Can Japan Become More Entrepreneurial?

This seems to be the fundamental question about the future of Japan’s competitiveness. Japan, the world’s second largest economy, remains the largest exception to the argument that many have made (such as yours truly, in this mini-essay) which is that entrepreneurship is a critical component to a country’s economic growth. Japan lacks an entrepreneurial culture; is dominated by big firms; has little tolerance for risk-taking and failure; etc etc. Can it survive this way? Probably not.

The FT today re-surfaces this issue, emphases my own:

The Japanese government has accordingly announced a Y100bn venture fund to invest in fledgling technology businesses. The idea is to encourage more private and institutional investors to pump their money into start-ups too.

However, there are formidable barriers to injecting some of the pep of Silicon Valley into the commercialisation of new technology in Japan. The biggest is that Japan does not have an Anglo Saxon-style enterprise culture. Would-be entrepreneurs have few role models apart from Masayoshi Son, founder of communications group Softbank. Aspiring to become very wealthy is regarded as faintly unJapanese.

Equally, "business failure is seen as shameful in Japan, though that perception is beginning to erode", says Seiichi Yoshikawa of Nippon Keidanren, Japan’s powerful business lobby. When new technology ventures fail, it tends to be as units of large corporations, rather than as standalone companies. This cushions the impact. The downside of the system is that it can suppress maverick talent.

At Japan’s ministry of economy, trade and industry, Yuji Tokumasu, who works on science and technology policy, is fretting over a parallel problem. According to a chart he brandishes, even as Japan’s spending on research and development has soared in the past 20 years, value added in the manufacturing sector has stagnated.

Japan already spends more than 3 per cent of its gross domestic product on R&D – more than any other country. One way of reading the chart is to surmise that diminishing returns have set in, that every extra yen spent on R&D goes to employ less talented researchers, who study less promising approaches to the same problems. Japanese universities’ poor record on turning research funding into results published by top scientific journals suggests that government money can be more efficiently spent. It could be that rather than spending too little on R&D, Japan spends too much.

However, Mr Tokumasu and others in the technology establishment take heart from R&D expenditure data. If only Japan could convert all of this spending into scientific breakthroughs, new businesses and saleable products, they argue, it would prove a powerful source of economic growth.

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