[IMPACT Interview] Abe Akie, Japan’s First Lady (Part1/3)”When is an entrepreneur born?”

2016/05/09 | By IMPACT Japan

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Akie Abe
When is an entrepreneur born?

Impact staff are always encountering interesting people, many of them change agents working to revitalize Japan. We gain measurably from our interactions with so many outstanding young entrepreneurs, successful company executives, creative artists, politicians supporting innovation, and many more. In this series, Impact’s own William Saito will talk to a variety of people who are active in changing Japan. These interviews will help to give readers a sense of what kind of innovation is underway and what kind of people are promoting it. We hope you will enjoy these dialogues.

Our lead-off interview is one of the most outspoken proponents of change, the First Lady of Japan, Akie Abe. We think you will find her comments stimulating. Please feel free to suggest other people whom you would like to see interviewed in the future.

Akie Abe
Akie was born in Tokyo in 1962 and married Shinzo Abe in 1987. She is not your stereotypical First Lady and instead engages in a wide range of activities, including setting up schools in Myanmar, farming fertilizer-free “Akie Rice” in Yamaguchi Prefecture, and running the UZU izakaya. She has also declared herself to be “the opposition party at home” by openly disagreeing with the policies of the Abe administration.

William Hiroyuki Saito
William is a second-generation Japanese-American born in California in 1971. He serves as a Special Advisor to the Cabinet Office. He is an entrepreneur who sold his business to Microsoft in his 20s and is currently actively engaged in efforts to foster the next generation of leaders. He co-founded the IMPACT Foundation Japan and serves as its Chair. The IMPACT Foundation Japan designed, opened, and operates the INTILAQ Tohoku Innovation Center, which serves as the base of the foundation’s activities, with support from the Qatar Friendship Fund.

Out of the depths of despair
No more regrets – determined to be true to herself

William H. Saito (below, William)
The aim of our interview is to assist young entrepreneurs. I launched a venture business in the United States and overcame the threat of facing bankruptcy at any moment with the support of mentors working at various Japanese companies. I was eventually able to achieve my goal of selling my business to Microsoft, and I am very grateful for this past support.

Through a series of interviews posted on the INTILAQ blog page, my hope is to share with today’s entrepreneurs the successes and failures of their predecessors, and the guiding principle of always challenging yourself and never giving up until you realize your goal.

Akie Abe has joined me as our first guest in this initiative.

Akie Abe (below, Abe)
I might not offer that much insight because I am in no way a go-getter. I hope that’s OK?

You might say that but the reality is that you have actively launched a wide range of businesses in just a short amount of time, including assistance for the reconstruction in Tohoku, farming fertilizer-free “Akie Rice,” and running the UZU izakaya. Did you always have an innovative spirit of wanting to try new things and take on challenges? Or was there some kind of catalyst that gave you this mindset?

If there was a catalyst, I think it was when my husband resigned from his position as Prime Minister in 2007. While it was a painful decision made for health reasons, he faced harsh criticism from many people at the time for supposedly “abandoning the position as Prime Minister in just a year.” I cried when shuttling between the hospital and the official residence when he was hospitalized. Even seeing the smiling faces of people walking on the street was difficult. I wondered how everyone could be living so happily while I was so miserable. There was really no one who could understand this regret I felt, nor anyone I could talk to about it. That made me feel very lonely and depressed.

When my husband was chosen as Prime Minister for the second time, I very naturally decided that during the second Abe administration, I would do all the things that I had not accomplished the first time around without any regrets. I would take on challenges wherever I could.

Being an entrepreneur is not some privilege that is only available to high-level people in well-to-do environments. It is actually often people who experience despair or failure who pursue challenges with a strong resolve.

I completely agree with you. Ordinary people right now who feel that their current jobs at ordinary companies are boring can be transformed through a single catalyst. Whether they realize it or not it can substantially alter their lives.

This is when Akie Abe, an entrepreneur who does not fit the traditional image of a First Lady, emerged

The Prime Minister’s wife borrows money too
Entrepreneurial risk is the same for everyone

I am currently raising money through crowd funding to build a lodging facility in Yamaguchi Prefecture. I also took a loan from a bank to open the UZU izakaya in Tokyo. It’s embarrassing, but I actually don’t have much in the way of my own savings that I can use as I wish. I prepared a business plan and was given a review, going through the same processes as anyone else interested in setting up a business.

The loan I’m taking out to open the lodging facility is a bit too large for me, so it would be great if you could contribute to the crowd funding too!

Crowd funding: A new type of fundraising that recruits investments from a general audience over the Internet. Entrepreneurs trying to set up businesses previously faced the tough hurdle of having to conduct major fund-raising efforts, such as loans from institutional investors and financial entities, or stock distributions.

Lodging facility in Yamaguchi Prefecture: “Make Shimonoseki a world-leading port town! Reviving the town with the multifaceted UZU House”

I’d love to help!

More people might think “I can do it too!” if they realize that the Prime Minister’s wife faces the same start-up risks as everyone else.

While a very large number of Japanese people desire stability and safety, and avoid taking risks, the problem is that, in an era of significant changes, sticking with the status quo is not a no-risk choice. That is why I hope that many people will learn from the approach being taken by Akie Abe to positively embrace change.

(Continuation of the interview with Akie Abe in Part 2 – COMING SOON)


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