It must have been in 2007 or 2008, during my graduate studies at a business school in Helsinki, Finland. I was sitting in a classroom with 30 fellow students when one of them asked us to raise our hands if we were considering a career as an entrepreneur after graduation. I looked around and saw a solitary hand being raised shakily. Out of 30 or so students, only one came out of the corporate closet, so to speak.
This anecdotal evidence was in line with the zeitgeist back then. This was the era of multinational corporations, and anyone landing a job in one of those behemoths was unquestioningly seen as a high performer. Conversely, becoming an entrepreneur was seen as a plan B — a fallback for university graduates whom the corporate world did not deem employable. Entrepreneurship in Finland also had negative connotations because of the major recession that had taken place in the early 1990s.
Fast-forward to the 2010s, and Peter Vesterbacka — formerly known as “Mighty Eagle” at game maker Rovio — asks a lecture hall packed with students about which of them would like to become entrepreneurs. This time, hardly any hands remain down, and instead it feels as if everyone is vying to be the one whose hand is held the highest.
But what does this Scandinavian story have to do with Japan? Well , the truth is that this country is now in the same situation that Finland was in 10 years ago. But bear with me: This is not a story simply about entrepreneurship, this is about re-imagining a nation for future generations.
Time for tweaking is over
Copying and tweaking were at the core of Japan Inc.’s success from 1945 all the way to the early 1990s when the asset price bubble burst. Negative connotations attached to “Made in Japan” were rapidly forgotten as companies such as Sony, Nikon and Toyota started exporting products that cultivated an image of Japan as the home of cutting-edge technology. Massive corporations, economies of scale, innovative products and hard-working employees helped transform Japan into a global economic powerhouse.
However, the economic growth miracle of post-1945 Japan was also made possible by ambitious and forward-thinking politicians and bureaucrats who faced the daunting task of rebuilding a nation. In fact, looking back at Japan’s history, changes have often taken place in rather dramatic circumstances. The Meiji Restoration and World War II both forced Japan to transform itself, but today in 2017, change is happening in a different way.
One sign of societal change comes from university students and their attitudes toward work. My colleague from Aalto University in Helsinki and I recently conducted a study among students in Japanese universities about their career and employment expectations, and our findings suggested that students are increasingly critical toward the traditional working style in Japan that glorifies quantitative commitment to and prioritization of the employer. That is to say, Japanese youth are questioning the need to put in ridiculously long working days simply because they are told to do so.
A phenomenon often connected to long working hours, karōshi, has also been identified by the government as an issue that needs to be dealt with. Whether Japanese companies introduce practices that prevent “death by overwork” remains to be seen, but there is something bigger at play here that reveals what is keeping this country from advancing.
Let’s call it the “Silicon Valley syndrome.” Its chief symptom is fascination with the San Francisco Bay Area, and its sufferers in Japan include countless bureaucrats, industry professionals, journalists and academics. The number of symposia in Japan in which the question “How can we create Silicon Valley in Japan?” is asked is staggering.
Can you see where I’m going with this? Japan is still stuck in the copy-and-tweak mind-set, but by now it should be obvious to everyone that this way of thinking is not the solution anymore. I am not suggesting that we forget Japan’s past successes, but instead that Japan must look to areas where the nation’s strengths lie today and in the future: the youth.
Lessons from Finland
This might all sound a bit naive, so allow me to elaborate on this argument by briefly returning to Finland.
Finland’s transformation into an entrepreneurial society can partly be explained by major global trends, but many initiatives focusing on developing Finland are actually coming from the students or as a result of other bottom-up or grass-roots initiatives: Slush, Restaurant Day and Linux are but a few examples. These initiatives in turn were made possible because those in gatekeeping roles in society allowed people to design and experiment with new ways of organizing Finnish society.
In fact, movements such as the student-driven Slush Tokyo that aim to ignite the entrepreneurial fire in Japanese youth and forward-thinking companies such as ANA, DMM and i.lab, which combine Japan’s strengths with ideas developed abroad, are the ones transforming the country.
On a more micro level, changes are also present. Next time you are walking the streets of Tokyo, look how many couples are walking hand in hand and how many fathers are carrying their children. Indeed, today ideas and concepts travel around the world faster than ever, and there is nothing wrong with copying best practices from abroad as long as we modify them to match our local needs.
To transform itself, Japan needs to provide the younger generations with role models that encourage the youth to define the questions that need to be asked and challenges that need to be solved. The era of catching up and focusing on finding the right answers is long gone, and now it is up to the government, corporations and parents to create an environment where young people can thrive.
Miikka J. Lehtonen is an assistant professor and program manager at the University of Tokyo i.school. Arto Lindblom, a professor of marketing at Aalto University, contributed to this article. Foreign Agenda is a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan.