Six: Stop mindless paperwork and regulation – If the same attention to process efficiency that has driven Japan’s manufacturing success were focused on government bureaucracy, the country’s business environment might change overnight. While its competitors move rapidly to adopt streamlined, paperless process, Japan remains mired in a legacy of mindless paper-shuffling. This is reflected in Japan’s ranking in a World Bank measure of the ease of starting a business. Out of 183 countries, Japan is ranked 91, behind Mexico and not far ahead of Zambia.
Areas where process reform might usefully stimulate entrepreneurship include requirements for guarantors, bankruptcy procedures, privacy laws and hiring/firing practices.
Seven: Stop wasting women’s energy and talent – Facing serious demographic challenges posed by an aging society, Japan has no excuse for wasting the tremendous untapped capacity of its working-age women.
Perhaps because they face barriers to advancement in the mainstream corporate world, Japanese women are already among the nation’s most dynamic and creative entrepreneurs. If gender-specific barriers were lowered, we could expect to see women spearheading even more ventures. While social safety nets are not an ideal solution, if Japan is to produce new generations of children and at the same time care for a vast population of retirees, we need to support working mothers with enhanced child-care options and opportunities to return to the workforce as the workload of parenthood decreases.
Going one step further, we need to create frameworks for women to start new businesses that are flexibly compatible with the other roles they must fill.
Eight: Stop holding Japan’s door closed – Faced with a dearth of home-grown entrepreneurs, one obvious solution is to import. And Japan has many attributes that foreign “knowledge workers” prize: safe, efficient and cosmopolitan major cities; highly dependable infrastructure and services; proximity to key Asian markets and production bases.
Foreign talent can meanwhile fill key gaps in the skill-sets of home-grown start-ups: global perspective and communications skills; lateral-thinking skills neglected by Japan’s education; and more.
In fact, the lack of diverse global skills threatens to “hollow out” Tokyo’s role as a global head-office hub. In many key functions, such as marketing and public relations, monocultural head office staffs effectively devolve work to overseas subsidiaries simply because they are incapable of managing it. This puts Tokyo at risk of becoming “Asia’s Delaware,” an empty city of corporate shells where little actual business takes place.
To reverse this trend and attract a new wave of overseas talent, Japan’s immigration authorities need to shift from grudging acceptance of foreign knowledge workers and entrepreneurs to an active welcome. One key measure to signal a change in attitude would be the repeal of “re-entry permits” – the cash grab by government that forces all resident foreign passport-holders to pay every time they leave and re-enter Japan.
A more substantive measure would be to eliminate the crushing burden of school costs imposed on foreign-resident families and their employers. Although foreign residents pay local and national taxes that support public schools, in practical terms it is impossible for a 14-year-old moving from Silicon Valley to Tokyo to fit into a standard local middle school.
At present, the only alternative is for families or employers to pay 2.5 million yen or more to send that child to an international school. The government should institute a system that provides any foreign resident who pays “ward tax” with educational vouchers for use at international schools.
Nine: Stop ministerial “silo mentality” – Having been involved in the start-up of several ventures in Japan, I can testify that one fate any entrepreneur should fear is getting trapped among a web of competing ministerial bureaucracies. Depending on the business involved, you many find yourself running between MIC, MOF, METI, MLIT, MLHW and a surfeit of agencies in search of permits and “case-by-case” approvals. The demand you receive from one will inevitably conflict with the requirement posed by another.
The only possible solution I see to this problem is an office of “Innovation & Entrepreneurship” at the level of the prime minister’s office. This would be a “one-stop-shop” where new ventures could take inter-ministerial snafus for quick and painless resolution. It could also encourage “cross-pollination” among the various ministries.
Ten: Stop Ageism – Japan’s customary system of automatic promotion on the basis of seniority exacts an enormous toll on both public and private-sector organizations, breeding complacency and sapping ambition. The government needs to lead the way by instituting merit-based promotion across the board. Competition and meritocracy are not antithetical to Japan’s working world. The problem is that university entrance examinations are currently the last time in life that most Japanese are foced to compete to get ahead.
Breaking Down Walls Beats Building Ladders
To even entertain the notion of doing less-not-more, of ceding control to unseen forces, may cause Japanese government bureaucrats to break out in a cold sweat. The notion is antithetical to their historical modus operandi. But if increased entrepreneurial activity is the objective, breaking down walls will beat building ladders every time.
The Japanese people are, by nature, creative, clever, hard-working and socially adept at forming highly competitive teams. The challenge is not to change their essential nature – but to set it free. Your comments are always welcome.