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The Japanese – Wannabe Entrepreneurs

The Japanese – Wannabe Entrepreneurs

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Published by Lance Shields
I believe there’s another side to the story that the Western media rarely looks at and lies outside the corporate boardroom. It’s being stimulated both by need and lifestyle choice. In the current economic downturn, the “disenfranchised” or those that no longer find themselves with a job to retirement are looking for other avenues to supplement their income or replace the regular job that may not last that much longer in the midst of layoffs and overtime cuts.
I believe there’s another side to the story that the Western media rarely looks at and lies outside the corporate boardroom. It’s being stimulated both by need and lifestyle choice. In the current economic downturn, the “disenfranchised” or those that no longer find themselves with a job to retirement are looking for other avenues to supplement their income or replace the regular job that may not last that much longer in the midst of layoffs and overtime cuts.

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Published by: Lance Shields on Jul 24, 2009
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The Japanese – Wannabe Entrepreneurs

By Lance Shields

One year ago, I made the impulsive decision to change the course of my life and career, took the GMAT (barely passing), enrolled myself into the McGill Japan MBA program and found myself spending long, grueling weekends studying business mathematics of the sort I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But besides restarting parts of my brain I had deliberately chosen to hibernate after high school calculus, another set of ideas has crept into my mind that I had never given much time to consider – I am born to be an entrepreneur. This has been emboldened from the new tools I’m acquiring but even more so by the influence of several of my peers who have clearly caught the entrepreneur bug and see the MBA as a kick-start for opening their own businesses in the future. My class at McGill is very international and the nationality that stands out as

born entrepreneurs are the passionate Indians, ready to go back to India and be the country’s next Infosys or Tata. Being a North American of middle class upbringing and having worked for “the man” for all of my adult life, interacting with my Indian counterparts is like a potent medicine for a slow sickness of safety, responsibility and compromise. It is as if they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I could honestly say I envy their lack of entitlement and willingness to go get what they want. A few weeks ago I read an interesting Facebook blog post by Robert Sanzalone, a Nagoya-based Canadian technology writer and owner of PacificIT. His post described how the definition of the word “entrepreneur” is quite different between Japanese and nonJapanese. Based on his recent experience starting up the Japan International Business Exchange (JIBE) and interactions with the Nagoya Chamber of Commerce while looking for resources to help entrepreneurs, both Japanese and foreign, Robert came to realize that what his group meant by entrepreneurs (or “Kigyoka” in Japanese) was very different than the Japanese Chamber counterparts. He said that while both Japanese and non-Japanese see an entrepreneur as a person who starts up a business, he wrote “from a Japanese perspective, an entrepreneur is someone in TRANSITION in their lives. The trauma of making the transition out of the employment stream should probably happen only once in a person's life so why would you still call yourself an entrepreneur?” Robert’s post while certainly only one man’s opinion (as is this article), it brings to light an interesting point about how to do business in Japan and differences in perception about risk-taking ventures. As I’ve made Japan my home and I’m getting a MBA here with hopes of starting my own business (a digital branding agency), I can’t help asking the question is Japan a good place to be for this wannabe entrepreneur? According to a March Economist special

feature on entrepreneurship: “The latest GEM global report gives Japan the lowest score for entrepreneurship of any big country, placing it joint bottom with Greece. The brightest people want to work for large companies, with which the big banks work hand in glove, or for the government. Risk capital is rare. Bankruptcy is severely punished.” Add to that the comparatively small amount of VC money being divvied out, and that makes for a pretty grim picture. Or does it? I believe there’s another side to the story that the Western media rarely looks at and lies outside the corporate boardroom. It’s being stimulated both by need and lifestyle choice. In the current economic downturn, the “disenfranchised” or those that no longer find themselves with a job to retirement are looking for other avenues to supplement their income or replace the regular job that may not last that much longer in the midst of layoffs and overtime cuts. At the same time, much of the younger generation no longer see the corporation as an attractive path and are opening up small businesses that afford them the freedom of lifestyle they prefer (what do you think all those surfers do for a living?) The “freeter” generation (temporary workers) is transitioning into a mode where they can afford to raise a family and have a house. If you Google the word “side business” in Japanese, the web returns 3.7 million results. Then there are the 80% of senior professionals in their 50s who have doubts about the national pension and are interested in working in their 60s. For this group, the Japanese government has wised up and is subsidizing up to one third of any business started up by three owners over 45 years of age. And what choice does the government have with a dwindling population of talented workers? In many cases, entrepreneurship is clearly spurred by need as Japan faces growing unemployment as high as 8.6% in Osaka and 7.5% in Fukuoka. Traditionally, immigrants such as Koreans in Kansai (like my wife’s father in Osaka) who couldn’t find a place in Japanese

companies were forced to start their own businesses, everything from restaurants to pachinko parlors, and in many cases were more prosperous than their day job working Japanese counterparts. Today, I believe many Japanese who would have only considered company employment 30 years ago, are now looking at the risk of starting a business in a different light. In some ways, they are like my “What do I have to lose?” Indian classmates. Do they need to go get a MBA to deal with this changing environment? Probably not. They might be better served by learning the HTML needed to build their own web shop. Or they might be better off learning Chinese to connect to small businesses in China looking for Japanese technology and entryway into the Japanese consumer market. Will the risk-averse suit-wearing salaryman stereotype of Japanese go away overnight? Obviously not, but I am of the opinion that a well-educated population of people who are both disillusioned by the stiff corporate life and increasingly in need of new ways to define success, will turn to entrepreneurship as their answer. What this means to locally based internationals like myself in Japan isn’t clear but better understanding this new generation of Japanese wannabe and blossoming entrepreneurs should provide useful insights needed to get my own enterprise off the ground, whether in this country or my own.

-- This article was originally written for the Canada Chamber of Commerce Japan and their newspaper the Canadian.

Lance Shields I am an online media strategist and creative director currently planning the launch of my future digital branding agency. I am halfway through an MBA at the McGill MBA Japan program and am the president of the student council. I like Facebook, playing with me kids

at the local pool and dreaming up the next social web business with my MBA classmates.

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