Photo: Rakuten CEO Hiroshi "Mickey" Mikitani (back row, fourth from left) flanked by Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz (left) and John Zimmer, Lyft Co-founder and President (right), with JANE delegates and other guests.

Last December, while most Japanese businesses were winding down the fiscal year with “bonenkai” (literally “forget the year gatherings”) and winter break, a group of forward-thinking business leaders representing the advocacy body Japan Association of New Economy (JANE) were in Silicon Valley. The purpose of their two-day summit: to learn about the region’s innovation culture, share insights and network with the top tech companies, venture capitalists and startups in the area.

Day one of the summit included visits to leading Silicon Valley organisations such as Playground, a hardware and materials incubator led by business icon Andy Rubin,  and StartX, Stanford University’s non-profit business incubator that helps founders do new things through experiential education and collective intelligence.  Insights shared at a roundtable meeting with Silicon Valley’s leading VCs and entrepreneurs also sparked a lively discussion.

“Silicon Valley’s culture of social impact and growth could work in the Japanese social model.”

Day two saw presentations on new-economy business models at Plug and Play, a business accelerator and start-up ecosystem founded by growth investor Saeed Amidi, as well as a roundtable on innovation, growth and value creation with executives at Lyft, the ride-hailing pioneer in which Rakuten was an early investor.

To cap off the summit, Rakuten CEO and JANE representative director Mickey Mikitani and Bret Taylor, Salesforce President and Chief Product Officer, welcomed JANE participants and media to a gathering held at the summit of one of Salesforce’s central San Francisco locations. Over hors d’oeuvres, IPAs and mineral water, Mickey toasted the success of the visit: “Collaborations like this are how things happen.”

Members of the delegation agreed, sharing with Rakuten.Today their excitement for the trip and everything they had seen.

Noriyuki Matsuda, Founder, President and CEO of SourceNext, focused in on the structural factors that spark Silicon Valley’s innovations. “The Valley empowers very young people to create huge wealth and it also attracts so much global talent,” he said, before expressing surprise and disappointment at how few young Japanese seemed to be living and working there.

He also pointed out some contrasts. “Japan has structural and legal barriers to innovation, which prevent sharing economy companies like Lyft from taking hold,” he said.

Discussion also touched on Japan’s need to embrace global technology and disruptive innovation, and the shared concern that Japan’s inward-looking culture could work to stifle innovation and the generation of high-value jobs. Participants spoke about Japan’s need to act immediately before it is too late to make the changes necessary to compete in the new economy.

Takashi Yuri, President and CEO of TechMatrix Corporation, was impressed with his first up-close look at the valley’s tech ecosystem. “The biggest driver for coders in the valley is a passion to add value through innovation,” he observed. “This approach transforms competition into contribution.”

“Silicon Valley’s culture of social impact and growth could work in the Japanese social model,” added Yosuke Tsuji, Founder and CEO of Money Forward.

Wrapping up the event, Mickey celebrated the importance of the JANE organization. “We are aiming to make JANE a reliable and trustworthy partner for Japanese political leaders. I am very pleased to say that we have begun to see our activities have some influence on the direction of Japanese government policy.”

But, as Mickey reminded the audience, JANE’s work is far from over.

“Solutions require real economic expansion, yet Japan has social, political, legal and structural barriers that prevent the emergence of entrepreneurship,” he said. “Japan needs help to change, because politicians dream of a status-quo future, unprepared for coming challenges.”

With the insights gained during the trip, JANE and its members are in the right position to offer that kind of help.