring countries like Cambodia upon the request of their local government related agencies. In addition he is a USEN personality at Business Book Radio, interviewing numerous guests.

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