You knew our list of the 10 most creative entrepreneurs in Japan was coming – we are Matcha Design, after all! You may be surprised to learn the names behind some of the most notable companies you’ve heard of. Read on to learn about the best entrepreneurs born in Japan!
Mr. Yamauchi is the man who took Nintendo from a playing card company popular only in Japan to a household name that would be attached to the most prolific video game character(s) in the world. Hiroshi Yamauchi first joined the company in 1949, being the great-grandson of Fusajiro Yamauchi, Nintendo’s founder and first president.
Though he was born into an entrepreneurial family, the odds were stacked against him: his father abandoned Hiroshi and his mother when Hiroshi was only five years old, and his mother had to give him to her parents to raise.
Mr. Yamachi proved to be scrappy and innovative, a fierce businessman. Though not all of his business ventures succeeded, his decision to transition to toy-making and electronics was undeniably sound. He would lead Nintendo to success, stepping down in 2002 and passing away 11 years later at 85 years old.
If you’ve ever heard of Godzilla, you can thank Ishirō Honda. Mr. Honda was a Japanese filmmaker who directed 46 feature films in his five-decade career. He’s considered the most internationally recognized filmmaker from Japan before Hayao Miyazaki, and one of the founders of disaster films.
Of course, Honda is best remembered for directing and co-creating the kaiju (literally translated “strange beast”) film genre. The genre is known for its giant monsters that wreak havoc on civilization, and the term kaiju can also refer to the monsters themselves.
Honda entered the film industry in 1934, but it wasn’t until 20 years later that he’d direct and co-write Godzilla, which would immediately become a box-office hit. Today it’s the longest-running film franchise in history!
Honda Motor Company founder Soichiro Honda started out by helping his father (a blacksmith) with a bicycle repair business. From a young age, Mr. Honda was fascinated by machinery: he vividly remembered the first car he ever saw in his village, and at the age of 15, headed to Tokyo to look for work. It was there that he first obtained work as a mechanic.
In 1937, he founded his company (then Tōkai Seiki) to make piston rings for Toyota. Disaster could have thwarted his plans (a World War 2 bomber attack destroyed a plant in 1944, and an earthquake collapsed another in 1945), but Honda was resilient: he sold what he could salvage to Toyota and founded Honda Technical Research Institute, which paved the way for the opening of Honda Motor Company.
Before Akio Morita became the co-founder of Sony, he served in World War 2, which is where he met Masaru Ibuka, the person who’d become his business partner in 1945 at a company that was originally a radio repair shop. In 1949, they developed magnetic recording tape and, in 1950, sold the first tape recorder. In 1958, the co-founders renamed the company Sony Corporation (a mix of “sonus,” Latin for “sound,” and “sonny,” a common American expression).
Cassette tapes were developed in Belgium in 1963, and in 1975, Sony released the first Betamax videocassette recorder with Morita at the helm. The innovation continued: in 1979, the Walkman was introduced, followed by the Discman (a CD Walkman) in 1982. Today, Sony is a multinational corporation distributing electronics and providing entertainment worldwide.
Before he could become a billionaire, Tadashi Yanai first had to graduate college in 1971. The same year, he started selling kitchenware and men’s clothing at a supermarket. After a year, he quit and joined his dad’s roadside tailor service. He opened his first Uniqlo store in 1984, changing the name of his father’s company to Fast Retailing in 1991.
Fast Retailing is the parent brand of more than Uniqlo, however: they also own J Brand (an LA-based denim wear company) and Theory (a NY-based contemporary fashion brand), among others. Tadashi says one of the secrets to his success is that he never takes his failures too seriously. Perhaps this is why there are now over 3,500 stores owned by Fast Retailing in over 25 countries, and Mr. Yanai is now one of Japan’s wealthiest people.
With beginnings as humble as they are glorious, Hiroshi Mikitani’s life could have gone either way. His paternal grandmother was a descendant of Honda Tadakatus, one of the Four Heavenly Kings of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Despite this, Mikitani’s grandmother had to raise his father as a single mother while running a tobacco store. After graduating university in 1988, Mikitani worked at the Industrial Bank of Japan and attended Harvard Business School, eventually starting Crimson Group, his own consulting firm.
After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, HIroshi decided to resign from banking and start his own company in order to rejuvenate the economy. His e-commerce company (MDM) was founded in 1997 with three co-founders, eventually being rebranded as Rakuten, Inc. Though it started with just 13 shops and 6 employees, Ratuken has now become an e-commerce giant, expanding to the US, France, Canada, and more. Mikitani even has partial stakes in Pinterest and Lyft.
There was a time when many Americans endeavored only to keep what “sparked joy,” and Marie Kondo was responsible for that trend. She invented the KonMari Method of organization, inspiring people to organize their things by category (all at once), then make a decision about what to keep and what to throw away.
Marie became famous for her organization methods, and her book (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up…) soon became a bestseller, deemed one of the most successful books of the decade. It also sparked two Netflix series’: “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” and “Sparking Joy with Marie Kondo.” In 2015, she was named one of the top 100 most influential people.
Starting out in equity sales at Goldman Sachs, Akiko Naka is no stranger to career pivots. Before founding her own company, she worked writing mangas before joining Facebook Japan as a growth coordinator. Eventually, she’d strike gold by launching Wantedly in February 2012.
The social recruiting platform started from a desire to create a world where “people are excited about their work,” and had an entirely different structure than most platforms – giving potential employers and employees an opportunity to get to know each other over time rather than commit to a job immediately. Notably, she says, “I usually decline interviews that are focused on a woman’s perspective. I don’t think about being a woman, and that hasn’t been an issue.”
Having earned the prestigious title of Japan’s first self-made female billionaire, Yoshiko Shinohara is no stranger to hard work. She grew up in World War 2 and her father died when she was eight years old. Her mother, a midwife, raised her by herself. In 1973, with just a high school degree and a couple of years of secretarial experience, Yoshiko founded Temp Holdings, a temp staffing agency.
When the company first started, the expectation in Japan was that women stop working as soon as they began having children. The original goal of Temp Holdings was to enable women to work while raising children, so they exclusively hired women. Over time, though, that structure shifted, and they began hiring men in addition to women.
Some of Japan’s most notable architecture came about because of the efforts of Yoshiko Mori and her late husband, Minoru Mori. Yoshiko graduated from Mukogawa Women’s University in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture. She founded Mori Building Co Ltd (not to be confused with Mori Trust) in 1970.
Mori Building and Mori Trust are two separate entities, as each Mori brother took half of the company. Mori Trust is owned by Akira Mori, whereas Mori Building was the brainchild of Minoru. Minoru’s philosophy was that real estate is an opportunity for social betterment, and his wife carried on that idealistic line of thinking through her architectural endeavors. The most notable building she took part in was the Shanghai World Financial Center.