Restoring Japan through entrepreneurship

City lights and billboards are turned off in Tokyo, Japan.

Kai Ryssdal: Emperor Akihito of Japan toured the earthquake and tsunami zone today. He spoke to some of the hundreds of thousands of people who've been displaced by the disaster. Latest total cost estimate for all the damage is said to be about $300 billion. This week Marketplace's Scott Tong has been talking to people who'll be helping the Japanese economy work off that debt.

Today, a would-be entrepreneur and his prescription for kick-starting Japan Inc.


Scott Tong: I'm in Tokyo's financial district with 38-year-old Harvard MBA Norihito, or Nori. I can't tell you his last name, and you'll soon find out why.

Nori: This is the area of giant, big companies.

Nori says this area's full of what he calls "herbivores." Male, non-predator types. They're...

Nori: Kind of weak. Quiet, don't go out for drinks, you know, they stay home. Their preference is not to be manly men.

Nori says herbivore men don't take risks. They work cushy jobs, at Japanese conglomerates like Nori's employer. Except he's about to quit to start his own firm. He hasn't told his bosses yet, hence the radio anonymity. But it's time, he says, to wake up and hunt.

Nori: Some people realized after this earthquake that we were sleeping. Like me, maybe.

Arguably the Japanese economy's been a zombie for decades. Long before this disaster, its exporters faced stiff competition from abroad. Now, customers will figure...

Nori: Japanese products are very good. But maybe we should buy half of them from Taiwan or China because they may not have big earthquakes.

In the near term, Japan's exports will fall. As will auto production. Electricity is rationed. The prime minister calls this the worst crisis since World War II. And the term "war zone" often comes to mind these days, when people visit the coastal areas obliterated by the tsunami.

Jeff Kingston teaches Japanese history at Temple University's campus in Tokyo.

Jeff Kingston: When I first went to Onagawa, and I just stared around and it was only one or two buildings standing here and there. And the rest was flattened, first thing I thought of was Hiroshima.

Japan's postwar recovery turned out to be a golden age for its start-ups. Sony, for one, gave us the transistor radio and the Walkman.

Dan Isenberg teaches entrepreneurship at Babson College.

Dan Isenberg: If you look throughout the history of humankind and you look throughout the history of entrepreneurship, change, chaos, crisis often precedes huge leaps of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Isenberg says awful times create a mindset of nothing to lose. That's what Nori wants to bring back to Japan. And he's gambling on English-language software, for Japanese smartphone users preparing to go abroad.

Nori: Our minds now have to open up to outside of Japan.

Hold on, though. Most young Japanese already speak English. To demonstrate, we found a couple cooperative locals to read some radio copy.

Woman: This is Marketplace, I'm Kai Ryssdal.

Man: But first, let's do the numbers.

It's pretty good. Still, Nori argues most Japanese only speak English when they have to.

Nori: We don't like to be speaking with wrong accents or wrong words, you know.

He thinks conversational English is the opportunity. Now, the smart money bets against Nori and an entrepreneur revival in Japan. It's been talked about forever. Venture capital here is scarce, as are young people.

Again, Dan Isenberg at Babson College.

Isenberg: Entrepreneurs are always doing things that other people think are worthless, impossible or stupid. That's the job of the entrepreneur.

Nori: Most of the people who knows me says I'm crazy.

Nori has taken the crazy road before. At Harvard Business School, he skipped the summer internship and joined a national contest to make buffalo wings. He won.

In Tokyo, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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