Philippe Khin on Cracking Japan’s PR Visa in 4 Years, Founding SewaYou, and Much More
“Working hard makes you fearless.”
Philippe Khin, at 25, cracked Japan’s permanent residence visa in 4 years—which usually takes 10 years to obtain. How did he do it? And perhaps more importantly, why did he shape his early career around getting Japan’s permanent residence visa (PR visa)?
In this interview, Philippe Khin busts some misconceptions about the PR visa, talks with us about his startup, SewaYou, a language-buddy-finding app, the future plans he has for it, and shares some beautifully articulated advice for anyone else thinking of taking the leap to strike out on their own.
[Note: This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.]
Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s dive right in because I have many questions for you. First, could you tell us something about yourself and your personal background? For instance, what initially brought you to Japan?
PHILIPPE KHIN: Sure, thanks for having me! My name is Philippe, and I was born in Cambodia, and I grew up in France, and went to France when I was 7 years old. So I am currently 25, almost 26. And I majored in Telecommunications back in university, studying Network and Hardware but also Computer Science.
Currently, I live in Tokyo, and I have been living here for 4 years. But what brought me to Japan was the fascination with the Japanese language itself. Like a lot of people know, Japanese media was kind of exported abroad, so I used to watch Japanese drama and anime and all of that.
At first, actually, we had the French version for those media, but then one day I could not find the French version for an episode of anime, and I was forced to watch the Japanese version with the subtitles and that was the first-time I heard Japanese, and it was like wow! The language itself sounded so melodic and the work of the voice actors that are called seiyuu were really good, so I decided to dive a little bit more into the Japanese language itself. I started binge watching all the media like Japanese songs, drama, and all, and that’s what brought me to the culture.
Back in university, I had the opportunity to do 1 year of exchange with Kobe University, so that was the time when I really got into the culture and after that I did an internship for 6 months in a Japanese company, and I decided to work here. So that’s what brought me here.
Going back a little bit to what you said about loving Japanese drama and anime, was there a favorite thing you watched that you would like to share with our readers?
PHILIPPE: I really liked Gin-tama (銀魂). It's a Japanese anime that’s very funny. Most of the jokes I couldn’t understand because it refers to Japanese comedies and references I couldn’t catch, but most of the time it was very funny.
Thank you! I’ll link to it here. Next question, so, I followed you on LinkedIn and YouTube, but your career journey has been quite interesting because it seems you’ve made deliberate career choices with a very particular goal in mind, that of permanent residency in Japan. But is this assumption correct?
PHILIPPE: Yes! So, actually from day 1 when I came to Tokyo, I wanted to build something on my own, like a business or a startup, and so after I came to Japan, I didn’t know anything about permanent residency, but I wanted to really build my startup so bad.
So when I came to Japan, I first worked in an insurance company, as a full-stack engineer, developing chatbots and web applications for a year and a half. And back then I already started to build SewaYou, my startup.
After work, I worked on SewaYou and then, after 1 year and a half when I had the product ready, I decided to quit, kind of cold turkey. Not really well planned but I knew that I wanted to get the business manager visa, which is really hard to get because there are two main conditions: the first one is to get 5 million yen in capital or hire two Japanese or permanent residence employees. The second one is to have a physical office. At that time, I didn’t fulfill those two requirements, and I just quit without having much physical preparation and failed to get that business manager visa.
I could have gotten some kind of family loan, but I didn’t want to go that path. So I decided to freelance a little bit while working on SewaYou on the side. But then I discovered there's a system based on points where you can shortcut that 10 years classical period where you can get the permanent residency. So I decided to go back to the corporate world. So first I started to work at a startup for 7 months and then I quit because I had another offer from Microsoft directly. And then I worked at Microsoft for a year and half again and I just quit again. So now I'm working full time on my app, SewaYou.
So throughout the various changes, as you were faced with different offers, it was always like, “Will this bring me closer to that goal of getting that permanent residency visa or not?” Was that kind of how you made your career decisions?
