I attended Tech Crunch Disrupt in Tokyo and had a great time.
I went with zero expectations which I think is why I found so much value from Disrupt. I learned about the Japanese community, the established Japanese venture firms. How Japanese VCs think. The main problems entrepreneurs are attempting to solve, etc., etc. I’m really glad I went.
For the first time in all my years of attending events and conferences, I was tweeting away with the appropriate hashtag as I wanted to meet people…and it worked! Several people approached me at the event and even contacted me afterwards. In particular, people seem to want to hear more than 140 characters about Kim Mai-Cutler’s session with a Sr. Executive from Docomo Ventures and a Sr. Director at Salesforce.
There was one question: “what are your thoughts on mentoring and how are you mentoring Japanese entrepreneurs?”…that seemed to baffle the Docomo Ventures and Salesforce guys.
At first, I thought there was a language barrier, since the interview was conducted in English. But no matter however many ways the question was rephrased, the concept of mentorship didn’t seem to register.
So the original question of their thoughts on mentoring was changed to: “Is there someone in Japan the younger entrepreneurs look to for inspiration?” followed-up with: “In the US, it’s Mark Zuckerberg for example.” …and that was when the Docomo Ventures guy replied with “what, you want me to name names? *insert laugh*” and the Salesforce director chimed in: “Japan’s entrepreneurship community is like how the US was 10 years ago, so there isn’t a person younger entrepreneurs can look to yet.”
…the latter, was at least an answer but not really an answer.
So I tweeted the following:
I get why the non-Japanese in the room were extremely confused by the VC’s answers. It’s near impossible for someone who isn’t Japanese, to understand why the concept of mentorship is non-existent in Japan. It starts with how there is no Japanese word for ‘mentor’ or ‘mentorship’.
One of my most trusted Japanese-English dictionaries defines ‘mentor’ with the etymology then goes into Odysseus and the Battle of Troy. ‘Mentorship’ is translated as 「指導」, which is a disciplinary action for a minor infringement of the rules in judo.
Japan is historically an extremely hierarchial society dating centuries back. Many traditions from our military roots or craftsmanship traits still exist. This history and our culture, is the reason we have so many professionals who have worked years perfecting their crafts. Take Jiro, of ’Jiro Dreams of Sushi‘ for example, who is rewarded a Michelin year after year. He is 85 years old. His son is 50 and they are still constantly working towards mastering the art of sushi. Jiro is an extreme case, but the fundamentals of producing life-long excellence falls under the basic apprentice-master traditions.
What does that mean? Well, we still speak to elders in honorofics. We are taught to do as we are told from top down. We certainly do not question those who are older with more experience. We are expected to learn by reading, listening or observing older and experienced people as questions, can at times be considered a sign of disrespect — like we are questioning their expertise. Or it may signify we are not putting enough effort to find answers on our own, or worst case scenario, stupidity.
There are many Japanese companies that are able to move forward, while anchored in historic methods. But from a technological aspect, I wish for Japan to be one of the first countries outside of the US, to adapt one of the greatest things about the United States: the ability to equate respect with output as opposed to seniority. Tech provides relevant solutions by building products or services — it doesn’t require centuries of silent observation and perfecting a single skill like making sushi.
I also wish for the Japanese community to adopt one of the greatest things of the American tech community: mentoring, fostering, giving back and paying it forward. To build an environment where people collaborate, brainstorm, help each other and share knowledge.
The VC arms of major corporations like NTT Docomo and Salesforce can set examples and pave ways. I was a bit bummed to hear them stumped by Kim’s question. Perhaps this is my warm and fuzzy American side talking but I decided to expand on my tweet, as I am believer in community and mentoring.
As tech is rapidly progressing, I hope the ecosystem evolves as well. If not, I’m just going to have to snail-mail or fax every Japanese VC firm this Plato quote ;)
“Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”