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Masa Son — An Outsider in Japan

How does a Korea entrepreneur make it big in Japan?

June 30, 2001

How does a Korea entrepreneur make it big in Japan?

If Masa Son (founder of Softbank) had been purely Japanese, he would have had more options open to him — and thus might have ended up a faceless banker or bureaucrat. But Son grew up in a small town on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.

His father and other Koreans illegally built their houses on land owned by Japan National Railways, sparking a long-running conflict with the authorities. It was on that land that Son’s father raised pigs and chickens and illicitly made sake. The home brew apparently was lucrative, for he became the first person in the town to buy a car.

In those days, Koreans in Japan were effectively persecuted — meaning that they were virtually barred from the nation’s best schools, from the most prestigious corporations, and from Japanese citizenship. Son’s Korean nationality cast a shadow over his boyhood, particularly when his family moved out of their Korean neighborhood so that the young Son could attend a better Japanese school. To try to melt into society, the family took on a Japanese last name, Yasumoto.

He took on his Korean-Chinese name, Son, only when he went to America at 16 to go to high school — and then on to the University of California at Berkeley. It was his American experience, he says, that laid the groundwork for his career.

“My learning experience in the United States made me think much more open-mindedly,” said Son. “If I had stayed all the time in Japan, I probably would have become much more conservative, just as other Japanese.”

Son’s identity as an outsider helped him in some ways once he became entrepreneur. He developed a knack for adjusting to new situations, and he sometimes comes across as a chameleon.

He can backslap and guffaw and jabber in colloquial English with U.S. investment bankers and discuss the details of new computer chips with the techies. Then, he can turn somber — and bow and spew out honorifics in polite Japanese to blend into a Japanese business crowd.

The Asian economic crisis also opened more doors for outsiders, people like Son who had no chance to climb a safe corporate ladder and were forced to take risks in high-tech start-ups. In the past, outsiders were simply locked out of the establishment — no financing, no connections, no contracts steered their way. But now, rigidities are finally softening and the rigid segmentation in society is breaking down.

Outsiders are building bridges into the establishment. Even pure salarymen are journeying over those bridges, leaving their corporate careers behind them. High-tech companies in Japan are strengthening their ties to research universities to develop future research. And there is much more collaboration among different parts of corporate society.