PHILIPPE: Yeah, exactly, so every move was calculated. Actually, back then, I already had more than 70 points when I worked at my startup company, the first company I worked for 7 months. But then, when you get 70 points, you need to wait 3 years in order to be able to apply for permanent residency. But 3 years was so long. [laughs] The wait was like forever, so I decided to kind of chase the points because you can get different points based on different criteria, such as your age and your Japanese proficiency. But mainly I was chasing the criteria based on the salary and that’s why I was able to get 80 points by changing jobs and that brought me to only 1 year instead of 3 to get the permanent residency.
That’s really an amazing feat. This goes into our next question here. Like you mentioned, it usually takes 10 years instead of the 4 that you did. I'm Japanese and I have never had to go through the application process, but [I] have worked on an article for our readers explaining the process and giving them resources and stuff like that, so I sort of understand the pain that people go through trying to get this—it's very involved and I was wondering if you have any tips that you would like to share with our readers about getting it, just anything about the experience that might help others who are right now thinking about getting the permanent residence visa themselves.
PHILIPPE: Sure. First of all, the entire process, I did it by myself. So you don’t need a lawyer. I also have a friend of mine who got the permanent residency in 4 years, too. He is French and he did his exchange year at Kobe University with me as well. We did everything by ourselves without a lawyer. The hardest part is just gathering all the tax-related documents and being sure that you didn’t miss any payments for those taxes and also writing a reason letter.
The reason letter is where you can explain in free format why you want that permanent residency. Basically, there are 3 points to highlight here: you should include what you have been doing since you’ve come to Japan, what's your current situation, and also why you want that permanent residency (PR).
In my reason letter, I wrote that I want the freedom to work on my startup. Because when you don’t have a PR visa you are forced to stay employed in a company whereas I wanted to build a legal entity later in the future for SewaYou. I really wanted the PR visa for that, so that I don’t have to be employed somewhere in order to work fulltime on my app. So I just wrote honestly in my letter, and then after 4 months I got a positive response from Immigrations, and here I am. I quit my job.
That’s so incredible. It sounds like you’ve done everything perfectly, like the whole application was perfect, but by any chance did you make any mistakes along the way that you would like to warn people about like “Definitely don’t do that...”
PHILIPPE: Basically, I went through the point system path. Back then, before I joined my startup company and worked there for 7 months, I aimed for 80 points. Among those points there's 1 criterion, this criterion states that if you work for a small- or medium-sized company that invests more than 3 percent of their revenue into research and development, then you can get 5 points.
That was the point that brought me from 75 to 80. But after bringing the documents to prove that we are indeed investing more than 3 percent into R&D to the Immigrations office, I got refused. It seems like the R&D that the Immigrations office wants is more research and development. In Japanese, they call it kenkyu, but we make software, so it wasn’t really considered scientific kenkyu. So, those 5 points were refused. That kind of made me stuck in a situation where I had only planned to work for 1 year but I had to work for 3 years. So my tip here is, make sure you get those points and not all points are granted on paper.
For example, there's a criterion where you can get points if you have a published patent. So be sure you can actually get those 5 or 10 points from those criteria before you actually jump into that assumption.
Right, and do that before you quit your job or make a career move. Very good, that’s a great point. Before we move on to talking about SewaYou, your startup, is there anything else you want to say regarding the PR visa? Any last words about your journey to get it?
PHILIPPE: Sure, first, read the TokyoMate article about how to get your PR. That’s a good starting point. All the information is there like the point system and criteria so you can go ahead and check it out.
Just know it takes time. It takes time but theoretically you can get your PR in 1 year and 4 months. Because it’s a point system and based on points. On day 1, if you come to Japan with 80 points already, it assumes that in 1 year you will be eligible to apply for permanent residency. And the official waiting time--the shortest is 4 months. So theoretically, you can get your PR in 1 year and 4 months.
That was something else I was going to ask you: What are the misconceptions that people who come to Japan have about the PR visa? But that's probably a large misconception people have that it will take so long but in reality, if you come to Japan with 80 points then it's only 1 year and 4 months, as you’ve said.
PHILIPPE: So, I don’t have a friend who got it in 1 year and 4 months, but I do know someone who came to Japan with 70 points. For example, they came to Japan with points based on all the criteria, such as their university and all that. So, they came to Japan and could just apply for either 3 years or 1 year. So, you don’t need to wait 5 or 10 years to get your PR.
