Do Japanese Lack Entrepreneurial DNA?

Having just returned from the World Economic Forum – East Asia in Jakarta, I was very impressed by the high caliber of participants (high government officials, Fortune 100-level executives, NPO/NGO leaders and numerous entrepreneurs) from around the world. For me personally, it was three days of incredible discussion and dialog with a large number of very smart and passionate people. From time-to-time, I was asked how Japan was doing–not only in the context of the recent disaster but also for the future going forward–and if they will “ever come back.” This got me thinking about this topic once again and also provided me with a foreigner’s perspective on the matter. I’ve been thinking about this issue since returning to Japan.

To assert that “Japanese bureaucrats can no more create an entrepreneur than a man can give birth” may seem an obtuse preface to a clarion call for Japan’s government to focus on creating entrepreneurs. But without such an emphatic proscription up front, the bureaucrats can be expected to charge off in the wrong direction.
While Japan’s government (or any other government) cannot proactively “create” a cadre of entrepreneurs, it is well within Tokyo’s power to stop practices that effectively prevent the emergence of successful entrepreneurs. Furthermore, as I have mentioned repeatedly, many of the most innovative companies in the world were founded during times of crisis. Therefore, it is critical to remove any barriers that inhibit entrepreneurial activities and to correct (well intentioned, yet) ineffective methods that have continued to waste public funds with very little to show for it.
The need is clear. If Japan is to stem an economic decline that continues after two decades it must generate a new wave of entrepreneurial energy. Since 1975-76, when Microsoft and Apple were founded, the U.S. has consistently produced a stream of entrepreneurial ventures that have become pillars of the nation’s economy, including Oracle, Dell, Amazon, Google and many others. Over the same period, only a handful of Japanese ventures (e.g., Softbank, Uniqlo and Rakuten) have achieved success on a large scale. Yet, even these companies have yet to make the global impact that their brethren have.
When confronted with a gap like this, Japan’s bureaucratic response is reflexive and predictable. Plans are drawn up with catchy numerical targets: “Create 10,000 entrepreneurs in 10 years.” To make the initiative concrete, plans for a state-of-the-art “Entrepreneur City” may be unveiled — echoing the near-empty, heavily subsidized “Science Cities” left over from Japan’s surge of enthusiasm for R&D in the 1990s. At the same time a costly nationwide advertising campaign may be launched with slogans like “Be an Entrepreneur!”
With whatever budget remains, we can expect the centerpiece of such an initiative to be a program of cash “research” grants, allocated equally among the prefectures, and administered by a small army of bureaucrats tasked with processing voluminous paperwork from applicants. This is the trap that bureaucrats are most likely to fall into when administering any disaster relief fund.
What we can predict with near certainty is that Japan’s usual approach will fail to generate the required increase in entrepreneurial activity. Not that the reasons for failure are specific to Japanese bureaucrats. Too little spread too thin without the right support (management, resources, etc.) will lead to the same ineffective result. The inherent folly of targeted state intervention to spur entrepreneurship has been demonstrated decisively by scholars such as Josh Lerner and William Kirk & Ramana Nanda of Harvard Business School.

Anyway, back to the forum in Jakarta, I had the opportunity to listen to the vice chair of Keidanren (Japan Business Federation – 日本経済団体連合会) during the “Creating Jobs in Asia: The Entrepreneurship” session where he (Yorihiko Kojima – Mitsubishi) mentioned that “Entrepreneurship is not about the size of a company but about a mindset.” I just hope all the leaders of Keidanren really feel that way, but to make a significant difference both the organization and the government need to become more innovative and entrepreneurial in how they foster entrepreneurism in Japan.

In my next post, we’ll look at one characteristic that seems to be a particular barrier to entrepreneurial growth in Japan: fear of failure.

William Saito
Special Advisor at Cabinet Office (Govt. of Japan)
Named by Nikkei as one of the “100 Most Influential People for Japan,” Saito began software programming in elementary school and started his own company while still in high school and was named Entrepreneur of the Year in 1998 (by Ernst & Young, NASDAQ and USA Today). As one of the world’s leading authorities on cybersecurity.

After selling his business to Microsoft, he moved to Tokyo in 2005 and founded InTecur, a venture capital firm. In 2011, he served as the Chief Technology Officer of the National Diet’s (Parliament) Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. Later that year, he was named as both a Young Global Leader and Global Agenda Council member for World Economic Forum (WEF) and subsequently been named to its Foundation Board. In 2012, Saito was appointed to a council on national strategy and policy that reported directly to the Prime Minister of Japan.

Saito also advises several national governments around the globe. In Japan, he has served as an advisor to Japanese ministries; the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST); the Information Technology Promotion Agency (IPAS); the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, among others. He is currently the Special Advisor to the Ministry of Economic Trade and Industry (METI) and the Cabinet Office for the Government of Japan.

He went to medical school at UCLA and Harvard Kennedy School; serves on various boards of Global 2000 companies; frequently appears as a commentator on TV and is the author of seven books in addition to writing several weekly newspaper columns. His management book, The Team: Solving the Biggest Problem in Japan, was published by Nikkei BP and became a best-seller in 2012. In 2016, Saito received the Medal of Honor from the Government of Japan for his work in the field of education.

Posted by whsaito

  1. The eras of the hardware company (an era Japan to some extent dominated) is over. We’re now well into the era of the software (using the word in its broadest sense) company. And Japanese are MUCH better at hardware than software (again, using the words in their broadest sense).

    To make an impact globally today is largely a question of systems design (e.g. Google, Amazon, Facebook, the Macintosh OS) rather than hardware design (Apple products excepted thanks to their ties to operating system software).

    In part, good systems design is the result of understanding customer perspectives, i.e. does what I’m doing benefit the customer? In some ways Japanese companies are and appear customer focused: product wrapping and product freshness, for example, are nonpareil. In other ways (e.g. flexibility, pricing, the ability to handle non-mainstream requests), Japan lags most of the developed world.

    Another aspect of global success is localization. English (and Japan’s famous inability/unwillingness to learn it) is just a part of that. Localization today means localization to every important market: China, India, Germany, France, Russia, etc. It means hiring local talent and allowing them to get on with adapting products/systems to local language/culture. It means creating an internal corporate culture in which an employee’s nationality is completely incidental. How many nationalities are represented at Google’s headquarters, I wonder? And how many at Rakuten or Toshiba?

    You sidetracked me, though, with your mention of “global impact”, and I’m off-topic.

    Kojima-san of Keidanren is exactly right: “Entrepreneurship is not about the size of a company but about a mindset.” Entrepreneurs do what they do because they want to swim alone, or with a few friends or trusted colleagues.

    Where governments can help is in streamlining the administrative burden. I’ve been an entrepreneur in Asia for over 20 years, and aside from the nuts and bolts of business, what being an entrepreneur means REALLY is changing the toner cartridge yourself, going to the bank yourself, writing or checking the wording to job ads yourself, and conducting the interviews yourself. All of that takes time, and when bureaucracy is cumbersome, it takes more time. Time that could be better spent on real business – sales calls, product development, even a Friday beer bash.

    The question government should be answering is: how easy is it to be an entrepreneur in Japan? How easy is it for people to open offices, get licenses, hire (and fire) staff, sell products, etc. Because if it’s hard, for many people it won’t be worth the trouble. Only the real dreamers, the real “outliers”, will do it. And instead of 10,000 entrepreneurs, we’ll have 2,000.

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