TOKYO – Worn out and resigned to its dwindling national status, Japan Inc. is said to be quietly shuffling off the world stage. But dont tell that to Kenji Hasegawa, who is ready to conquer the global auto market with his nifty innovation, a bolt that doesnt need a nut. Or Chiaki Hayashi, who makes millions teaching big-name companies to be creative again.
As different as they seem – Hasegawa runs auto-parts supplier Lockn Bolt Corp. and Hayashi is a rare woman to help found a Tokyo startup – both highlight the potential of innovation and entrepreneurship in a nation that is often typecast as facing an unrelenting decline.
Long in the doldrums after its 1980s bubble economy burst, Japan was recently eclipsed by China as the worlds second-biggest economy.
Japan, according to the naysayers, is stagnating, only looking inward and squandering advantages such as its well-educated workforce, low crime rate and a rich history of technological prowess.
In order to have innovation, you must accept a certain amount of failure. To the Japanese, this has become taboo, said William Saito, a prolific technology inventor who now runs a company that identifies up-and-coming innovators and tries to match them with investors.
Saito says conformist Japan frowns upon failures and doesnt allow for second chances.
For some, Japans revival can come from re-inventing what it has long known best – manufacturing, but with innovative ideas.
A nutless bolt, based on the idea of a smaller bolt within a bolt, a patented secret, is also significantly lighter than a regular bolt, delivering cost-savings in fuel and raw materials and other perks like better mileage in a car.
Hasegawa is talking with a long list of interested companies, including Panasonic Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. He is looking into production outside Japan, perhaps Vietnam, he said.
Hayashis young business, Loftwork Inc., earned $11 million in annual sales taking a different but equally Japanese route as Hasegawas.
She offers a service that stems from her diagnosis of the sickness at major companies – the loss of the innovative spirit. She hopes to start a kernel of creativity going at companies that starts small but snowballs.
Top Japanese companies have a load of talented hardworking people, but they have become so obsessed with rigidity like quality control in mass production that their thinking has grown static, and they cant figure out where to start or how to change, she said.