Maybe the second myth: you don’t need a lawyer. Basically, everything can be done by yourself. It takes a little bit of time and preparation but at the end of the day, you will be happy.
But did it help that... I assume you can read Japanese a little bit? It helps if you can read Japanese, right?
PHILIPPE: I'm a little biased toward that actually. It actually requires a little bit of Japanese proficiency. Because even when you go to pick your documents at the tax office, you still need to communicate with the staff in Japanese. 100 percent in Japanese. So yeah, indeed, you can do it by yourself if you can speak fluent Japanese. Good point.
Remarkable story. So now let’s talk about SewaYou. Perhaps you can explain its mission and its goal.
PHILIPPE: So I've been building, by myself, a language app called SewaYou. SewaYou’s mission is to help people improve their language skills through real-life practice because I believe nothing can replace an in-person experience.
Especially since COVID hit and people haven’t been able to get together or meet new people, I believe that bringing that human touch in our society—like we all have online tools where we can learn and practice language—but I believe that one-to-one real-life communication is important to master because even when you talk online you cannot emulate the background noise you hear in a coffee shop that kind of forces you to increase or lower the volume when you speak, the eye contact when you're with someone, the body language, all the gestures and all of that. I believe that nothing can replace that. And I just want to make it a little bit easier to find a language partner to practice language in real life, one-on-one.
For example, today, after you finish work at 5 or 6 and you have 1 hour of spare time before going back home. With my app, you can quickly find someone nearby, grab a coffee, practice for 1 hour and then go back home. That’s kind of the vision that I have for SewaYou.
Wow, that’s really amazing. Where did this idea come from?
PHILIPPE: The first time I came to Japan, I helped friends, French or foreigner friends, to find either a house or get their mobile account open, bank account, mobile lines, and all of that. And when I helped them to do that, I also practiced my Japanese.
Back then I had already got my JLPT1, but I still had a lot of things to learn from the language. When you look for a house, there are a lot of technical words that I didn’t know back then and by helping them to do that, I kind of practiced the language myself, too.
So, I had that idea to connect foreigners in Japan who need help in Japan with Japanese people who actually want to practice the foreign language. That’s why I created SewaYou. The name comes from the Japanese word osewa = help and assist, and You, so anata. So it means “help/assist you.” But then I kind of pivoted it to just a pure language exchange app in real life.
That’s such a good idea. I can definitely see so many people using it, of course, to learn a language. But to hear that it started with wanting to help people who might need that language assistance—that’s very interesting. At present, what are you focused on developing with SewaYou? Perhaps you can tell us what stage the startup is at right now.
PHILIPPE: Basically, on SewaYou, you can either use it purely just online, like talking with people around the world, or you also can find people nearby in your neighborhood, connect with them, and then meet up somewhere like a coffee shop. The next feature or big vision for SewaYou is to build a place where you can use the app and also find nearby coffee shops.
I, myself, love going to coffee because I almost spend every day working in coffee shops, and I really like that. And I have found that a lot of local coffee shops are really cozy and good to stay in. But those shops are not really well-known. So what I want to do with SewaYou is to be able to list them on the app, so if you find someone, between you and that person, maybe you can find a coffee shop nearby so you can go there, have a chat, grab coffee, and practice the language. Instead of “Where should we meet?” or “Let's just go to Starbucks.” Even though I love Starbucks, I’d like to help the local community and help them come back to life and that is what I want to implement at SewaYou as well.
In the future, I want to add features, like if you go to the coffee shop that’s listed on SewaYou you can check in and maybe get a discount, so that it's kind of like a win-win for both the practitioner but also the coffee shop owners. Promote the local community.
That’s so exciting. Are you in talks with any coffee shops right now to start or is it still very much in the idea stage?
PHILIPPE: It takes a lot of time to do that. After quitting my job, I’ve mainly focused on trying to wrap my head around the technical parts, paying off my technical debt, and all of that. So I haven't talked to coffee shop owners yet, but what I plan to do, instead of listing manually those shops on SewaYou, is just to use something like Google Places’ API, so it can automatically list those coffee shops between you and your language partner so you can easily find someone, but then in the future maybe something like sponsor listings, and all of that, too.
Very, very interesting. Do you plan to look for outside investment or will you keep it self-funded?
