Japan's Next Mission: Be Creative

The younger generation is behind a drive to redefine Japan as a leader in design and innovationthink fashion, architecture, video games, and hybrids

From the end of World War II to the early 1990s, Japan had one mission—catch up to the West. Japan has largely succeeded and now enjoys one of the world's highest standards of living. But since then the country hasn't quite known what to do with itself.

So what is the next great mission that can captivate Japan's citizens? In a word—creativity. In fact, Japan is already transforming itself in ways no other major economy has by completely redefining its national mission to one of creativity and innovation.

Yet most analysts and journalists still insist the country has not found a new rallying cry yet. They usually trot out the same old tropes about an aging workforce and a shrinking population. And, unfortunately, Japan's current leaders still grab most of the headlines with their calm, consensus-based appeal for patience and reason.

But as every astute observer of the nation knows, there are always two sides to every Japanese story—the tatemae, or surface, and the honne, or one's true feelings. Most of the changes I'm describing are taking place beneath the surface, primarily among the younger generation. These people are much more creative, have a greater tolerance for risk, and want to make a real difference in the world.

Young Eager to Change

This split was revealed in a global survey I conducted a few years ago, which mainly assessed people's attitudes about change. I conducted the survey in multiple countries around the world, including the U.S., Germany, China, and Japan, with more than 2,000 responses from each country. I found that Japan had an older population that wanted to avoid large, externally focused changes—in other words, to focus on efficiency. But they also had a younger generation that was eager to strike out and create a new identity for the country by embracing such changes. Meanwhile, the U.S. was almost the exact opposite—almost half of the respondents, young and old, wanted to keep things going largely the way they had been and avoided wanting to make large, sweeping changes to their way of life.

These data, along with my own personal observations, tell me that Japan is truly on the cusp of something big. After arriving here in my current position as the dean of one of the country's top-ranked business schools and seeing the story unfolding on the ground, I was convinced that the emerging ideas of young, independent, and corporate entrepreneurs could make Japan the world's Creativity Engine.

Japan's last mission made the country a world leader in only two industrial sectors: automobiles and electronics. But this time, the country is likely to have a broader presence in a variety of industries. Already you see signs of the nation's creative dominance in fashion (one of author Malcolm Gladwell's most important "tipping points" in fashion is from Japanese youth in Tokyo), architecture (Tadao Ando and Toyo Ito, just to name two), video games (Nintendo's Wii), anime and manga (almost a dozen planned Hollywood blockbusters are based on these art forms, with some coming from Sony (SNE) Studios, of course), as well as new breakthroughs in genetics and gerontology science.

World Pastry Cup Winner

If "creativity" is defined as something that is both different and useful, then it is little wonder that first-time visitors to Japan are usually overwhelmed by the creativity they see all around them. The famed shopping and entertainment districts, luxurious hotels, striking architecture, truly convenient public transportation, gadgets, fashions, and even the serene temples tucked away on side streets all convey the power of Japanese uniqueness and utility.

Creativity in food, both Japanese (expected) and non-Japanese (surprising) cuisine, has given Tokyo more total stars than Paris in the famed Michelin Dining Guide.

Japanese chefs also recently won the World Pastry Cup, the "Formula One" of competitive pastry making. Now, winning in something like "pastries" might be dismissed as another case of Japanese creativity being purely derivative. "Japanese are great at copying, but don't really come up with anything new" is a refrain that I've heard hundreds of times over the years—especially from Japanese. But if you've been into a pastry shop in Japan, you'll see all the usual suspects that you'd find in a Parisian patisserie and about a hundred new versions of bread that you never even thought possible. And it is exactly these creative products that should not be dismissed—since from such minor trial-and-error initiatives, entirely new brand product categories can emerge.

Another common dismissal of Japan is that their success only comes from innovating in areas like "high quality" and efficiency. When thinking about Toyota's globally dominant position, it is common to credit only the "quality" of the product. But a study conducted by MIT in the 1990s showed that Ford's (F) factories were often better than Toyota's (TM) in terms of both quality and efficiency.

Savvy Design Is Key

The real reason behind Toyota's success wasn't efficiency—it was creative design. After all, many Americans have fallen out of love with Detroit-based car designs during the last 15 years. (In fact, the last real design breakthrough for Ford was the Taurus, which was originally designed by Mazda.) Meanwhile, Toyota came out with groundbreaking, distinctive models like the Prius and the Scion while improving its Lexus line over time.

As Japan's younger generation rises through the workforce, I believe we will see creativity that both defies expectations and rebuilds the country's reputation in the world as a creative leader. While the ability to renew oneself is no easy feat, I believe the world's image of "stagnant Japan" will be replaced by one of a "creative Japan." More important, as the country makes this major transition, people from around the world will learn a great deal from Japan not only about how to rally around a new national mission, but also about the art of creativity itself.

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