Online Extra: Q&A with SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son

The tech mogul explains how the Net is slowly changing Japan's stay-at-one-company mentality

In addition to running Japan's largest Internet investor, Softbank Corp., Masayoshi Son is also the nation's chief Internet visionary. In the process of funding hundreds of ventures, Son has also changed the way Japanese look at technology, their companies, and their jobs. Last year, Son joined the Prime Minister's blue-ribbon committee that formulated the government's "Basic IT Strategy" that will serve as the basis for upcoming legislation. Tokyo correspondent Ken Belson asked Son about the need for a more flexible workforce in Japan.

Q: What's driving young people to move from traditional companies to new ventures?


Japan's labor market has been very rigid and conservative, and the young generation has tended to stay in big organizations. The pension system ties you to companies much longer in Japan. Once you move to another company, your resume gets dirty, as they say. The most beautiful resume is one where you stay at one company for life. That's why salaries usually went down for people who changed jobs.

But the Internet and information technology demands much better, younger talent. So instead of their pay decreasing [when they switch jobs], their pay typically increases. You also become a...hero compared to those who get demoted [for switching jobs]. In the last several years, that has been quite a positive change.

Also, Nasdaq Japan [of which Softbank held 50%, until the addition of new investors lowered its share] has stimulated the other over-the-counter markets to compete with each other for initial public offerings. A lot of younger people now hope they can be part of the business community even though they are young and work at a startup company because they have access to the capital market. Many of them now say: "Hey, this is not bad, we can try this out." This is inviting younger generations to go for challenges they feel excited about. So the money itself is not the direct cause for their changing job, but access to the capital market and the change to start companies has really enabled these young people to take a chance.

Q: Do you see an impact on larger companies?


Traditional companies have to start looking into themselves to offer more opportunities in their companies by starting new subsidiaries and joint ventures. But traditional companies are not transforming themselves quickly enough, so they have to look at themselves and ask whether they are changing fast enough. If the younger generation is leaving, that's an indication that they are not changing quick enough.

Q: What about Japanese management needs to change?


There's a generational shift going on, and companies that are successful have young management. [Young people] see their job-hopping friends doing very well and envy them. That's a good stimulus.

In fact, we are the first company to start a stock-option plan in Japan. It was prohibited until a few years ago. I said: "I don't care, come and arrest me. I'm going to do it anyway." The Japanese Diet started formal discussions after we announced we are going to do it anyway.

There are many young people who made a fortune in stock-option programs, and that's a good thing that employees can get benefits that share in the success of the company.

Q: The government plans to import 30,000 high-tech workers. Why import workers when you can train them here?


We need both. The younger generation should get trained, but the population is decreasing, and in general, economies don't improve if their population is declining. If Japanese cannot have new babies quick enough, then the government should start importing workers faster. The energy in Silicon Valley is because of the very talented engineers immigrating from around the world, especially Indians and Chinese. They are the best engineers, and Japan doesn't have enough of them.

Q: The government will likely budget $76.5 million for job training and placement. Is that enough?


I'm very encouraged. Finally Japanese politicians are starting to discuss the IT revolution, and the national budget is now being shifted in line with the Basic IT Law, so we are seeing some positive changes.

Q: What is the most important deregulation needed?


It's not directly related to the labor market, but a lot of monopolistic companies like NTT, the railroads, and power companies are still majority-owned by the government. They have a special protection that should be deregulated so newcomers can compete, competition will increase, and Japan's economy will revitalize.

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