Entrepreneurial success is possible in Japan, not just in the US

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Against all odds Japanese entrepreneur Ryo Kubota, M.D., Ph.D. left his native Japan for the US to “change the world.” From the basement of his home in Seattle and with his own money he launched Acucela Inc., a biotech startup which develops drugs to treat sight-impairing eye diseases. This February Acucela raised $142 million on the small companies section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE Mothers). Today, Kubota’s thoughts on entrepreneurship and innovation are being sought by government officials, politicians and business leaders seeking ways to rejuvenate Japan’s economy.

The entrepreneurial doctor credits his success to outside the box thinking that he believes Japanese culture does not tolerate. With a bit more respect for people who think crazy thoughts, Japan’s economy, which has been in the doldrums for the past 20 years, can get back on track. Kubota wants everyone to know that entrepreneurial success can be achieved in Japan, not just in the US.

Kubota was born in Kyoto and raised in Kobe. After graduating from Japanese high school, he earned an M.D. and Ph.D. in molecular biology at Keio University where he specialized in ocular research. Later he became a practicing ophthalmologist. To the untrained eye, Kubota seemed typically ‘Japanese’. But an experience in elementary school taught him to think and act differently.

When Kubota was in third grade, his Japanese elementary school teacher called on a fellow student and childhood friend to answer the simple question: “What color is the opposite of white?” The teacher expected to hear black as the answer. But Kubota’s friend argued that red could be considered correct given its prevalence as a contrasting color in Japanese culture.

His friend referred to the Japanese flag which has a red circle on a white background. Also, many festive occasions in Japan are celebrated with red and white colors thought to bring good luck. Steamed sweet bean rice cakes bearing those colors are often served at Japanese weddings and other special occasions. Japanese ceremonial gifts wrapped with stringed ornaments are also colored red and white.

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Kubota was impressed by the sophistication of his friend’s logic. He expected the teacher to recognize its ingenuity and give some credit for it. Instead, the teacher shot back, “No! No! No! Black is the opposite.” Kubota was shocked by the retort, inferring from this experience that one must come to the same answer as everyone else in Japan. Later his friend dropped out of school. There was truth in the old Japanese proverb which warns, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

The following year Kubota’s family moved to the US when his dad was temporarily assigned there. Kubota’s fourth grade US science teacher asked the students, “Does the moon rotate?” (The correct answer is: Yes, it does.) Students this time were directed to consider the evidence and draw their own conclusions.

They formed into two groups, each taking an opposite view. Without any prior knowledge students went through a rigorous debate why they thought one way or the other. The teacher encouraged kids to defend their positions based on logical thinking. Each group was equally valued for their contributions. Kubota inferred from this experience that, in the US, more important than reaching the correct answer (always important) was learning how to think logically. That resulted in a better chance to reach the right conclusion.

Kubota’s educational experiences more than 30 years ago in the two countries could not have been more contrastingly different. In America, he was free to think any which way he wanted. But in Japan, everything was controlled. There could only be one correct answer. Everyone had to do everything the same way. Students even had to wear the same style clothing to school.

In hindsight, Kubota believes his third grade teacher was indoctrinating students to the Japanese custom of living in harmony. “To preserve harmony,” he thought, “there could only be one answer.” Students learn to memorize those answers and not to think any further out of fear of being heavily criticized.

Harmony is not always bad, Kubota argues. “Much of society works well when people rely on others to think and act in coordinated ways,” he says. Basic services like the post office run smoothly. That attribute helped Japan achieve its ‘economic miracle’ in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Then, manufacturers learned to make great products to the highest standards, precisely because there could be no deviation from the norm.

Japan’s high precision, detailed oriented and super clean culture also makes it one of the most comfortable countries of the world to live. The trains run on time. Plumbers and other tradesmen appear when scheduled. Japan has the highest level of social cohesiveness of any nation.

But notes Kubota, these attributes become an inherent weakness in a rapidly changing world where new and disruptive technologies can make established products obsolete overnight. Take Sony, Panasonic and Matsushita for example. These once global leaders lost market share to more innovative firms like Apple and to firms in developing nations which caught up with them.

“Perhaps 1 in a 1,000 – someone comes up with a brilliant idea that outweighs all previous efforts.”

To adjust to a world that is speedier, global and more innovative, Kubota thinks Japan needs people more willing to experiment with ideas that are outside of the box. “Most of those ideas will be crazy,” he says, adding, “But, rarely – perhaps 1 in a 1,000 – someone comes up with a brilliant idea that outweighs all previous efforts. That single idea will be so innovative, new and disruptive that all previously endured failures pale into insignificance.” The invention of e-mail is one example. Compared to snail-mail, it’s more energy efficient and instantaneous. “Someone has to work on those kinds of ideas if they are to be developed,” he says.

Most pioneering work results in failure. Therefore, people need to be unafraid of making ‘mistakes’ or they won’t learn from them. “Making mistakes is part of the cost of innovation,” reckons Kubota who says, “It is similar to learning to walk. The process involves making many mini-failures.” That kind of learning is best achieved in a more flexible teaching environment where logical errors are not admonished.

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

Albert Einstein

Kubota believes education is the process whereby children, who naturally think crazy and dissociative thoughts, are taught to fit into other people’s ways of thinking. This allows society to run smoothly and in a predictable manner. But if education requires too much fitting into the box, as he experienced growing up in Japan, the results may be self-defeating. Then there is little room for a sufficient portion of society to think creatively or be innovative.

Not everyone can or should become an independent or creative thinker, believes Kubota. The majority who apply common sense thinking can support a minority who innovate to prepare for the future. Perhaps 20% of Japanese people should ideally innovate, he argues, reasoning that society would become chaotic if everyone were to think out of the box.

Nor are those who innovate better people than those who don’t. On the contrary, “What is needed is an allowance for diversity,” he suggests. As long as the two groups have mutual respect for one another, Japan can rise to the challenges of the 21st century.

Kubota is optimistic Japan can make that leap without endangering its underlying culture. He cites Japan’s successful transition during the Meiji era when people switched from wearing kimonos and swords to wearing westernized clothing. The change was huge, but the country’s cultural underpinnings remained intact. A similar shift to a freer thinking and more flexible society should also be possible, he assures.

Today there is urgency not present a decade ago to address Japan’s economic stagnation. Realizing Japan must change if the nation is to retain its status as a leading economic power, government officials, politicians and business leaders are seeking input from thought leaders like Kubota. In the past, they would have castigated him for having left Japan, even for short periods. Now they’re embracing his thoughts.

Today when visiting Japan, Kubota feels very much part of the fabric of the country. “Wow!” he marvels, “Japan has changed a lot.”

Dr. Ryo Kubota bio

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