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Heisei Transformations: The fall of the corporate warrior, the rise of the entrepreneur

Laboratory of Hi-Think Co. President Masayuki Tatsumi speaks with employees in the company's office in Kyoto's Shimogyo Ward, on Dec. 12, 2018. (Mainichi/Ai Kawahira)

KYOTO/FUKUOKA -- On the seventh floor of an office building in the western Japan city of Kyoto, Japanese and Chinese conversation flies back and forth.

This is Laboratory Hi-Think Co. (LHC), a firm developing artificial intelligence (AI) systems to make factory work more efficient, which was founded in 2016 by Masayuki Tatsumi, 58, with investments from a Chinese firm. The fledgling company has 15 employees, and many of those in their 50s and 60s are his friends from the age of corporate warriors who quit major electronics manufacturer Sharp Corp. to follow Tatsumi.

Tatsumi joined Sharp on the eve of the emergence of the "bubble" economy in 1984, and was assigned to the firm's factory in Nara in western Japan. At the time, the world praised the Japanese system of business, symbolized by lifetime employment and promotion on the basis of seniority, as "Japan as number one," and electronics manufacturers were on par with the country's automakers at the center of the economy, producing one hit appliance after another.

With domestic competition at a fever pitch, Tatsumi said, even his newlywed relatives bought home appliances made by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., currently Panasonic Corp., a dominant Sharp rival. "We had to turn the second-class image of Sharp into the No. 1 in the world," Tatsumi recalled his ambition back then.

Before the shipment of a product, Tatsumi would work until 3 a.m. for several days at a time, and even when a colleague collapsed and was taken away by an ambulance, no changes were made to the work environment.

When the economic bubble burst, bonuses decreased, and unpaid overtime became the norm, but Tatsumi said he "thought that doing unpaid overtime was a mark of being a capable employee." When he was promoted to a management position in 1998, even though he had just married, he carried a blanket with him to work and greeted the sunrise on the sofa there once a week.

In 2000, his daughter was born, and all the child-rearing duties fell on his wife, who was also working full-time. Even though she begged him to help her with their daughter and the housework, he didn't listen to his wife's woes.

Sharp appeared as if it had finally achieved No. 1 status as the company rapidly expanded its market by driving the switch from TV sets using cathode-ray tubes to liquid crystal screens with the launch in 2004 of its Kameyama factory for top-quality LCDs.

But with low prices as a weapon, South Korean makers came out on top, and Sharp fell into crisis by 2012. Even Tatsumi, who had been promoted to president of a subsidiary firm in 2014, was handed a certain order terminating his position in February 2016. "It couldn't be. Not after I worked so hard...," he thought.

In 2012, Sharp looked to lay off 2,000 employees -- treading on the sacred ground of lifetime employment that had been protected since the company was founded 100 years before. Hearing a close colleague lament, "I only had a little more time until I reached retirement age. Why couldn't they have waited?" Tatsumi's heart was broken, but he decided it was all so that the company could be rebuilt. But Sharp's situation only grew worse, and Tatsumi felt that the company he knew had changed. "I really thought I could achieve fulfillment through making Sharp No. 1," he recalled.

Many of Japan's major companies were hit with waves of restructuring around 2000, and with those changes came a shift in how Japanese thought about working. Instead of wanting to achieve fulfillment or try out their abilities through their work, entry-level workers wanted to instead enjoy their lifestyle. A new awareness began to take root in the heart of young people to tie what they enjoy into their work as well.

--- For youth, venture firm environments seem more fun

High school student Shinpei Yoshimura, center, and his co-founders of an application development venture company gather around a computer, in Fukuoka's Chuo Ward, on Dec. 6, 2018. (Mainichi/Tomohisa Yazu)

Enter third-year high school student Shinpei Yoshimura, 18, of Miyawaka, Fukuoka Prefecture, in southern Japan. Last January, an internet search led him to Shota Morozumi, 30, the director of the investment firm "F Ventures" located in Fukuoka. He sent Morozumi a direct message on Twitter, hoping to gather sponsors for an esports event he was hoping to hold. The two met, and planned Yoshimura's start-up company.

Yoshimura loved gaming since he was small, and participated in many online and other eports competitions since he was in the fourth grade. When he messaged Morozumi, he was hoping to hold a competition himself. From June last year, he worked as a technical intern at F Ventures, learning about examples of successful enterprises and how to prepare corporate documents. In October, he founded Ratel Inc. with three other people of his age aiming to promote esports in Japan. With a 10 million yen investment from three firms, including Morozumi's, Ratel is currently developing an application for competition registration and registering match history.

Yoshimura is now preparing to take exams to enter a private university, and when school finishes, he meets with the other Ratel members to talk about the business. He doesn't get to bed till after 2 a.m. almost each day. Even then, he does not tire: "It doesn't feel like work because it is an extension of the games I love," he said. "Rather than a large corporation, being in a venture firm environment seems to be more fun."

"Now, as long as you have the motivation, anyone can try starting their own business," said Morozumi.

Of the entrance of young entrepreneurs on the scene, Tatsumi worried, "The experience hammered into you at an organization can come in handy." While the number of corporate warriors is decreasing, Tatsumi feels that his own awareness of wanting to utilize his skills as a member of society has not changed as much as one might think -- and he's all right with that.

"People who search for fulfillment through their job, people who think of the workplace as somewhere to make a living, people who refuse to be chained to an organization -- there should be a wide range of people," said Tatsumi. "I want a society and companies that accept diverse sets of values."

(Japanese original by Naoko Furuyashiki, Business News Department)

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