Tokyo is vying to become an innovation hub for entrepreneurs and investors, challenging Japan’s reputation as an environment that fails to nurture entrepreneurship, with a new nonprofit organization hoping to play a lead role.
The recently launched Venture Cafe Tokyo aims to help innovators break away from a culture that stresses conformity and fears failure, by bringing them together with potential investors in the city’s business district of Toranomon.
“Ideas, talent, money are a simple recipe for innovation. I want to organize programs and events so that those elements mix and circulate smoothly, like innovation dating,” Yasuhiro Yamakawa, representative director of Venture Cafe Tokyo and entrepreneurship associate professor at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, told over 300 people at an outdoor opening event at Toranomon Hills.
The Venture Cafe program has been developed by Cambridge Innovation Center, a leading builder of innovation hubs that has set up such networking “ecosystems” in five cities in the United States and Europe, with the first Asian office opening on March 22 in Toranomon.
Yamakawa says entrepreneurs and investors should look for a type of “serendipitous collision” of ideas.
The initiative hopes to boost innovation in Japan, a country known for one of the lowest levels of entrepreneurship in the developed world, with its rate of early-stage entrepreneurial activity not higher than 5.4 percent for the last 14 years, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, which analyzes data of more than 100 economies.
GEM also said Japan’s venture capital industry remains small, with investments making up a far smaller share of GDP than in other developed countries, such as Canada, the United States and Britain.
“To a large extent, low entrepreneurial rates can be attributed to a culture that stresses conformity and is highly critical of failure,” the GEM said in its report on Japan.
Many Japanese people see not following the usual path of earning a salary at a company as too risky, according to Yoshiaki Ishii, director in the business policy office at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
Ishii also said that Japanese families often discourage entrepreneurship. “There are obstacles by parents and spouses when one decides to work at a venture company or small-sized company,” Ishii said.
“From a young age, Japanese people tend to see making a new challenge as something distant. So we need to get more people to be familiar with entrepreneurships,” he said.
Yamakawa said that Venture Cafe Tokyo’s weekly “Thursday Gathering” will be a place where anybody interested in starting a business can join in a casual atmosphere, to meet people or participate in seminars, coaching, workshops and themed events.
“We hope to attract hundreds of people every Thursday who are looking for partners or for ideas in a relaxed manner. Prior reservation is not needed,” Yamakawa said.
Sachiko Wada, 42, CEO of a successful startup Taskaji Inc., a housekeeping sharing service, also hopes Venture Cafe will help drive change.
“When it comes to entrepreneurship, I think many people don’t know what to do. So Venture Cafe can be useful for getting tips and in sharing information, especially for big companies whose human networks tend to be limited,” said Wada, who worked as a system engineer for 14 years at Fujitsu Ltd. before launching Taskaji in 2013.
“A lot of people think launching a startup means taking tremendous risks and that those are for people with a strong mentality who can bear such pressure, but that is not the case,” said Wada.
“I wasn’t a great risk taker and invested no more than 2 million yen ($18,700). I just wanted to solve an issue in front me, I was a full-time working mother and needed help with housekeeping,” Wada said.
Her Taskaji service, offered mainly in Tokyo and Osaka in western Japan, now has 28,000 registered users looking for help with housekeeping while 900 are available as helpers.
Taro Kodama, who previously worked for Yahoo Japan Corp. and Facebook Inc. and now serves as CEO of Anchorstar Inc., which helps businesses expand in the Japanese market, also hopes that Japanese people will be more open about their ideas.
“Japanese people often are conscious of ‘Japan quality’ and are reluctant about getting feedback on products that have yet been completed. Whereas overseas, people are good at making improvements on their products which have not been finished,” Kodama said.
“I hope people will change their mindsets and share their ideas, even if it is still at a stage of just being an idea or a prototype,” he said, adding that Venture Cafe’s casual atmosphere could be one way to help them.