Global Partnerships

Learning from Silicon Valley: A Discussion Among US and Japanese Business Leaders

Economy Society Culture

The US-Japan Council’s Silicon Valley-Japan Platform is a new initiative aimed at tapping into Japanese innovation by strengthening ties between small- and medium-sized firms and the global-leading resources of Silicon Valley. A panel discussion during the USJC’s annual conference brought together business leaders from both sides of the Pacific to discuss how Japan is looking to the IT capital to bolster entrepreneurialism and elevate firms to the global stage.

Prominent among recent discussion on Japan is what many in the business world see as the gradual tarnishing of the country’s once bright entrepreneurial spirit following the bursting of the bubble economy in the 1990s. Japanese firms continue to represent a powerful economic force, but there is a pervasive sense that the ambition and innovation that famously lifted the nation from the ashes of World War II has wilted. This view has gained traction as a procession of major corporations have fought to survive in industries they previously dominated. This has left business leaders wondering where to find the modern successors to postwar pioneers such as Panasonic’s Matsushita Kōnosuke and Sony’s Morita Akio.

Reconnecting with Silicon Valley

There is, however, a growing section of the business world that, optimistic about the potential of regional small and medium-sized companies, sees the pendulum swinging back toward Japan. Efforts to foster entrepreneurship are garnering attention, with special focus on stronger cooperation with Silicon Valley to help bring Japanese innovation to the world. Bolstering this relationship is the Silicon Valley–Japan Platform, an initiative launched by the US-Japan Council in conjunction with Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s April 2015 visit to the tech capital.

As part of its annual conference held in Tokyo on November 9–10, the USJC hosted a panel discussion titled “Silicon Valley and Japan: Building a Kakehashi Bridge,” which looked at ways Japanese entrepreneurs are connecting with Silicon Valley. The session featured James Higa, executive director of Philanthropic Ventures Foundation and early Apple team member; Yanai Tadashi, CEO of Uniqlo; Liz Wessel, CEO of the startup WayUp; and former US Ambassador to Japan John Roos.

Higa kicked off the event by outlining the program’s three pillars for raising awareness of Japan and Silicon Valley: news and media, academic partnerships, and participation of Japanese firms in accelerator programs. He went on to describe aspects of the initiative, including building relationships among the design and business schools at Stanford University and leading Japanese institutes through conferences and symposiums, as well as providing chances for hundreds of companies in Japan to visit Silicon Valley and study how to tune their business for global success.

Creating Opportunities for Entrepreneurs

The tone among panelists was lively and upbeat, with discussion focusing on ways Japan can learn from Silicon Valley and create an environment where entrepreneurs thrive. A prominent theme was overcoming the strong cultural aversion to risk and failure in Japan. Roos stressed that failure is not a negative term in Silicon Valley, emphasizing the need for Japanese society to give innovators more than one chance, a sentiment he punctuated with the story of Prime Minister Abe’s return to power following a failed first run as leader.

Yanai expressed confidence in the potential of regional firms to succeed overseas, citing Japan’s abundant human resources and infrastructure. However, he underscored the need for young talent to not be followers, advising them to ignore the siren song of antei (stability), anshin (security), and anzen (reliability) driving many to join established companies, and to forge their own path by taking chances and dreaming big. He emphasized that amid rapid changes in global markets, it will be smaller operations, not major corporations, that will have the flexibility to capitalize on innovation.

The need for young Japanese to expand their horizons by gaining experience overseas was also touched on. The seasonally sensitive structure of the Japanese recruiting cycle makes it difficult for new college graduates to take time out to travel abroad, a situation panelists agreed was hobbling innovation by preventing university students from discovering how the world works outside of Japan. Yanai related how as a young man his global travels served as a catalyst for his entrepreneurial spirit, but lamented how society today does not allow youth the same luxury. He argued that it is essential for Japan to change the timing of its strict recruiting system. Roos followed up by suggesting companies put aside 10% of entry-level positions for people with experience abroad to incentivize young Japanese to leave home and explore the world.

In one of the more intriguing portions of the session panelists spoke to the need for more active roles for women in corporate Japan. Higa stressed how the leadership of female executives at Apple was pivotal to the success of the firm. Roos underscored the benefit of diversity to a company’s bottom line by relating his experience as CEO of Silicon Valley-based law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, saying the firm’s most successful partners were those who attracted top talent by maintaining flexible hiring practices. Wessel, who experienced aspects of Japan’s male-dominated corporate culture while interning in Tokyo, stressed both the importance of supporting female entrepreneurs and the need for corporations to seriously tackle their reticence about promoting women.

Reaffirming Bilateral Ties

The panel discussion was one of many held during the USJC annual conference, which gives leaders from the public and private sectors in Japan and the United States the opportunity to meet with the aim of strengthening ties between the two countries. Other sessions during the two-day event included panel discussions on strengthening regional economies and bolstering women’s leadership in Japan, with keynote speeches by Prime Minister Abe, US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, Johnson & Johnson Chair Sandra E. Peterson, and President and CEO of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Hirano Nobuyuki, among others.

(Banner photo: The Main Quad and Hoover Tower at Stanford University. The USJC’s Silicon Valley–Japan Platform is looking to build cooperation among Japanese universities and the Silicon Valley-based school. Photo courtesy of Adam Fagen.)

US-Japan Council Silicon Valley Japanese entrepreneurship