As part of having the world follow along with our journey around the globe, myself and George Kembel (co-founder of Stanford’s / my partner in crime with Unreasonable at Sea) are going to start writing a quick reflection on key takeaways from each country we visit throughout the voyage. Our focus will be on the innovation cultures, startup communities, and creative ecosystems of the places we visit and the people we meet. This first post is a reflection on time spent in Japan. As a disclaimer, what is stated here is overly simplified and is taken from only a few short days in Japan spent with a few key leaders in the startup and creative communities in Tokyo and Kyoto. In short, please read this with a grain of salt (maybe even a bag of salt =).

Seven Takeaways From Japan

      1. Etiquette is Paramount: Whether this is in regards to how your greet people (with a polit bow) or how important it is to delicately exchange business cards with both hands, or even how you should never pour your own sake, Japanese culture seemed to be centered around tradition, piety, and overt politeness.
      2. Business Cards = Someone’s Face: I realize that this sounds extreme but I’m being literal here. In Japan, a business card is seen as a representation of a person’s identity… Specifically, it’s seen as analogous to one’s face. So when someone hands you a card, you must accept it with a bow and with two outstretched arms, you must admire it for an extended period of time, and you need to be careful to not fold it and to never let them see you put their card in your pocket. The irony of this? Both George Kembel (co-leading Unreasonable at Sea) and I forgot to bring business cards on the trip =).
      3. Looks can be deceiving: I heard again and again that the greatest hinderance to having a vibrant entrepreneurial eco-system in Japan is rooted in people being too polite. Often times, someone will tell you that they love your idea or that they would like to work with you in one way or another. They will then go home and the truth will come out (i.e. they think your idea is awful and they would never work with you). Although this sounds rather funny at first, it’s a real issue. Without having a culture of constructive criticism and honest dialogue, it’s difficult for entrepreneurs to be challenged and to quickly get market feedback and advice from investors and mentors that they need to hear.
      4. No dinner parties: It is very uncommon to go over to a friend’s or a colleague’s house for dinner. In fact, it is so uncommon that I met two individuals who told me that in the past 5 years, both of them had only eaten 3 times in another friends or co-worker’s house. Real networking happens over meals at restaurants and in the Karaoke bars… which brings me to my next point.
      5. Karaoke is no Joke: I spent 5 hours one night cooked up in a small room in shady building belting out the lyrics to the likes of Billy Joel, the Beach Boys, and Van Morison. What I quickly learned is that in Japan, deals happen while you are making a fool of yourself and singing at the top of your lungs. Karaoke, although it may seem silly, is dead serious when it comes to business.
      6. Design is Everywhere: While walking throughout the streets of Japan and in nearly every experience I had, I felt like there was a reverence for detail. There is an incredible amount of intention, design, and thought that seems to go into nearly every building, piece of art, garden, meal, greeting, and walkway. In today’s world, where design is now obligatory, I feel that this attention to detail will give Japan a real leg up on other creative communities and startup ecosystems.
      7. Incremental vs. Exponential: I heard again and again from entrepreneurs, politicians, and investors that what is holding Japan back most from having an explosive startup scene is that the Japanese are by-and-large risk adverse. The focus of most startups is on the 10% increase in efficiency or profit instead of on the 10x “moonshot” idea.

    For all those who have also spent time in Japan, I’d love to hear your reactions to the list above and for your to add any new bullet points to this list in the comments section below.

Daniel Epstein

Author Daniel Epstein

Daniel has an obsession. He believes to his core in the potential of entrepreneurship to solve the greatest challenges of this century and he has dedicated his life accordingly. He is the proud founder of the Unreasonable Group.

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