Mentorship in Japan

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.”
― Plato


9 thoughts on “Mentorship in Japan

  1. Interesting observations. I recently visited Japan and attended the b-dash conference in Osaka (more on that here –, and my impressions were that Japan’s startup community is surprisingly not as strong as one would expect from with such a technology advanced country.

    On the other hand, they seem aware of it, and are looking up to younger firms and entrepreneurs to carry the change forward, so I wouldn’t use DoCoMo and salesforce – two huge enterprise companies – as representative. The CEO of Mixi mentioned it in one of the talks, and I also talked with a couple of people from DeNA, and they seemed very interested in working with and helping startups. There are also VCs like Digital Garage, that are becoming very active in early stage investments and are taking more risks compared to traditional Japanese firms – Some of the companies that were with me in the 500startups summer batch got investments from them (and they played a big role in helping them getting into 500startups). We ourselves (Binpress) have a Japanese investor on board (Tak Miyata from Scrum Ventures).

    While this is not mentoring as you referred to it, it seems the culture of “paying it forward” is growing in the Japan startup scene, with contributions from the bigger, successful startups and more involvement from local VCs. I also wouldn’t expect much mentoring from VCs – most of them do not have the background to do so, not in Japan or the U.S – mentoring should happen between experienced founders and less experienced founders – and that seems to be growing in Japan as well.

    It’s also such a small world now, with communication over the internet being so easy. I have personally mentored a couple of Japanese founders (one of which I never met in person before visiting Japan) – so determined entrepreneurs will find the right people to help, regardless of location. I think a much bigger hurdle is the Japanese culture which is very risk-averse, making startups and failure (which is the most common outcome) not as culturally acceptable as other, more streamlined occupations.

    1. Eran — thank you so much for taking the time to contribute your thoughts. They are invaluable and ever so appreciated.

      I hope you — or anyone else for that matter — don’t misunderstand my views as criticizing, or even insisting the American way is the best way. It’s just that I have been around for a while (my father, went to MIT and was one of the first programmers out of Japan that worked abroad in teh 80s. He would bring me to work with him on the weekends and I can still smell 286 tapes and hear the humming of the churn, punched Cobol with him. learned DOS prompts, C, C++ and how to compile code. My first job was at an enterprise corporation where I was a PM — in the day and age when PMs did everything from double checking code, writing technical documents for sales and marketing, to even QA testing…yes, I am a nerd) and even with my corporate experience I have always kept one foot planted in SV as I love technology. I’ve advised start-ups, had many ‘coffees’ with entrepreneurs to flush out ideas, worked with incubators, etc., etc., but I digress.

      Because of my experience, I firmly believe, mentorship — not in a “I know best, you listen to me” type of way, but the brainstorms, conversations, advising or even just sharing experiences impacts others in ways one can never imagine. I wish others who have proven track records, create a baseline to treat a 16 year old high school drop-out equally as a 27 year old Harvard MBA so long as a certain framework is in place… This is something I’ve yet to see or experience in Japan.

      To be fair, every human on the planet has a different barometer for success metrics…which is why I disagree with your last point. Our risk adverse culture, is the reason our country has come this far and the reason I still believe in Japan.

      Our patience, discipline, attention to details and precision is one of our many strengths. I just think there is a way to fuse the Japanese way with commonalities of what makes a technology company succeed. And I look to those who were born and raised in Japan (unlike myself) and involved in tech, to pioneer new perspectives :)

      Thanks again for taking the time to contribute your insights and feedback — if you’re ever in Tokyo, do please let me know!

      1. I think what you call mentoring I call networking – meeting other smart and skilled people in the same industry, regardless of age, gender and background, talking about what you are doing, bouncing ideas and getting feedback and support. We had a very intense 4 months of that as part of the 500startups accelerator program, being in the same office with 30 other young companies – it was amazing. On the other hand, we didn’t find the “official” mentor network of 500startups to be that useful. There’s only so much you can get from talking to someone you barely know for 30 minutes on skype, without any previous context. Could be helpful for very specific needs, but for the interactions mentioned above, I think just constantly meeting other founders is better by far. I wrote about this more in detail a couple of months ago –

        This is something that is very strong in SV, and the main reason we moved our operations here. Definitely, I’d love to see it happen in Japan too – from what I understand, age and seniority are given preference in Japan over output and motivation (in a lot of other countries too, but in Japan it’s very dominant). SV is somewhat special in the amount of opportunity it gives anyone with enough hustle and determination, regardless of their background or age.

