Escaping the Galapagos: 5 Japanese startups that looked beyond home

galapagos bridge awards
Photo by wikipedia, fun annotations by us

Startups in Japan can loosely be classified into two groups: those who look beyond Japan’s borders, and those who do not. While there’s nothing wrong with a company settling into a local niche market, we can’t help but admire the ambition of some Japanese companies who look at the internet as an enabler that lets them reach global markets. Conversely, there are many services that exist only in Japan that we wish were available for the entire world to use.

We’d like to take a moment to recognize five Japanese companies that have either seen some global success, or have shown exceptional global ambition [1]. And if possible, we hope to bring you more such examples next month too. I’m going to informally dub this the unofficial “Galapagos Bridge Awards”, to recognize those who build international bridges, thus helping to destroy the so-called Galapagos syndrome (used so often to refer to the mobile space). If the name sticks, perhaps I’ll forge some bronze turtle statues in my kiln and pass them out to the winners next time.

Here are the five companies in no particular order:



Japanese photo decoration apps have much international appeal, as the notion of ‘kawaii’ is a very exportable one. And perhaps because of that, Snapeee has mustered popularity in most countries around the Asian region. Targeting female users, it has accumulated more than 4 million users from around the world, with 80% of its users coming from outside its homes market of Japan. So far the service is proving most popular in regions like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. Readers may recall that we mentioned Snapeee a little while back in our Japan’s cutest mobile apps feature, and the company made headlines earlier today when it announced a round of series B funding.

See Snapeee in the SD Japan database



If any company really belongs on this list, it’s probably the food photo app Snapdish. In fact, it was just a few weeks back that we heard the company’s founder, Hidetaka Fukushima, speak about building his business for the global market from the very start. It’s great to see yet another Japanese photo app that’s doing well overseas. If this keeps up, we might have to consider calling it a trend!

See Snapdish in the SD Japan database

Tokyo Otaku Mode


This startup, which focuses on sharing anime, manga, and cosplay related content to international audiences, showed pretty great foresight in betting on Facebook before it really picked up any momentum in Japan. Tokyo Otaku Mode has grown its fan base on the social platform to more than 11 million fans, and is trying to solidify its web content offerings, while serving as a bridge to other Japanese companies struggling for visibility outside of their home market (see Lawson and MTV81).

See Tokyo Otaku Mode in the SD Japan database


Cinnamon CEO Miku Hirano

I swear, when I started making this list it wasn’t nearly as heavy with photo apps as this. But it’s hard not to admire these Japanese founders who decided to set up their company in Singapore, and then hop on down to Vietnam to start their quest to build a photo app that will target the Southeast Asian market to start. That app, Seconds, has already launched on Google Play for Vietnam and Thailand, and the company is considering other Asian regions like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore next. I had a chance to interview Cinnamon’s CEO, Miku Hirano, back in April, so if you’d like to hear more about what she has planned, do check out that conversation.

See Cinnamon in the SD Japan database

Crypton Future Media

Hatsune Miku x Dominos collaboration

This company might not fall under our usual ‘startup umbrella’, but with 30 employees the Sapporo-based media company is a very small one — but few have had such a big global impact. This is the group behind the voice synthesizer application Vocaloid (having acquired Vocaloid 2 from Yamaha), and the Hatsune Miku character which has emerged from Japanese subculture to become a mainstream icon. We’ve recently written about successful Hatsune Miku collaborations with Domino’s Pizza and fashion company Ceno.

You can check out their website over at

See Crypton Future Media in the SD Japan database

Honorable Mention

  1. There are lots of others, of course, but these are just the ones that stood out to us this month. I’m sure many readers will suggest others, and we’re eager to hear them.  ↩