Meet the Team: Tomotaka Kuwahara
Bridging Japan’s Public and Private Sector Spheres
When Scrum Ventures Vice President of Strategy Tomotaka Kuwahara first set out to tackle environmental issues as a young graduate, he was fresh out of the University of Tokyo with a degree in law and public policy. Joining the ranks of Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry, he became entrenched in the challenging and rewarding work of energy policy and trade diplomacy.
His quick path to the government agency, which would later merge with other agencies to be renamed the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), was the start of what would become a 20-year career as a bureaucrat. For some, that might have been the beginning and the end in a culture of lifetime employment. But Kuwahara’s calling would take some unexpected twists.
His university years followed the period of Japan’s fabled 1980s economic bubble. By the time he entered the workforce, the country had already headed into what would become a prolonged recession while the dotcom era blossomed in the West. Many of his friends still sought jobs at well-known Japanese firms even as U.S.-Japan economic friction grew.
“Japan had a lot of momentum in areas such as automobiles and semiconductors, and Japan had to regulate its own exports,” he said “But it’s not sufficient to just make a good product and market it well. You have to ensure good policymaking and also work on trade diplomacy and relations with the World Trade Organization.”
Realizing that Japan needed to raise its industrial competitiveness in the eco-friendly auto arena, requiring informed legislation, Kuwahara pivoted his focus from the METI and moved stateside in a posting with the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco. This allowed him to “get ahead of the game-changing shifts” in environmental and energy policy relating to autos and Silicon Valley innovations. After three years, he returned to Japan.
“Having seen Japan from the outside, I felt that the goodness and potential of the country was not fully unleashed,” he said.
At a time when Japanese companies were only just beginning to think of ways to adapt to the new digital economy, Kuwahara said he began to consider what options there were for lessening the gap between Japan’s public and private sectors. He wanted to align the new ideas that were disrupting industries and improving lifestyles with the heart of the government’s growth strategies. From his perspective, the private and public sectors needed to work more closely to spur innovation. After working on environmental policy in 2013 and IT policy in 2014, he says he was fortunate to have the opportunity next to work in a government Cabinet position as a policy director for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to focus on growth. The Abenomics 2.0 reform program was aimed at reviving Japan’s competitiveness by slashing business regulations, liberalizing the labor market, cutting corporate taxes and increasing workforce diversity. In my approach to Japan’s growth strategy, I envisioned the end goals and tried to work backwards to come up with the best path to get there.
Today, Japan continues to grapple with social issues such as a declining birthrate and aging population. When I was envisioning a more dynamic future and a leading role in the future investment, I thought I should change gears and learn more about the private sector. “My experience in San Francisco during the early days of Uber and iPads made an important impact on me,” said Kuwahara, who had already left his full-time role at METI and began working at a startup in 2018. “I learned a lot from it.”
“Until then, I thought I’d work for the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry for the rest of my life, but I was drawn to the challenges of startups,” he said. He started off by joining a Tokyo-based start up called Origami that offers a mobile payment platform to help retailers bridge online and offline shopping and help stores connect with and market to new and existing customers.
Kuwahara’s desire to leverage digital trends and the social transformations that resulted from the pandemic as an opportunity to redefine how we live, learn and work led him to join Scrum Ventures last April. He continues to serve in a government advisory role to bridge government and private sector innovation.
“Since Scrum connects Silicon Valley with Japanese ventures, connecting large corporations and investors, this put me in a great position to work on the original goals I had,” said Kuwahara, who continues to leverage his vast government network of contacts.
Kuwahara is currently working on Scrum’s SmartCityX project, which is a global open innovation program for large corporations representing various industries and global startups to collaborate on high-value services and applications from the perspective of consumers, not just from the standpoint of industry and technology.
Startup founders innovators, executives, investors or technology leaders stay tuned as our Studio continues to develop other new programs!