Traverse City Record-Eagle

Business

August 27, 2013

Startups gain appeal as some Japan Inc. names fade

TOKYO (AP) — In a shabby back-alley office in Shibuya, a Tokyo district known for youth culture and tech ventures, defectors from corporate Japan are hard at work for a little known company they fervently believe will be the country’s next big manufacturing success.

Like a startup anywhere in the world, its bare bone setup crackles with an optimistic energy and urgent sense of purpose. What’s different, for Japan, is that this startup’s talent is drawn from the ranks of famous companies such as Mitsubishi, Michelin and Nissan.

Kohshi Kuwahara, 26, worked for more than two years at electronics giant Panasonic Corp. before hopping to Terra Motors Corp., a little know venture that pays far less but is out to conquer the world with its stylish electric scooters. As with his colleagues at Terra, he resiled from the hidebound culture of big Japanese companies and felt a deep sense of frustration at their eclipse by rivals such as South Korea’s Samsung and America’s Apple.

“If you’re stuck in a system that promotes just by seniority, it’s living a slow death like animals on a farm,” said Kuwahara. “I wanted to be in a tough competitive place.”

Despite having some of the developed world’s least hospitable conditions for starting a new business, Japan’s “salaryman” culture of guaranteed lifetime employment at a household name corporation is no longer the unquestioned ideal.

Ventures are sprouting again after a decade marred by some high-profile failures and a striking aspect is their focus on manufacturing. Facebook and Google they are not. They are Sony and Toyota, all over again — but with young fresh faces.

Terra Motors founder and president Toru Tokushige, 43, said one sign of progress for startups is that these days they have no problems recruiting quality people.

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