I always feel like writing a column whenever I come to the States. My June 3 column, "10- Year Reunion at HBS," and February 8 column, "Debate with Professor Michael Porter," were written during business trips to the U.S. I suspect that one reason I write during business trips is because the jet lag sometimes keeps me awake at night. :-)
This current U.S. business trip takes me on a pretty tough schedule that covers New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco—five cities in eight days. Right now I'm in a hotel in San Francisco taking the opportunity to reflect on this trip.
Here are my goals for this trip:
1) Visit investors related to venture capital (10 companies). I came to report on our progress to investors who had had the courage to invest in us when the Apax Globis Fund was put together, as I wrote about in the June 3, 1999, column, "The End of the Long Road" (Japanese). The U.S. VC sector was somewhat chilled in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The news covering Japan in English-language newspapers and magazines tended to be mostly negative. In order for U.S. investors to gain a more precise understanding of the current situation, I decided to put together a tour (my thoughts during this time will be summarized in my next column, "The Fall of U.S. Venture Capital").
2) Speak at several business schools (Wharton, Columbia, MIT and others). I will be delivering speeches in English during my visits to each school. I don't know whether people have read my column, "Debate with Professor Michael Porter," or what people may know about me, but recently I have been receiving more requests to speak in the U.S.
The initial purpose for this trip, however, was to attend the Asian Business Conference at Wharton at the invitation of President Tachikawa of NTT DoCoMo, who was scheduled to deliver a keynote address. I had agreed to come along, but then 9/11 happened followed by the war in Afghanistan. After taking stock of the situation and working through all my anxieties, I decided to go. And since I was going to go all that way, I might as well make it worthwhile, so I also agreed to speak at MIT and Columbia.
I attended HBS for two years, starting in 1989, and during that time only two Japanese speakers came to the campus. Even when interest in Japan was high during the golden age of the bubble, only two people came over a period of two years. One was former Minister of Finance Gyoten. I went expecting to be bored by bureaucratic ramblings, but I remember being completely amazed at Mr. Gyoten's command of English, his dignified presence, and the efficient way he handled the Q&A session. The way he quickly dealt with questions, one after another, picking out people in the audience by pointing his finger, saying "Yes, there," was so impressive that I still remember it to this day.
At that time I felt my English was no way near good enough to make such a speech, but I was encouraged to make the effort. I gave presentations again and again during road shows, actively spoke out when I participated in a breakfast meeting with Tony Blair, and whenever the opportunity arose I would accept an invitation to deliver a speech in English, even though I was so poor at it. I asked myself over and over again whether what I had said was reasonable or easy to understand, and then I reworked it countless times to better my manner and posture, the tone of my voice and so on. At last I finally began to feel confident in my ability to concisely express myself in English.
Japan's presence on the global stage is waning compared to when I was a student. The number of Japanese students accepted into the business schools is steadily decreasing every year. When I was at Harvard, the Asian Business School was almost like the Japan Business Club, but now students from other Asian countries tend to dominate. Case studies on Japan have decreased, and most of the time cases linked to Japan are related to failure, not best practices.
The student with whom I dined today was indignant at the way Japan is now being derided at business schools. Apparently a pointless discussion had been taking place based on Michael Porter's thesis, "Can Japan Compete?" According to this student, Japan was being compared with Apple or GM, with the reasons for their decline being compared with Japanese companies, in an attempt to identify the problems in Japan. I was having a hard time understanding why the situation in Japan was being generalized in this way and then used as a point of comparison; surely if one is going to compare GM with anything it should be Toyota, and Apple should be compared to Toshiba. The student was frustrated that he had not been able to provide precise counter-arguments when called upon several times by the professor.
When I think of these situations, I feel determined to make speeches at every business school so that people can correctly understand the Japanese point of view. Through these speeches I could explain Japan's strengths clearly and concisely, that Japanese entrepreneurs are spirited and enthusiastic, that Japanese corporations are strong and well grounded, and that Japanese politics is headed in a good direction. At the very least, I could speak up about the good points that I have seen myself. And if giving these speeches could in any way cheer up Japanese and Asian students, then I need to continue doing so by any means.
I was most pleased to receive the following correspondence from the students who had organized the speaking engagements:
"For students like us who have been participating in running the conference and also want to elevate the presence of Japan, it was a matter of great pride to be able to have a speaker like you who was able to say things based on your own successful experiences about the brighter aspects of Japan. Even non-Japanese participants had good things to say after the conference. As you know from our get-together, all the Japanese students were very pleased. I myself came away very encouraged, feeling as though I had gained a new opportunity for thinking about various things."
—From students at Wharton
"Many friends of mine who had not been able to hear you speak last year at the HBS Asia Business Conference attended your presentation yesterday, and many of them commented about how pleased they were to have been able to hear you speak about what you are doing now and the current state of venture in Japan. Until now, I feel we have not been able to fully communicate Japanese issues in the U.S., perhaps because of distance between the two countries, or perhaps because of our own inability to clearly explain, or even to fully understand. I said this yesterday, but the number of people who attended yesterday was more than at any event I have attended in the past, even more than that for the presentation by Top Copeland (a leading person in corporate finance). I genuinely felt the high interest in your speech."
—From a student at MIT
"Thank you for coming to speak at Columbia University. The event was extremely popular across the board, among Japanese as well as American and Asian students. Particularly fascinating were your comments on issues related to VC, the early stage and hands-on investment styles, and how it is wrong to simply imitate the U.S. We are so happy that we, the JBA (Japan Business Association), were able to offer our business school friends an opportunity to hear a speech by a Japanese manager."
—From students at Columbia
I slightly regret not planning speeches for San Francisco and Chicago during this trip. From now on I will definitely make a speech at any town I visit where there is a business school, even in Europe. I don't give many speeches in Japan, but whenever I'm abroad, I will continue to make speeches as long as I've got the energy to do so. Next year I may even be writing this column from INSEAD in Fontainebleau or LBS in London.
As these thoughts go through my head, I am looking out the window at the sunrise over San Francisco.