        I wasn’t criticizing the risk-aversion of Japanese culture – but in the context of startups, it’s a major barrier. To innovate, you have to take risks and be ready to fail a lot before you succeed. I’m originally from Israel, where it seems like everybody is working on their own startup – everyone has too much confidence and risk taking is highly ingrained in our culture. That’s the main reason why the Israeli startup scene is second in the world only to the U.S, despite such a small population.

        Most people in Japan will be terrified of leaving a company job to start a startup, and that’s too bad. That doesn’t have to come at the cost of attention to detail, patience and discipline which is an amazing part of Japanese culture (which I’m a huge fan of, by the way). I think if it becomes more acceptable to create startups instead of finding a conventional company job, the Japanese startup scene would just blow up, with all the tech talent and creativity that’s already there. Dave McClure gave a talk about this in Osaka this year – – I think he went somewhat overboard, but that’s just Dave’s on-stage persona.

        If I come back to Tokyo, I’ll be sure to let you know :) I really loved my time there

      2. > I think what you call mentoring I call networking
        Apologies for being unclear. By mentorship, I am talking about the type of mentoring say a Paul Graham and Marissa Mayer for example, provides. Not only do they invest financially, they invest in the person, guiding and teaching with open minds, as opposed to you a ‘you listen to me, I know best’ type master-apprentice type way. I’ve found the best teachers to be those who determine a person’s individual based on character and not age + experience + who they know. My definition of mentorship may have sounded like networking, as I believe people with good networking skills ie: abilities to talk to meet, talk to people and provide-get value from almost every conversation, are also excellent teachers — mentors.

        Our risk-adverseness is ingrained in our DNAs, as we are a country founded on detail, patience and discipline — they go hand in hand…which is the chicken and egg. Which is the reason I believe mentorship from these key individuals who are of certain age and seniority is key in nurturing entrepreneurs, setting them up for success and enpower them to go against our DNA to take risks, while keeping attributes that make our culture so unique :)

        I’ve always wanted to go to Israel btw. I am a huge fan of the culture, history, people and of course the food.

  2. Precautionary tale: I’m French origin. I have lived in France (though not for the last 12 years). I have been in living in Canada, and in Japan. Working in many contexts including Web agencies, international companies/organizations, etc. The comment is just a train of thoughts, nothing specifically affirmative.

    One sentence in your post gave me a chilling effect ;) You said: “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 the time spent in a profession or age. Tech provides relevant solutions by building products or services — it doesn’t require centuries of silent observation and perfecting crafts like making sushi.”

    I often say that I had more culture shocks living in Canada, than living in Japan (coming from a French/European background). There’s indeed a culture in North America of trying first and then solve the issues when they come. It often gives a bowl of fresh air specifically for the class of people who have been raised in the mold of exploring and trying things. It also has the effect of facilitating individual experience over community values. If you are not fitting into the self made persona valuing hard workers and entrepreneurs, you are basically left out.Two jobs, no healthcare, etc. etc. And because the ethos of the north american society has chosen this model as a reference contradicting it seems a very strange thing to do. When in a position of a technical director in Canada of a Web agency, I had to fire on the spot people. Something which would not be possible in France for example and that was utterly uncomfortable.

    I also the feeling that there are interesting values and constraints in the Japanese culture which would be worth using. I think one of the strong issue of the IT in USA is that the ethics and the long term of an idea is never really thought. That market forces will do their own good. On the other hand I would value a system we can both help young people to start with fresh ideas but that these ideas are expressed in a larger context including community, ethics, etc. In Japan too often the individual (and specifically women) seems to be sacrificed and in USA, too often the community seems to be sacrificed.

    Can we go halfway and meet in the middle? ;)

    1. > there are interesting values and constraints in the Japanese culture which would be worth using
      Can we go halfway and meet in the middle? ;)

      Nailed it — basically you summed up my thoughts better than I did ;)

      Thanks for your insights and taking the time to write a comment. This discussion, is the very first step to meeting in the middle ;)

  3. “In Japan too often the individual (and specifically women) seems to be sacrificed and in USA, too often the community seems to be sacrificed.” I seriously agree with Karl’s sentiment.

    Mona, Honjo-san’s series on incubation in Shukan Diamond is worth reading, imo. He does cover mentorship in Japan’s Internet segment but I think he would largely agree with the overall assessment in this blog post. He’s also quite realistic wrt the status of entrepreneurship in Japan.

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