My economist father turned me into an entrepreneur

After writing a proposal for Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s Industrial Competitiveness Council on growth strategy entitled “Japan Again,” I understood that as a businessperson I knew only so much. So when I decided to write a book on the same subject I knew early on whom I would ask to be my coauthor: my mentor, my father.

My dad, an economist and a professor emeritus at Kobe University, had often been my debate partner and sounding board as I explored issues around the Japanese economy. We engaged in a series of discussions about the future of Japan and the global economy. My father was instrumental in helping me to understand where we are now, what has led us to this place, and what we must do going forward for Japan and for the larger global economy. It is my honor to share that thinking, with the hopes of continuing the important global conversation he and I started.

Allow me to take a moment to introduce my dad: Ryoichi Mikitani was born at the start of the global economic crisis of 1929 in Nada-ku, Kobe. After graduating from the Graduate School of Economics at Kobe University, then Kobe University of Economics, he chose the path of researcher, and from 1972 until his compulsory retirement as a public employee in 1993, he was a professor in the Graduate School of Economics at Kobe University. He specialized in financial theory and U.S. economic theory, and he served as president of the Japan Society of Monetary Economics (JSME). From there, he moved to the faculty of economics in the Graduate School of Economics at Kobe Gakuin University. He retired in 2002.

My dad was an international economist, which is a rare occupation in Japan. He studied at a language school in his teens, and he was fluent in both English and German. He easily passed the test for the Fulbright Scholar Program, which is known to be a difficult trial, and in 1959, at the age of 29, he entered the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University in the United States. There he studied U.S. economics, then a cutting-edge subject, and he also grew close with James Duesenberry, who was famous for his work on the demonstration effect, as well as Paul Sweezy, known as a Keynesian economist who was well versed in Marxian economics. At the same time, my dad immersed himself in tomes such as the Chinese military text “The Art of War” and “The Analects of Confucius,” becoming well versed in both Western and Eastern philosophy. The depth of his knowledge was absolutely amazing. I continue to have nothing but respect for the profundity of his insight and ability to see things for what they are. It may be more appropriate to introduce him as a philosopher or intellectual rather than as an economist.

Now for a few words about me: I was an unruly child and never one to get good grades, but my dad never had an unkind word for me. Even when I transferred out of my private junior high school after finding it difficult to fit in, he respected my feelings and supported me. Many times, when I found myself at a personal crossroads — when I graduated from Hitotsubashi University and was unsure about whether I wanted to go into research or become a businessman; when I quit my job at the Industrial Bank of Japan (currently Mizuho Bank); when I founded Rakuten; when I tried to buy Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) — I always visited my dad in Kobe to hear his suggestions. My dad has long been a behind-the-scenes counselor to me as I faced important decisions in life.

If he had been a traditional parent, I suppose that I could have expected advice like: “Stop trying to do things differently from other people.” But Dad always supported me, telling me that if I believed something to be essentially correct, I must do it. Naturally, he always reminded me that if I was going to do something, I had better do it right.

As an entrepreneur, I am the sort of person who prefers to understand things in an intuitive way and make top-down decisions. I have previously referred to the process by which I make decisions as a game of catch between my left and right brain. When I started to feel intuitively that I was going to do something, I would go and play this game of intellectual catch with Dad. I would listen to his rational way of thinking and his questions about what my ideal outcome would be and what my experiences in the past have been like and, in the end, I always felt that I was able to transform my intuition into a feeling of certainty.

My parents were living close to me, so I could go ask for Dad’s opinion whenever I wanted. But I knew I could not expect him to act as my counselor forever. He was 83 when I approached him to work on our book, “The Power to Compete,” with me. I thought long and hard about our grand theme this time — the future of Japan — and then I asked my dad for his opinion on my ideas. In total, I had 17 different conversations covering a broad range of topics with Dad, starting in April 2013 and for the following seven months. He passed away on November 9, 2013.

As we worked together on this book, it was our hope that it would help people to recognize the current, difficult situation faced by Japan, as well as offer a vision for a brighter future and a roadmap to get there. Even as I grew up and remained close to him as an adult, there were many times when I did not fully understand what Dad’s job as an economist entailed. The debates we had have, for me, produced a series of revelations. We spent a lot of very valuable time together.

I want to emphasize the deep gratitude I feel toward my dad. He is my mentor, who shaped me into the person I am today.

Editor’s note:

To commemorate Father’s Day, we are pleased to present this excerpt from “The Power to Compete,” a book Mickey authored with his father, Ryoichi, that Bill Gates recently included in his reading list for summer 2016.


The Power to Compete book cover

“The Power to Compete” available for purchase or preview on Kobo, Rakuten Books (Japanese site) or Wiley


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