PHILIPPE: So, I've worked on SewaYou for 4 years just by myself on the side and on weekends. It took me 4 years to get the app to what it is today. It has a few thousand users and a few hundred daily active users.
I didn't have the time to work on it full time yet for a long period of time. There's a saying that goes, “In the startup world, either you grow fast or you die.” Especially this kind of app that is based on the Network Effect. So the more people you have on the network, the more valuable the network and the app will become. But the opposite is also true: the less people you have on the app, people will come and see there is no one, and so they will quit and churn.
It is hard to grow quickly without capital, but I still want to experiment with that self-funded path for a while, maybe for 1 year. Because the more I read about it, the more I feel that more and more people become independent and just get profitable with their own business by self-funding. But I also read that these days access to capital is really cheap and if you can access capital, just to do it because startups are hard work. So I'm thinking, maybe just for 1 year, experiment with the self-funded path and then get to the investment world. I still want to get myself out there to attract potential investors who really believe in the idea of SewaYou and its execution instead of me just seeking for investors. So I want to be more present online so that I can attract the right investors.
So yeah, if you are listening and you want to be a part of this journey just send me an e-mail!
Yes, indeed! We will have a link to where you can find Philippe Khin at the end of our article, so stay tuned. In the meantime, we have a couple more questions here, one that is kind of along the lines of this app that you're developing: what's the best advice you’ve received when it comes to language learning? Because I know that you speak English, and you speak Japanese, you went to school in France, so you must speak French. How many languages do you speak?
PHILIPPE: [Laughs] Fluently 4. Cambodian, French, English, and Japanese. I have also started to learn a little bit of Chinese as my girlfriend is Chinese.
The best advice I’ve ever received regarding learning languages is just to be consistent and keep practicing. It feels easy to say you will practice, but sometimes it’s really hard to keep the motivation high so you need to find your goal. Like, what do you want to do with learning that language? For example, I was learning Japanese because I wanted to come to Japan to experience life here and find a job here.
Maybe if I can give advice on that is to be resourceful. Because a lot of people think that you need to be in a good environment to learn the language, like you need to come to Japan, you need to have a classroom, you need to have a private sensei, but it is not that.
Because if you wait to be served on a silver plate, you won’t be resourceful and grabby where you really want to learn the language. For me, studying a language happens 24/7. Back then, when I woke up, I go to the toilet, and I would check my phone—it was full of Japanese because I changed my phone to Japanese language [settings]. I surrounded my environment with Japanese. I learned Japanese, I listened to Japanese, I breathed Japanese, and ate Japanese. So just be resourceful so that you can be really into that language and be immersed in the language instead of just waiting for someone to teach you.
I remember, back when I was studying Japanese, I didn’t have native partners. I just talked with my French buddy who was also learning Japanese, on our way to University. We would talk in Japanese, even though we are French. It isn’t required to have a native language partner or a language buddy to be able to start studying. So just be resourceful.
Such good tips. Also, I noticed that SewaYou has a blog as well where you have many great language learning resource articles, too. So we will link to that. Very worth checking out for everyone. Switching topics again, just a little bit, being a founder and a business owner here in Japan I’m sure has its fair share of challenges. What would you say are the challenges you’ve faced in Japan and how have you responded to them?
PHILIPPE: I wish I could say it’s all the legal stuff. But unfortunately SewaYou is not a legal entity yet. So I don’t have to deal with all the paperwork yet, but I assume that in the close future it will become a pain point. But for now, I don’t need to deal with the legal stuff.
The other pain point, maybe not directly related to being in Japan, but it’s about being a solo founder, so I work on SewaYou by myself. There’s a lot of stuff to deal with. Just with the technical parts, because I am a software engineer, I am kind of biased toward making more features, making the app more beautiful, and fast and all of that, neglecting a little bit the marketing and the promotion part as well. It’s really hard to be a solo founder, without capital as well, where you need to handle everything by yourself.
One thing related to being in Japan: I started SewaYou and have been trying to grow the community members from Tokyo and Japan, and one thing I noticed is that Japanese members, for example, some people like the app, sometimes I message them to ask if they can leave a quick review so it can help the app to gain visibility—and I do that for all of the users as well—but Japanese are the ones who are the least inclined to write reviews. Even though they say, “Zehi, yeah, let me write it!” But even when I follow up, they still haven’t written it. It’s kind of hard to make Japanese do something.
