Why, asks a Japanese magazine, wasn’t the iPad invented in Japan? The short answer would be that Steve Jobs isn’t Japanese. Japan does, however, have a similarly hard-driving perfectionist manager in Mr. Tadashi Yanai, head of Fast Retailing, who is rapidly turning his chain of clothing stores, Uniqlo, into a global brand like Sony or Honda.
Uniqlo, offering reasonably priced casual ware, has recently opened flagship stores in Paris, Moscow and Shanghai, with plans for overseas sales to surpass domestic revenues by 2015. This year the majority of its 300 new hires were Japanese, while some 100 were from China, South Korea and elsewhere. Mr. Yanai wants half of its 600 hires next year to be non-Japanese and to reverse the proportion by 2012 so that two-thirds are from overseas.
In line with this goal of becoming a truly international company, Fast Retailing recently announced that it is shifting its company language to English by March 2012. Such a policy is rare in Japan. One predecessor is automaker Nissan, which switched to English a decade ago when Mr. Carlos Ghosn became president, and Mr. Hiroshi Mikitani, founder and head of the online retailer Rakuten, who announced at the end of last month plans to likewise make English the company’s working language within two years.
Unusual in Japan’s risk-averse culture, Mr. Yanai is nothing if not daring in his vision, entering last October, for example, into a collaboration with German designer Jil Sander to create the +J line of affordable fashion. The American brand Theory, which was purchased by Fast Retailing, has recently made a similar hookup with the young Belgian designer Olivier Theyskens.
Mr. Yanai’s latest venture, announced July 13, is a partnership with Mr. Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank in a “social business” to manufacture clothing in Bangladesh at prices affordable to the local population. Fast Retailing first established an office in Bangladesh in 2008 to oversee the manufacture of goods for sale in Japan, but the new operation will primarily be to train local workers and contribute to the local economy.
Let’s hope that the entrepreneurial spirit of Mr. Yanai can inspire a new generation of Japanese, as he was inspired by pioneers at Sony and Honda.
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