David Blecken
Apr 13, 2018

The state of Japan's new economy

Marc Benioff, John Zimmer and Shinjiro Koizumi were among the speakers at the New Economy Summit 2018 in Tokyo discussing Japan's future. Here are some key takeaways:

From left: Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani; Yoshiki of X Japan; Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff
From left: Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani; Yoshiki of X Japan; Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff

Lyft is keen to enter Japan

John Zimmer, the ride-hailing company’s co-founder and president, said he would “love to be in Japan and we’ll be looking at that possibility”. He added that the regulatory framework would “play a larger role than in other markets” given the level of protection for taxi companies. Brands such as Uber have struggled to gain traction in Japan, but the company is exploring new options that include partnering with taxi firms. Didi also recently became active in the market alongside SoftBank, while Sony has partnered with taxi firms to launch its own service.

From a global perspective, Zimmer said he wanted to do more to fuse Lyft's service with public transportation systems. "I think you'll see more and more collaboration between companies and local governments," he said, noting that bike sharing services were also of interest to his company. "Anything that helps replace car ownership and helps people get from A to B would be interesting."

Japanese sake brands are dying out because people can’t read the labels

Hidetoshi Nakata, the footballer turned sake ambassador, noted that few Japanese people and even fewer would-be foreign consumers can read the kanji characters on sake bottles. “No one is able to read the labels, so they can’t identify the brands, so no one knows how to enjoy sake,” he said. It’s not entirely clear why brands targeting international markets don’t rethink their labels, but for now, Nakata is working on developing a translation app. He suggested sake brands can draw a number of marketing lessons from the global expansion of the wine industry.

Politicians need media pressure and better communications skills

Shinjiro Koizumi, the son of former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and a member of the House of Representatives, criticised the media for being too timid towards politicians. Politics needs external pressure in order to improve, he said. Koizumi also considered why people’s interest in politics is so low. He said it’s largely due to media fragmentation, and the fact that the basic facts are hard to come by. In order for any meaningful discussion and decisions to take place, everyone needs to be on the same page. Both the political arena and politicians have a duty to improve the public’s understanding, he concluded.

Brands should think in terms of sports partnership, not sponsorship

The owners of sports properties want brands to play a more active role in developing those properties. Too often, sponsors remain passive, with little understanding of what they’ve invested in or what they want to get out of it. “Commitment is one of the biggest things we look for,” said Scott Levy, managing director of NBA Asia. “When we bring a partner on board, you’re not going to be successful if you don’t take the time to understand the asset. We want to feel there’s an aspiration to do something innovative that will potentially change the landscape of sport.”

Levy said that it’s important to have a clear goal in mind as a sponsor, and to track performance over a period of time. He advised against looking for short-term results.

Guy Port, Asia managing director of Nielsen Sports, added that sponsors tend to overlook the benefits of sponsorship for their own organisations. “Some of the most successful sponsorships have been companies targeting their employees,” he noted.

Japan is still nowhere near competitive enough in AI

Yosuke Okada, CEO and CTO of Abeja, a deep learning solutions company, said that for all the interest in AI in Japan, the level of investment in the field is still a fraction of that in markets like the US and China. Alibaba, he noted, has already invested the equivalent of 2.5 trillion yen—several times the total size of the Japanese market. He said he was hopeful that more support would be forthcoming for AI startups in order to cultivate an ecosystem. While Okada did not raise the idea, investment in domestic AI companies would surely make sense for the country’s biggest advertising groups. It remains to be seen how seriously they will move in this direction.

Japan is an innovation leader, says Marc Benioff

The chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com described Japan as “the best place to learn about innovation”, largely due to the culture of Zen. A keen practitioner of meditation, Benioff was in Tokyo after a trip to Kyoto, where he spent time cultivating his “beginner’s mind” at the Ryoanji temple. While surely in part motivated by his business interests in Japan (the fastest growing market for Salesforce), his comments were an uplifting contrast to those made by Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy at Ad:tech Tokyo two years ago—essentially that Japan should forget about innovation and concentrate on remaining a nice, clean country.

However, Shinya Yamanaka, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, said Japan should do more to develop long-term thinking. “We can work hard—that’s possible,” he said. "But what we are lacking is a big long-term vision.”

Benioff added that he hoped to see more gender equality in Japan, which would in turn lead to greater innovation. He noted that the country sits 114th out of 144 in the World Economic Forum’s gender equality rankings. “In the most productive countries in the world, we see more gender equality,” he said. “There need to be more women at this conference. We are in a world now where equality is very important.”

Campaign Japan

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