Defying data showing a disappointingly low level of entrepreneurship in Japan, seminars aimed at fostering people who start their own firms are proving popular.
The events have drawn attention from government officials, academics and corporate executives eager to spark entrepreneurship as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration tries to nurture startup companies to reinvigorate the economy.
Experts who bemoan the systemic and cultural barriers to brisk entrepreneurship likewise see a ray of hope in the growing popularity of the seminars, including one named Startup Weekend.
Launched in late 2009, Startup Weekend is an intensive three-day event aimed at imparting ways to build business models for aspiring entrepreneurs. One of its strengths is that participants can work on developing business plans without worrying about failure.
During a recent weekend in central Tokyo, more than 30 men and women gathered at a Startup Weekend seminar and shared their ideas and skills in computer programming, Web design and marketing.
“I am already satisfied,” Yuiki Hayakawa, a 21-year-old Sophia University junior, said shortly before the marathon session wrapped up.
During a typical 54-hour session from Friday to Sunday, attendees work in teams and pitch their ideas to judges at the end of the event, while receiving advice from entrepreneurs and others acting as coaches.
Previous participants have come up with such things as a “toilet locator” — a smartphone app designed to help foreigners find clean toilets in Japan — and a website for people looking for home stays in the countryside to experience rural life.
Dong Yol Lee, a Startup Weekend facilitator, said that the seminar offers an “experiential education” that is different from an experiment with a teacher, and that participants actually fail to build business models “95 percent of the time.”
But failure gives them “true wounds and motivation,” he said. The seminar “does not start businesses but creates entrepreneurs.”
The Japan branch of Startup Weekend was launched in Tokyo in December 2009 by a Briton named Jonny Li. It is part of a network that originated in the United States.
Sessions were infrequent at first, with 93 participants showing up for two events during the initial year. But last year, 1,948 people participated in 50 events.
By mid-February, 4,369 people had participated in a total of 93 sessions, and the seminars have spread to 16 cities, including Sendai, Osaka and Fukuoka.
Startup Weekend has caught the attention of Yoshiaki Ishii, the official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) in charge of new business policy.
Ishii, who attended one of the seminars last November, said the events offer a “good environment” for creation, and participants can work on new ideas without fear of failure.
Although this type of seminar is becoming popular, Japanese entrepreneurship lags far behind Europe and the U.S.
A government white paper on small firms published last year, for example, found that the number of Japanese hoping to start businesses nearly halved to 839,000 in 2012 from 1.67 million in 1997.
The report also cited a 2013 survey showing that Japanese who prefer to be self-employed were fewer in number than their peers in Britain, France, Germany and the U.S.
Eager to beef up entrepreneurship in Japan and thereby create jobs and drive industrial innovation, the government has stepped in to help prepare the ground for aspiring business owners.
METI has been financing organizations like Innovation Network Corp. of Japan, which was established with government and private-sector funding.
A METI project called Jump Start Nippon aims to support entrepreneurs by providing funding to venture capital firms and other private-sector actors that seek to discover and support promising startup companies.
Although public support is increasing noticeably, experts say those who wish to start businesses in Japan still face considerable difficulty getting access to capital, a situation that in their view stifles entrepreneurship.
The situation is hard to change, according to Startup Weekend’s Lee, who sees the risk-averse culture among Japan-based investors playing a role. “In Japan, almost no investors are gamblers . . . they hate risk,” he said. “Therefore ideas cannot be funded.”
Hironori Higashide, a professor at Waseda University’s business school, said the problem instead lies in a “mismatch” situation where money is available for investment, but there are not enough entrepreneurs to tap it.
He argues that with a good business model combined with a good entrepreneurial team — and if the ideas are big and interesting — securing investment is “not a big problem.”
To improve the environment for entrepreneurs, experts have called for starting entrepreneurial education early, making more “risk money” available for startup companies, and increasing collaboration between existing companies and entrepreneurs.
To spark entrepreneurship in the nation, however, METI’s Ishii said these kinds of projects must be implemented simultaneously because no one project is going to be sufficient.
“Even in the United States . . . it (took) Silicon Valley 50 years to become Silicon Valley,” he said.
Lee argues that Japanese society needs more innovation and change, and to achieve that it needs entrepreneurs. But the public does not know the value entrepreneurs create, he said.
So his group is trying to show the public the importance of entrepreneurship. Once it starts seeing such value, then maybe society “will become like Silicon Valley,” Lee said.
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