Benioff’s Doubtful View of Japan

Reportedly, Marc Benioff loves Apple. He loves iPads. And he loves Japan.

In a recent guest column by the Salesforce executive, Benioff describes his 3-week stay in Japan that coincided with the release of the iPad. He watched as the Japanese people completely ate up the iPads in stock and revered the new device.

To him, Japan represents a fundamental IT market that will readily accept Cloud 2 development and social networking. For one, cloud computing allows software to be easily ported to the Japanese from the US. The software can be updated immediately and without cost. Japanese people have also quickly adopted social networking sites (such as the local website Mixi) due to their “community-based culture.”

Benioff partly attributes the success of Salesforce.com in Japan (its second largest market after the United States) to his own past experiences in the country. Other companies have been unable to get into the Japanese market because “it’s notoriously difficult for many Americans to navigate.” Most entrepreneurs wrongly focus on China or India, despite the fact that Japan represents the second largest IT market in the world.

He also describes how much he loves Apple, how Apple is so in-line with his own Salesforce dream, and how, in slightly unrelated news, Apple has passed Microsoft in market cap. I certainly hope Steve Jobs is compensating Benioff for his wonderful PR work.

Granted, Salesforce.com has success in Japan, but I am uncertain of Benioff’s real understanding of the country. I do not pretend to be any sort of expert of Japanese culture, but there is an unhealthy undertone on the flipside of Benioff’s corporate executive perspective. He loves Tokyo for its “frenetic charge that’s even higher than New York City.” How can that ever be healthy? The suicide rate has been over 30,000 per year, every year for the past decade, which is double the US rate. Over the financial year of 2009, a record 269 of 927 applicants received compensation for job-induced mental disorders. That same year, the deaths of 159 workers were attributed to karoshi, the Japanese term for overwork. The work ethic issue in Japan has only gotten worse since the global recession, as the unemployed and young feel the pressure to find work.

While Japan is a technological giant, its population is decreasing. In 2009, there was a net decrease of 29,119 (out of a population of 127 million). The population is aged, with 22.2% over 65. The tendency to invest in countries like China and India over Japan is understandable, cultural barriers or not, when the country is shrinking.

Benioff’s adventures through Japan give him a skewed viewpoint. I would think that the executive of Salesforce would be treated excruciatingly well in Japan’s corporate circles (“In Tokyo I enjoyed dinner with one of my friends, John Hinshaw, the global CIO of Boeing…I met with John Roos, the new United States Ambassador to Japan…then-Prime Minister Hatoyama requested a meeting with me”, etc). Japan isn’t a place where “Zen” pervades everything (Benioff references the term, along with temples and gardens, as another reason why he loves the place).

We don’t doubt that Japan is an IT giant. Japan does love Apple products as much as Benioff. But there are fundamental issues with Japan’s growth, with Japan’s pace of work, with Japan’s cultural mentality that make it a questionable future investment.

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