Find out for yourself what you are good at that others don’t.

There is a company called Crono that provides a platform for companies to pay off student loans, easing the burden of loan repayment for borrowers and at the same time supporting the companies’ recruitment needs. The president of the company, Mr. Kou Inron came to Japan when he was an elementary school student and started the business partly due to his own experience of not having many options because of his family’s economic situations. The environment he grew up in was far from privileged. How has he overcome the issues he faced and made his way through?

His memory is rather vague, but he came to Japan when he was in the fourth or fifth grade of the elementary school. That was before China turned into an emerging economy of today. His family followed his father who had come to Japan to find work, and settled in Kawagoe city, Saitama prefecture. His parents worked part time and the family was always in a difficult situation economically.

He did struggle in the beginning with a language barrier, etc. but adapted to the life in Japan relatively early. On the other hand, looking at how his parents struggled, he began to think he needed to excel in something.

That is why he wanted to go to the United States to study, but he had to give up that ambition for financial reasons. Since he had taken out a student loan of almost 8 million yen when he wen to Keiko university, he decided to join a foreign consulting company that paid well considering the repayment.

Later on, with a desire to start a business, he started learning programming on his own. Hoping to change the situation where young people have to give up their ambitions because of their financial situations, he started “Crono” after joining “CAMPFIRE”, a platform for contracted development by individuals and crowdfunding.  In the interview, I asked Mr. Kou what he thought and how he acted at these turning points of his life.

Giving up going to the US for financial reasons

- After you entered elementary school, did you do anything special to study Japanese other than the classes at school?

My homeroom teacher helped me study after the classes. I didn’t join any communities to interact with people with foreign roots outside of the school, and I hang out mostly with my Japanese friends.

- Why did you go back to China?

By the time I got used to living in Japan, I felt the urge to “do something” for some reason. So, I asked my parents if I could study in the US, but I knew my family didn’t have that kind of money. The next think I knew I was set to study in China. I don’t remember how that happened, but I heard it was an unusual case for the school.

- Why did you want to study in the US?

As I got older looking at my parents, I began to realize how difficult a life can be. And I thought I had to excel in something, whatever that is. And at that time, I thought I should study English. So, I remember telling my parents I wanted to study abroad. I must have felt a sense of urgency.

- You said you gave up going to the US for financial reasons, how did you feel about that?

I was disappointed then. Because when I joined a consulting firm, I had a few opportunities to use English and I struggled a lot. If I had studied in the US, my performance would have been better. I wished there had been a system for private companies to financially support students then.

- What did you want to study in China?

My primary objective was to study English, so I couldn’t achieve that, but since I hadn’t been back to China for a while, at least I could brush up my Chinese. Also, the education there was slightly ahead of Japan, so I remember leaning better there, with regard to subjects like English, than when I was in Japan.

My school grades were average in Japan, but when I came back from China, my grades had improved.

- Did you have any idea about your future career path?

When I was moving onto high school, I didn’t have any specific profession I wanted to pursue but I knew I wanted to go to a school with higher academic performance. It was not until I entered university when I had a clearer vision about my future. By the time when I was deciding which university to go to, I had a rough image of the kinds of jobs the graduates from universities of a certain level can get.

- I heard you entered Keio university first and then applied for a student loan there, did you do all the research and application for the loan on your own?

I was studying like crazy to get into the university and I didn’t have the energy to think about how I was going to pay the tuition. But I knew I had to get in, so I just studied. I knew I couldn’t depend on my parents economically, but I thought somehow, I can make it, by working for the tuition after I entered the university or something.

I leaned about the scholarship programs after I entered the university. I hadn’t done much research, but I found a leaflet of Japan Student Services Organization in the materials I received at the entrance ceremony, so I applied for a loan. Now that I think about it, I should have thought more about how I was going to pay off the loan. I wish I had researched and applied for scholarships, for which I wouldn’t have had to worry about how to pay off afterwards.

- Do you think you didn’t have access to such information because of your immigrant background?

I think it is more of a problem with the system on the administration side. This is not only about scholarships. I was paying my pension not knowing I was exempted from it while in school. There are many scholarships and student loans foreign students are not entitled to. I’ve seen people who gave up their ambition to study abroad as exchange students for not being Japanese citizens. In my case, I think I had more opportunities than other people because my status of residence was permanent residency.

Anxiety felt in job hunting about how to pay off the loan

-So, did your parents still work part time then?

Yes, I think my father was juggling about two jobs. My mother was also a part timer.

- Excuse me for saying this, but it must have been quite difficult to make ends meet then. 

We had enough to live, but it was quite tough. My parents could not afford a private tutoring school for me, and I had to pay for study books and cellular phone bills on my own, so I think I was in a situation where I couldn’t do what I liked even if I wanted to.

- Did your parents influence your future vision of yourself?

When I was in high school, I didn’t think too much about the difference between part timers and full-time workers. But I knew my parents were working from dawn till dusk, and not being rich.  and they were not getting paid much for the amount of time they worked. When I was in the upper grades of elementary school, I started wondering how my life would be when I had my own family.