I have lots of reviews written by foreigners and people from other countries, but getting Japanese reviews is really hard. I want to grow the community base from Tokyo first and if Japanese people go to the app store or the Google Play store and they see not a lot of Japanese reviews, they might not want to download the app.
And another thing, just a small thing, but in general, maybe Japanese people are a little shy, so on the app, you can set up your profile, like put in your biography, your learning and native language, your hobbies, but also your avatar, so your profile picture. And I noticed that a lot of Japanese people don’t really put their real photo. Either it’s a cat or a tree or a mountain or a beach photo, and because you are on an app where you potentially meet someone in real life, so knowing beforehand who you’re going to meet is kind of important to get the conversation started.
I noticed that compared to other users, Japanese people are kind of hiding their identity online. So I just put a quick message, like a popup message, when you’re uploading your photo, saying “people want to connect with real people, so please, if you can, avoid putting a cat or a dog, or a mountain photo, because we want to connect with real people.” And after that, I noticed an increase of Japanese members, but also other people, putting their real photo. It doesn’t have to be a selfie, it can be just yourself, from afar, but it helps people know that this person is this kind of character, and you are more willing to connect and to reach out to meet up in real life.
You solved that problem really quickly. Well, I’m sure there are still struggles along those lines.
PHILIPPE: You don’t have to reveal your identity online and stuff, but it’s just a way to encourage people to bring that authentic touch to the community.
We will link to where your app can be downloaded on the iTunes app store and the Google Pay store, and if you are a Japanese person, please leave a review on the SewaYou app (^^). We’re almost to the close of our interview here, but are there any questions we haven’t asked you that we should have? Or any last words you want to say before we close? Anything we haven’t covered yet?
PHILIPPE: The best advice that I have received in terms of starting your own entrepreneur journey, and maybe one I can give: The best advice I have received is, when you start something, be a finisher.
It’s really good to start something because you can learn a lot of things. Let’s say you want to build a quick prototype of your idea for your next billion-dollar startup. If you start something, you will learn a lot in the process. Let’s say you learn X value.
But if you finish something, you learn 100x of that value. Because finishing something is much more valuable in terms of competence, skill, but also your grit to finish something, and that is the principle that I live behind when I start my business.
You can spend 3 months building something and if you don’t finish and deploy it, and put it out to the world, nobody will use it and nobody can give you feedback, and you don’t get access to those valuable feedback to get the momentum going on. So that will be the best advice I have received.
And maybe one I can give: courage and confidence but also boldness comes from working hard. It isn’t because I am courageous that I quit my job—it is because I worked so hard on my app that I can fearlessly quit my job.
I remember that my first job was the only time where I job hunted. After that, jobs came to me. Because I worked hard on my app, and even during interviews, I barely talked about my past experience in my corporate job, I just talked about my app: how I built the community, how I coded all of that.
So working hard makes you kind of fearless to quit your job if you don’t want to work anymore, or you just want to build a startup so bad.
I am fearless to not have a cofounder. I can pretty much do everything by myself—it’s really hard and it takes time, and sometimes I’m not an expert in some area, but I can still do and run operations behind SewaYou, just by myself and grow the app. It takes time, but I don’t need to rely on a cofounder, and just be dependent on finding someone to help. And fearless to fail, because I know that I can find a job in the next few weeks if I decide to go back to the job market.
So work hard, and you will build confidence and courage.
“Working hard makes you fearless.” I love that. Thank you, Philippe Khin. To close, where can people connect with you? Where do you want to be found?
PHILIPPE: You can find me on Linkedin, search for my name, or if you want to take a look at my app, I’m connected everyday on SewaYou, so create an account, and you will see me, and if you want to try out the features, you can reach out to me as well.
I’ve also started a YouTube channel, where I documented my startup journey, talking about how I got my permanent residency in four years. And from now on talking about my startup journey in Japan as a solo entrepreneur. You can reach out to those channels, and if you are not on those, I am also on Twitter. Not really active, but I answer all DMs.
Thank you so much for your time, Philippe Khin, we will talk to you hopefully again sometime soon.
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