What strangles originality here, explains Tokyo-based technology consultant Nobuyuki Hayashi, is that Japanese innovation keeps to very rigid structures.
“Most of them went to the same university, studied the same subjects and never met people from outside the group. This is because of the Japanese educational system and how Japanese recruiting is done,” he says. “Japanese companies tend to hire graduates from the same school.”
This spectacular failure to respond to the internet age is slowly being challenged, however, both by the country’s new government and a few entrepreneurs. Copying ideas from Silicon Valley, top entrepreneurs and officials have tried for over a decade now to spark some life into Japan’s hi-tech sector by increasing incubation projects and the like. Japan now has over 400 business incubators up from 30 in 1999 some of which are focused on the hi-tech sector. Most offer funding, work space and mentoring.
And after being held back by the entropy of their elders for so long, Japan’s enterprising young are going it alone. An experienced user interface designer in Japan and abroad, 26-year-old Alexander Takahashi simply rents shared office space, and networks for Angel investors when he can, to develop a location-based service named Rooftops.
He understands the reservations. “Japanese businessmen tend not to trust the younger generation. No matter how well you present yourself - young equals bad,” says Takahashi. “And honestly I can understand them. There are no really new start-ups with new ideas nowadays.”
Japanese young entrepreneurs are enthusiastic but lack crucial business know-how, says Lloyd. “They are totally unprepared for the business world, and this is why cloistered accelerators and incubators are so popular here,” he adds.
Hitoshi Masuda, who until recently headed up the government’s small-business think tank, disagrees. He says: “Japan is changing profoundly but dynamically in terms of who drives innovation and how innovation is being driven.”
Economic reforms under a new government - Abenomics, named for the PM Shinzo Abe - are having some positive effects. His party has also promised to fight the corner of all innovators, risk takers and creative types.
Their model is a bunch of maverick, by Japanese standards, entrepreneurs which include Japan’s third-richest man, Masayoshi Son, born to a Korean immigrant family, whose mobile phone empire Softbank is funding a brave attempt at commercialising home-grown green tech innovations. His outsider outlook was a huge benefit, he says.
“If you look at successful Japanese start-ups, they are mostly run by CEOs who have applied the ‘foreign connection’ in some way - be it education, money, technology, business deals, or talent,” says Lloyd. “In some cases, like Mr Son, he has managed to combine all five factors.”
Those factors seem to have inoculated such champions against fear of failure making them bold at the same time. They represent a new way of being Japanese – one the nation urgently needs to get to grips with.