People | 20 QUESTIONS

Steve Sakanashi has the heart of a coach

by Anna Oura

Contributing Writer

Name: Steve Sakanashi
Age: 33
Nationality: American
Occupation: Founder of Sekai Creator and Director of Global Innovation at Fusion’z Holdings, sekaicreator.org
Likes: Team sports, weekend drives, farmers, Hakone Ekiden
Dislikes: Wobbly tables at coffee shops


1. You grew up in the U.S. Why did you end up moving to Japan? I grew up in Los Angeles and spent my young adulthood in Seattle. I was born a dual citizen of Japan and the U.S., but as a child I never learned Japanese, visited Japan or had a relationship with my Japanese family. During my first visit at 19, I fell in love with “my country” and decided that I wanted to use my life to benefit Japan. Moving was a natural result of this desire.

2. How did you overcome the language and culture barrier? Honestly, I met a lot of amazing Japanese friends who could speak English. They taught me about Japan and risked their reputations to give me opportunities.

3. What’s the best part of being Japanese American in Tokyo? The worst? No one stares at me … until I speak.

4. You’ve held a variety of roles — entrepreneur, mentor, English teacher and basketball coach, just to name a few. How do you answer the question “what’s your job”? My job is to make people better. When I graduated high school, my dream was to become a high school teacher and basketball coach. Although I am in the business field now, my heart will always be that of a coach.

5. Why did you found the Sekai Creator student startup incubator? I started Sekai Creator without any real qualifications because I believed that Japan’s future depended on entrepreneurial leaders. I didn’t see a lot of other hands-on programs in Japan, and decided that trying to do something would be better than doing nothing.

6. “Sekai Creator” sounds like a video game title. One friend also told me that it sounds like a cult. I was actually going to change the name until some alumni told me that they loved the name because it inspired them to dream big and bold. That was my goal, to create new worlds.

7. Is it anything like the TV show “The Apprentice”? Yes, because we lose participants every week, but this is because students “fire” themselves by dropping out.

8. What is the most rewarding part of the eight-week program? Final pitches. The transformation from week one to eight is incredible. Many students decide to quit, but the ones who make it to the final pitch are the fuel that (inspires) our mentors to continue supporting the program. Gritty people are irresistible.

9. What was the most creative pitch you’ve ever heard from a student? To eliminate spring allergies in Tokyo by developing pollen-absorbing cement. She was 17 years old.

10. Are Japanese youngsters different from their American counterparts? They massively underrate themselves. When their legendary work ethic and teamwork are unleashed in true global competition, which demands constant innovation, Japan is world-class. The best current example of this is breakdancing, where Japanese youth, particularly girls, push the limits of the sport globally.

11. What kinds of people are fit to run a company? I recently joined a venture company, Fusion’z Holdings, as a corporate director because I believe in the leadership of the CEO. His deep sense of responsibility, leadership and endless curiosity attracted me. I think that people who are willing to accept unlimited challenges end up creating unlimited opportunities for their companies.

12. Do you have a favorite world leader or CEO? Uesugi Harunori, the ninth lord of Yonezawa. At the age of 17 he started ruling one of the poorest domains in Japan and transformed it into one of the most prosperous by the time he finished. I discovered him through “Representative Men of Japan: Essays,” by Kanzo Uchimura.

13. It seems like all successful people have crazy schedules and routines. How do you always start your day? I try to read my Bible and meditate before jumping into each day.

14. How would you define “success”? Becoming entrusted by others to protect the most important things in life.

15. What are people most surprised to find out about you? I also teach a Bible class at Tsuda University.

16. What is your favorite “untranslatable” Japanese word (and how do you translate it)? Zekkōchō, which means “f——— great.”

17. What’s your guilty pleasure? Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with lime.

18. Speaking of snacks, are you team Takenoko no Sato or team Kinoko no Yama? Takenoko no Sato. Mushrooms and chocolate are gross.

19. If you had a ship, what would you name it? Mark T. Sakanashi, after my dad, who died when I was in high school. He went bankrupt trying to help Japan. I want people to know his name.

20. What is your least favorite adage? “I don’t see color.” The world is colorful, why destroy the beauty of its diversity?

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5