William H. Saito, who moved to Tokyo from California eight years ago, has had some splendid achievements in his 41 years of life so far.
The computer prodigy launched his first software company at age 14, engaged in the programming business with Japan’s major IT giants in the mid-1980s, developed the world’s first biometric authentication standard for technologies such as fingerprint recognition, then sold his company to Microsoft Corp. in 2004.
He also became one of the youngest to win the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, and in 2011, the World Economic Forum, an organization known for its annual meeting of global leaders in Davos, Switzerland, selected Saito as a Young Global Leader, a title given to people under age 40 who have demonstrated their commitment to serving society. Saito now serves as a board member of the WEF.
One may wonder why this Los Angeles-born, internationally acclaimed entrepreneur came to live in Japan.
Saito said he wanted to give back what he received from this country when he was a teenager.
“I realized that the success and where I came to was really as a result of Japan. Japan was the country that gave me those chances, and without Japan, I would not be where I am now,” he said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
In the 1980s, Saito, then a high school student who already had a small computer business, used to spend summers in Tokyo interning at companies. He learned a lot by walking around the Akihabara district of the capital and from Japan’s emerging electronics industry, and made connections with people in the industry, which eventually allowed him to gain business contracts with NEC Corp., Toshiba Corp. and many others.
“When I was a teenager and in my early 20s, frankly, not everything went perfectly, but these people forgave me. They still continued the business relationships,” Saito said.
It was the time when Japan’s economic strength was skyrocketing. But since then, Japan Inc.’s strength has waned.
“The problem with Japan right now is that people have become so conservative. People have become so risk-averse that failure has become a bad word. So, they end up doing nothing,” said Saito, who is fluent in Japanese and English.
Saito said that 10 to 20 years ago, there were people who gave young people like him a chance, but now, people in the early 20s don’t get such opportunities and don’t have hope. “I thought this would be an opportunity to give back and create chances for the next generation.”
So he founded InTecur K.K., a Tokyo-based technology consultancy, which invests in venture businesses and serves as an adviser to various startups and governments worldwide.
He also teaches at several universities and provides scholarships every year to six students who want to study abroad, hoping to create “ambassadors” that link Japan to the rest of the world.
Saito feels Japan, whose products once dominated the global market, is not catching up with the quick pace of innovation happening around the world now.
“If you look at audio, they went from cassette tapes to CDs, and that’s how Sony got famous. And they went from CDs to USB. But as soon as we started using USB, now we are using the cloud. It happens so fast,” he said.
“To make things even worse, this innovation is no longer Nagoya versus Detroit. It’s now Shinagawa versus Seoul versus Taipei versus Bangkok versus Silicon Valley. You have all this innovation that happens at such a quick pace for multiple parts of the world,” he said.
But Saito, who advises governments including Japan and the United Arab Emirates, said Japan can be competitive again with only a little more effort because it already has the most important natural resource: intellect.
“I call this the last mile. This last mile is not a big deal,” he said, adding that many countries have to start from creating necessary infrastructure, but Japan already has universities, a highly educated workforce and even Nobel laureates.
Saito said he is able to prove this point because the companies he invested in became successful once they received proper direction.
“They are smart people. They just need direction and support to build the right team to help support that intellect,” said Saito, whose book “The Team” is among those he wrote in Japanese.
In “The Team,” published in October last year, Saito talks about the importance of team-building and how Japanese organizations fail to create good teams. He said Japan’s top-down decision-making culture and seniority-based system hinders innovation, and Japan should give more chances to women and the younger generation.
“Japan is already not diverse to begin with. Yet, it shuns women. It shuns young people,” he said.
According to Saito, both the Manhattan Project, a research and development program that produced the first atomic bomb, and the Apollo moon project had about 300,000 people working on in each, and the average age of those people was 27.
“The age 27 is probably when a person is most creative, most innovative, with the most energy, yet Japan throws this away,” he said.
Saito said the WEF also sees the importance of hearing young people’s voices, given recent movements like the Arab Spring. And with Saito’s recommendation, the organization last year created a Tokyo hub where 30 influential young Japanese in their 20s selected as Global Shapers gathered for discussion, and five of them were invited to Davos last year.
“Immediately when it was forming, (WEF founder Klaus) Schwab decides to come to Japan and sees 30 people in their 20s, talking in English about what they do and how they want to change the world. It was very impressive,” he said, adding that there are now 200 such hubs of Global Shapers worldwide.
“The World Economic Forum is the premier event where you can get people who are concerned about the world and who come from multiple diverse backgrounds that represent stakeholders,” said Saito, adding that Japan should learn from this community and also share its experiences ranging from disaster recovery to “Abenomics,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plans for Japan’s economic recovery.
“These are the discussions that we should not be doing with a bunch of Todai (University of Tokyo) graduates in one room wearing the same kind of suit,” Saito said.