While The World Cracks Down, Japan Emerges As A Crypto Haven

Japan has been particularly hard hit by cryptocurrency abuse, with hackers swiping a total of almost $1 billion. But its leaders have remained firmly supportive.

While The World Cracks Down, Japan Emerges As A Crypto Haven

Roger Ver, owner of Bitcoin.com, speaks during the Bloomberg Invest Asia conference in Hong Kong

Japan's emergence as a global center for cryptocurrencies didn't start with open-minded lawmakers or prescient investments by the country's financial giants. Instead, it began with an American felon who arrived in the country looking for a fresh start.

Roger Ver came to Japan in 2006 after getting out of prison for selling explosives online and stumbled upon bitcoin in its early days. He became an enthusiastic supporter who threw parties and gave away coins to encourage their use. He also forged a relationship with Mark Karpeles, a young Frenchman in Tokyo who bought Mt. Gox -- then the world's largest bitcoin exchange -- and relocated its headquarters to the city.

Together, the pair helped create a community of crypto experts who popularized the currencies, seeded early startups and persuaded government officials of the concept's potential. That helped Japan emerge as a bitcoin haven, even as the rest of the world cracked down. It has maintained a supportive regulatory environment, despite troubles ranging from investor fraud to the $500 million hack of a Japanese crypto-exchange this year.

"If it wasn't for Mt. Gox, I wouldn't have been involved with bitcoin regulation at all," says Mineyuki Fukuda, a former Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who helped create the country's rules.

After a boom in the popularity of cryptocurrencies, governments from the U.S. to China have proposed tight regulations or outright bans to prevent abuse. Japan has been particularly hard hit with hackers swiping a total of almost $1 billion.

But the nation's lawmakers have remained firmly supportive. They're moving to regulate new exchanges, rather than ban them outright. 

Last week, they took the first step toward legalizing initial coin offerings, or ICOs, a controversial fundraising technique outlawed in places like China and South Korea. Emboldened by the government's stance, tech and financial firms are stepping up investment.

"Personally I was thinking, OK, they're probably going to take the Chinese approach of 'We're just going to ban this thing and nobody's going to be able to do it again'," says Thomas Glucksmann, a former employee of Mt. Gox. "But they kind of went the opposite way."

Ver, who owns Bitcoin.com, didn't have any of this planned when he came to Japan. He was a millionaire thanks to the same online business that landed him in trouble with authorities in the U.S. He said he'd had a Japanese girlfriend once and decided to move to the country in part to find a new one. Karpeles also landed in Japan on a whim, attracted by its culture and anime.

After discovering bitcoin in early 2011, Ver began buying coins on Mt. Gox and talking up the prospects for currencies independent of any government. He organized gatherings for enthusiasts, first at a fruit parlor and then at a bar in Tokyo's Roppongi neighborhood. Bitcoin Jesus, as he became known, also gave away coins when they were worth about $1. (A single bitcoin now trades at about $6,700.) He estimates he handed out more than 10,000 coins.

"That would be worth more than $50 million dollars today," Ver says.
Ver stayed bullish even after Mt. Gox filed for bankruptcy in 2014, sending prices tumbling. He says the laws Japan implemented last year in the wake of the bankruptcy -- regulating crypto exchanges and allowing bitcoin use in retail payments -- were more industry-friendly than he expected. But ever a libertarian, he says he'd prefer no rules at all.

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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