Taggert Brooks Economics Consulting
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Japan and Entrepreneurs

According to this article in the Economist entrepreneurs in Japan have had a hard time.

Japan scores poorly on almost every measure of entrepreneurship. It has the second-lowest level in the OECD of venture-capital investment as a share of GDP, and what little venture capital is available goes disproportionately into existing firms rather than start-ups. Venture-capital investment in Japan amounts to some $2 billion a year, around a tenth of the figure in America. Start-ups account for 4% of all firms, compared with 10% in Europe and 14% in America. Japan also came last in the International Institute for Management Development’s rankings on entrepreneurship and second-last in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s ranking of early-stage entrepreneurial activity (defined as the proportion of people of working age who are involved in such activity). Why?

Cultural factors are a big part of the explanation. As a hoary old Japanese saying has it, “the nail that sticks out is hammered down.” Conformity is valued over individualism. “Students work hard at school, but they learn how to take tests, not how to think,” laments Sakie Fukushima of Korn/Ferry. And unlike American culture, which venerates the maverick self-made millionaire and is tolerant of failure, Japan frowns upon public displays of wealth and stigmatises business failure.

Although innovation doesn’t just happen in start ups. If the culture, incentives, and environment are right, it can be just as likely to occur in large corporations. Look at Google for a good example. They allow their staff to commit 20% of their time to any project of their choosing.

Given the innovative prowess of Japan’s industrial giants, does it matter if start-ups have a hard time? The Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister company of this newspaper, ranked Japan first in a recent study of innovation, based on the number of patents awarded per million people. Japan generates 51% more patents than America in absolute terms, which works out at around 3.5 times as many patents per person. It also has more scientific researchers per million people (5,900 compared with 4,200 for America) and a higher research and development (R&D) intensity, at 3.4% of GDP compared with 2.8% for America.

But things may not be as rosy as these numbers suggest. Patents are an imperfect proxy for innovation; Japan’s armies of researchers spend more time than their foreign counterparts on non-research activities such as administration, which reduces their effectiveness; and a report by the Cabinet Office found that the effectiveness of Japan’s private-sector R&D—the ratio of operating profits to R&D expenditure—declined throughout the 1990s (see chart 7).

Akira Takeishi of the Institute of Innovation Research at Hitotsubashi University has investigated why Japanese firms are highly competitive in some industries (carmaking, electronics, imaging products, video games) and less so in others (personal computers, software). He concluded that Japanese firms did best in manufacturing industries with closed product designs that do not require collaboration with the rest of the industry, and worst in fields based on open standards and modular architectures. So if the nature of innovation has changed, and it now depends on collaboration with other firms around the world, Japan could be in trouble. Japanese patents with foreign co-inventors accounted for less than 3% of the total, compared with 12% in America.

If government is going to try to steer the process it is extremely important to create a level playing field for ALL industries and not favor one over another. After all 10 years ago who would have predicted the composition of products we’ll see this Christmas?

Another concern is that too much government effort to encourage start-ups and promote innovation is concentrated on manufacturing and technology rather than services, which is arguably where change is most needed. To keep the momentum going, the OECD recommends reductions in capital-gains tax to encourage venture capital; more portable pensions and performance-based pay for researchers to encourage mobility between academia and industry; a broader educational curriculum; and the promotion of cross-border trade and investment, since good ideas often come from abroad. Changing Japanese attitudes to entrepreneurship will take time and further reforms, but at least the wheels have started turning.

Posted: December 10th, 2007
Categories: Entrepreneurship
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