Italy on the Pacific: How Airbnb can alter Japan’s trajectory

May 12, 2015
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italy on the pacificWhen Japanese Prime Minister Abe visited the San Francisco Bay Area last week, he spoke about the need for Japan to foster its own version of Silicon Valley.

His rationale makes sense. Many governments here in Europe have launched initiatives to encourage startup ecosystems and boost innovation (LaFrenchTech, London TechCity, Finland’s Startup Sauna, Enterprise Ireland, Launchpad Denmark, Startup Lisboa, etc.).

The world is flat; Silicon Valley no longer has a lock on innovation; impactful companies can start almost anywhere these days. Although I’ve long argued that governments should stop trying to replicate Silicon Valley, what Silicon Valley represents is inspiring for countries to create their own versions of innovation ecosystems which play to their own unique strengths.

Can Japan create a self-perpetuating innovation ecosystem?

A fantastic recent issue of Monocle magazine drew comparisons between Japan and Italy: an appreciation for high-quality craftsmanship; an insistence on good design; discerning culinary tastes, a ubiquitous sense of style. Even Kagoshima, on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, channels a vibe of Napoli (though of course the street urchins are the seafood delicacy as opposed to the pickpockets that speed away on scooters).

However, another valid comparison is less flattering: the sense of a civilization in glorious decline. Japan needs to overcome significant inertia and cultural risk aversion in order to successfully foster an innovation ecosystem à la Silicon Valley.

I have an idea where to start… on Airbnb !

airbnb_tokyoIn the Japanese press, Abe-san’s vision seemed to be positively received, albeit lacking in specifics about the implementation. One good place to start might be by tapping a resource already in Japan’s own backyard: the hosts of Airbnb lodgings in Japan.

It’s no secret that Airbnb hasn’t really cracked the Japanese market yet. Tokyo counts for only about 2,500 Airbnb listings, quite a contrast with the 40,000 listings in Paris. (As an aside, though, I’d bet on Airbnb’s smart team to figure it out someday).

However, these 2,000+ Airbnb hosts represent an incredibly talented pool of wisdom, in my opinion. I travel to Japan frequently and have stayed in nearly a dozen Airbnb’s there. My personal experience is that these Airbnb hosts comprise Japan’s innovators. They are industrious, entrepreneurial, open-minded, globally-minded, and often multi-cultural.

There’s the comic book illustrator, the tech entrepreneur, the fashion photographer, the well-traveled child of a Japanese diplomat, all who have opened their homes to foreign visitors. I’ve also encountered a ‘salaryman’ with a regular day job who on the side teamed up with some friends to rent out investment properties on Airbnb. All of these individuals grew up or worked overseas, and since returned to Japan with a global perspective. When a charming host in Tokyo’s residential neighborhood of Jiyugaoka says, “the French are the most challenging,” that’s clearly the mark of a woman who has experienced the world !

Perhaps these individuals are a proxy for the greater group of ‘returnees’, Japanese nationals who come back to the homeland after a stint abroad.

The re-acclimation process is not always smooth for them. Easy for a stupid ‘gaijin‘ like me to say, but I have a feeling that a society that celebrates individuals like these — or at minimum, listens to their perspectives for nuggets of inspiration rather than being too quick to condemn them — will advance Abe-san’s vision to “capture the dynamism of Silicon Valley and bring it to Japan.”

Just imagine inviting all these Airbnb hosts to a seminar on innovation. I bet some inspiring ideas would result. Even Airbnb does this itself, organizing its annual “Airbnb Open” to celebrate their hosts and derive inspiration for future product refinements.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Italy. Some of my best friends are Italian. I’m simply not ready to see Japan slide into la dolce vita just yet.