Japan: Earthquake entrepreneurs

Tokyo raised journalist Lisa Katayama founded the Tofu Project.  It connects entrepreneurs, innovators and business leaders in Japan and the US through a series of events. She has seen more interest in entrepreneurship and sees the fallout of the earthquake as being a key catalyst to this process. “It comes from survival, and needing to survive,” she says. Her documentary We Are All Radioactive follows a community in the aftermath of the earthquake. She has been in close touch with people in the northern coastal regions of the country and seen people starting their own ventures.

“Japanese people have always traditionally really trusted the government to take care of them,” Ms Katayama says, “or they’ve worked in an industry that’s been sustainable and fine, like farming or fishing. Now they can’t do that anymore because of the earthquake. I think it’s forcing people to think outside of the box.”

Japanese-American entrepreneur, venture capitalist and MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, believes that entrepreneurship is essential if the country is to regain its competitive edge. “As the world gets more agile and as innovation gets pushed to the edges, into small groups of people, many of them not even part of larger organisations, that’s where innovation is happening,” Mr Ito says. “You need an entrepreneurial spirit to turn those ideas into companies or even to take the risk to try those ideas in the first place,” he says.

Hiro Maeda is a founder of Open Network Labs, an accelerator based in Tokyo which was set up in 2010 with the aims of fostering an ecosystem for entrepreneurs.  It is not just young graduates who are turning to their own enterprises, but Mr Maeda sees many applications from people in their 30s and older who have worked in established companies. “A lot of the established players are no longer so established,” he says, explaining that companies like Panasonic and Sony hit their all-time lowest share prices this year and have been laying off workers. “It’s because there’s that uncertainty that people are willing to leave their jobs and take higher risks.”