By Nathan Layne
MENLO PARK, Calif. (Reuters) - In the 1980s when Sony and Toshiba were setting the agenda in the global TV and memory chip markets Japan was bristling with confidence as a hub of technological innovation.
Three decades later, with Japan’s electronics industry in decline, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has come to Silicon Valley - the first sitting Japanese leader to do so - in the hopes of rekindling that innovative spark.
Twitter Chief Executive Dick Costolo; the CEO of local services search company Yelp Inc, Jeremy Stoppelman; and the head of ridesharing company Lyft, Logan Green, were among a group of tech leaders whom met Abe at a hotel near Stanford University on Thursday afternoon.
Abe told the group that business conditions in Japan were strong with corporate profits up and stocks at 15-year highs. But he said he recognized the need to expand investment opportunities, including for venture firms.
“Improving the situation for existing companies is not enough,” he told the group. “I want to soak up all that Silicon Valley has to offer and take the lessons to Japanese,” he said.
He later dropped by the headquarters of electric car maker Tesla Motors Inc. Abe took a spin in a red Model S sedan with Chief Executive Elon Musk, who told reporters they discussed the importance of Tesla’s battery partnership with Japan’s Panasonic Corp and expanding electric car-charging stations.
Abe was also due to meet Facebook Inc founder Mark Zuckerberg later on the swing through the West Coast, which follows a summit with President Barack Obama earlier this week.
Japan’s once-dominant technology companies have long fallen behind the likes of Samsung Electronics of South Korea and Apple Inc.
Sony Corp, which invented the Walkman portable audio player, is struggling to come up with hit products. Sharp Corp, a pioneer in the flat-screen TV market, is seeking its second big bailout in three years.
Japanese venture capital investments came to $1.2 billion last year, according to the Tokyo-based Venture Enterprise Center, a small fraction of the $48 billion spent by venture capitalists in the United States, a separate survey based on Thomson Reuters data shows.
Much of Japan’s innovation is happening within the confines of large companies that tend to be plodding and risk-averse.
But Abe’s supporters are optimistic the visit will have an impact simply by way of the message it sends.
Abe has already stoked risk-taking by investors with massive monetary easing and government stimulus, the first two “arrows” of his “Abenomics” strategy. Promoting entrepreneurship is one target of the third arrow meant to unlock growth through structural reforms.
Abe will also meet California Governor Jerry Brown, where he will talk up Japan’s high-speed train technology, eyeing a possible project in the state. Brown has made building an 800-mile high-speed rail system in the state a priority.
Nicholas Benes, who chairs a committee at the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan that proposes growth strategies to the government, said Abe could be doing more to promote new businesses.
Benes said that could include making it easier to hire and fire workers - a reform of Japan’s rigid labor market that Abe has so far failed to tackle.
Even so, Benes believes Abe’s trip to Silicon Valley could go far in promoting risk-taking in Japan, where most university graduates covet a stable job with a big company.
“The most important thing is to simply change the social perception of entrepreneurship from being something where the dropouts have to go, to something that you might want to do fresh out of Todai,” he said, referring to the prestigious Tokyo University by its Japanese name.
Additional reporting by Thomas Wilson, Tim Kelly, Teppei Kasai and Katsuro Kitamatsu in Tokyo; Editing by David Storey, Leslie Adler and Edmund Klamann