2018 was a banner year for the Rakuten Group. From the success of our sports and entertainment partnerships with FC Barcelona, Golden State Warriors and Shakira, to strategic alliances with major retailers like Walmart and Bic Camera, to the announcement that Rakuten will become Japan’s 4th and newest mobile network operator, it was one of the busiest and most exciting periods in the company’s history.

All of last year’s progress is setting us up for an even bigger ’19. With a palpable sense of momentum, not only within Rakuten, but Japan as well — where there are a host of notable events on the horizon — below is our list of the 19 things we are looking forward to this year.

The launch of Rakuten’s MNO service

When Japan’s Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry advisory board approved Rakuten’s application for a 4G mobile license, it marked the first time in 13 years that a new entrant was granted bandwidth by the government. With its disruptive approach, Rakuten looks set to shake up the mobile industry in Japan. Construction of the network infrastructure is on track to launch the service in October 2019.

The end (and beginning) of an era in Japan

On April 30, Japanese Emperor Akihito is expected to abdicate the Chrysanthemum Throne to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, bringing the current Heisei era to a close in its 31st year. To mark the event and begin the transition period, Japan will observe a 10-day stretch of holidays. Later in the year — most likely October — Naruhito will ascend to the throne, marking the beginning of an exciting era that is yet to be named.

Rugby World Cup

Japan will become the first Asian nation to host the Rugby World Cup when the tournament kicks off on September 20. Though not typically considered a rugby powerhouse, Japan is looking to build on its remarkable performance at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, where it defeated two-time champions South Africa in what has been called the greatest World Cup upset in history. No doubt Japan will relish the chance to host the global teams and their fans for this event and help grow interest in the sport nationwide.

Podolski, Iniesta and Villa playing together

Speaking of World Cup champions, Rakuten-owned football club Vissel Kobe will feature three members of this illustrious list on their roster as Spaniard David Villa joins countryman Andres Iniesta and German legend Lukas Podolski in Japan. No doubt Villa will relish the chance to reconnect with his former teammate Iniesta, in particular, as they look to reproduce the success they enjoyed together on both Spain’s national team and with FC Barcelona.

Mobile World Congress

Each year in February, Barcelona hosts Mobile World Congress (MWC), one of the globe’s largest tech conferences. Our own CEO Hiroshi Mikitani was a keynote speaker here in 2018 and while we can’t say at this point what you will see from Rakuten in 2019, MWC is always the place to be to hear about the latest and greatest in the mobile industry.

Rakuten Optimism

Speaking of conferences, in 2018 Rakuten hosted our largest international conference to-date with the inaugural Rakuten Optimism, which took place in September in San Francisco. Eventgoers heard from Rakuten’s CEO, Lyft’s John Zimmer, Golden State Warriors stars, Walking Dead Executive Producer David Alpert and more before enjoying an electric performance by Shakira. Last year’s event may be a hard act to follow, but we are certainly optimistic that there’s a strong possibility for more in 2019.

Continued innovation in drone logistics

From drone deliveries of fried chicken to soy sauce and Mother’s Day flowers, over the past few years Rakuten has lead a number of public trials and technological breakthroughs that are paving the way for drone-assisted logistics in the future. It’s too early to say if 2019 will be the year drones break into mainstream logistics, but there’s no question that this is a rapidly progressing space and one to continue to watch this year.

Accelerating Startups

The Rakuten Accelerator, powered by Techstars, was a tremendous success in 2018, graduating its first cohort of 10 startups. Wasting no time getting started in 2019, the Rakuten Accelerator will be accepting applications starting January 7.

Powering Spartan

In 2018, the world’s leading obstacle-course race series Spartan and Rakuten entered a new partnership to help Spartan pursue its mission to change 100 million lives by motivating people to get out of their comfort zones and learn about, experience and embrace the Spartan lifestyle. With over 200 races each year taking place around the globe, Spartan, now powered by Rakuten, is set to take the sport to a new level in 2019.

Rakuten Aspyrian

Rakuten Aspyrian, a biotech startup developing precision-targeted cancer therapies based on its proprietary photoimmunotherapy platform, announced impressive results for its Series C financing, including investments from Mickey Mikitani, Rakuten, Inc. and SBI Group. As Rakuten Aspyrian’s CEO, supporting groundbreaking cancer research and treatment is a deeply personal mission for Mikitani, motivating him to bring photoimmunotherapy to cancer patients around the world. In 2019 we hope to see this innovative and potentially lifesaving technology continue to make strides.

Taking in the matches

And – with apologies to the purists – to unashamedly round up the numbers to 19, the other nine things we’re looking forward to would have to be a selection of great sporting matches and events! Rakuten’s association with sport goes back well over a decade when it was awarded Japan’s first new professional baseball franchise in 50 years with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Since then, Rakuten has become the title sponsor of Japan’s largest men’s tennis tournament officially accredited by the ATP World Tour (Rakuten Japan Open), acquired professional football club Vissel Kobe, entered partnerships with global sports powerhouses FC Barcelona and Golden State Warriors and emerging sports with Spartan. This means that hardly a week will go by in 2019 without a Rakuten-owned or partnered sports brand on the calendar. With all this activity, our biggest challenge of 2019 might be deciding what to watch.

We thank everyone for your support of Rakuten Today over the last year and hope you will join us as we aim to cover these stories and a whole lot more in 2019!