- I think your own experience of growing up in a family with economic difficulties is behind your current business. I heard the amount of money you received during university from the loan was quite large.

Yes, I borrowed almost 8 million yen. I paid about 4.8 million yen for the tuition, and 3 million yen for the living cost. It took 2 and a half hours to travel from Kawagoe to the Shonan campus of Keiko university, so I found a room for myself closer to the campus and I had to pay the rent too.

To be honest, I didn’t think too much about paying off the loan when I borrowed. But when I started looking for a job, I began to think about things like, “what is the starting salary of this company?”, “I have to start repaying the loan soon, how much do I have to pay every month?” In my case, I had to repay 60,000 yen every month, but I didn’t think I could make it if I were to work for a Japanese company.

After graduating from the university, I joined a foreign consulting company that paid relatively well, so I was able to repay the loan, but I couldn’t save money at all like my friends did. I don’t even know if I could have made a living if I had joined a Japanese company. The anxiety I felt during the job hunting is indescribable.

Creating environment where anyone has access to information

- So please tell me about your business. It must have taken quite a courage to start your own business when you still had the loan to repay?

Actually, I wanted to create a business on my own even before I joined the consulting firm. Talking with the alumni of the university and the people at work, I felt that they looked tired despite the salary and their quality of life was not so high.  That is why I wanted to start a business and live a life with more freedom.

- What is the main reason for starting your scholarship related business?

Actually, I had another business before this one. But I have come to think, if I were to spend the same amount of time and effort, I’d rather solve the challenges I have faced myself and make a profit at the same time. So, I sat down and thought it through. And I realized, the biggest challenge for me was the tuition.

Just then, startups that provided supports to solve issues related to student loans and tuition started to emerge in the US, and I thought the business model could work in Japan.

- Have you had issues since you actually started the business?

Of course, things don’t always go as one wishes. The organizational frameworks unique to Japanese schools do exist, and companies are not very proactive in launching scholarships or student loans. The difficult part for me was to find business partners, not users.

- Has the number of scholarships or student loans that immigrant youths are entitled to increased?

Currently many loans are available only for those who have obtained their Japanese Citizenship or permanent residency. I think this will change overtime, also with the large number of international students who live in Japan now taken into consideration.

- Is Japan still closed compared to other countries?

For example, in the US there are many scholarships available with or without citizenship, so yes, I think Japan is rather closed.

- How about Japanese companies? Are they not so proactive in establishing scholarship programs either?

I do feel things have changed for the last few years in part I think due to the shortage of human resources. Japan has opened its border to technical interns and companies are now hiring international students. As a result, our business has seen a rise in business opportunities.

- In terms of hiring immigrant youths, what do you think about Japanese companies?

Before, they said only Japanese can get the job done. But now, I hear many people from Japanese companies saying foreigners rather work more actively than Japanese workers. However, there is a risk that technical interns and international students will go back to their countries one day. In that sense, I think hiring immigrant youths raised in Japan can mitigate such a concern.

- What is the future vision of the business?

Right now, we are still sorting information. But since there will be many people who cannot even reach the information, we will work with high schools and provide the information online. Once the information has become accessible and available to everybody, we want to increase the variety of information as the next step. As there are companies and individuals who are willing to create a scholarship program, we think we can increase the variety by supporting such needs.

Information on scholarships tends to be too difficult to understand even for Japanese people and there is almost no application guideline available in English. We want to change that, and we want to provide information in Chinese and English also.

- We feel there are still not so many benefit type scholarships available.

Well actually there are more than you think. There are 4300 kinds of benefit type scholarships, about 4.3 billion yen in total. When combined with loan type scholarships, there are more than 10000 kinds. There was only one third or one fourth of that, when I was a student. After the Great East Japan Earthquake, the number of scholarships increased significantly along with the donations. So, now there are more options available than before. But the problem is, there are still many people who cannot access that kind of information.

Advantages of being a Chinese citizen.

- I think you adapted to Japan quite early. but have you ever thought about your roots?

There were times I wondered if I was a Chinese or Japanese as a university student, but I never gave it much thought when I was deciding which school to go to or when I was looking for a job.

One of the reasons why I do not change my nationality is because I feel it is advantageous for me not to do that. I have had economic troubles as a student, but now that I am an adult, I can chose whichever country I want to live in, between Japan and China, and my struggles in the past have turned into advantages.  And luckily, as I grew, China has also matured as a country in terms of its economy, presenting more business opportunities. So, the situation is pretty good for me. I think this applies to anyone wherever he or she comes from.

- Lastly, could you give immigrant youths some advice?

My parents being immigrants sometimes was a disadvantage because we were not economically wealthy. But I think it was not as difficult as it seemed and there was always a way, to break through such difficulties. In my case, I strongly think that the time when I was striving to be better at something than others was very important, now that I am an adult. So I think it is important to search your strength, what it is that you have and no one else does. Also, I think being an immigrant youth is an advantage because you have better chance to find your strength in the sense that you have roots in two countries, Japan and the country of your origin.

Interviewing and writing: Hiroshi Yoshida