Kentaro Sakakibara interview part III – What do the Japanese know about Israel?

Click here for intro and part I. Click here for part II.

KH: You mentioned before that you’ve been getting opposition on Twitter from your  fellow Japanese about setting up Samurai House in Israel. 

KS: People have been raising all sorts of doubts and questions through Twitter and personal communication. We’ve been getting it from everybody! It seems like there’s no one in Japan who hasn’t asked me what the heck I’m doing here! (laughs). It’s really tiring every time I go back to Japan now because I have to constantly answer the same questions about “Why Israel?” Really, I should record my answer and push “play” every time someone questions my decision to go to Israel.

KH: So what’s the nature of the push-back you’re getting about being in Israel? I can think to two basic reasons: (1) Israel is perceived to be very dangerous, so people in Japan might wonder why you’re going out of your way to risk the personal safely of you and your associates; or (2) You are being overly hasty in embracing cooperation with Israel, because the Arab-Israeli or Palestinian-Israeli conflict still has not been resolved.

KS: The opposition is usually much more simplistic than that. They think Israel = Middle East = just like Syria. It’s all just one big jumble in their heads. People ask, “What’s over there, just desert and wars, right?” Most Japanese still don’t get that what’s going on Israel is unique compared to the rest of the region. There are more than a few people who think that Israel is primarily a Muslim country because, after all, it’s in the Middle East! So they think I’m just wasting my time, and doing it in a very dangerous place!

KH: Really, it’s that simplistic??

KS: I admit that I also knew very little about Israel at first. For example I was unclear about the fact that Israel is primarily a Jewish country before my first visit three years ago.

KH: I can’t believe it. So even the idea of Israel = Jewish country is not necessarily basic knowledge.

KS: That’s right. There are still a lot of people in Japan who aren’t clear about this point. So simply put, the awareness of and knowledge about Israel is still very, very low in Japan. Another funny thing is that they have no idea that many aspects of Japanese culture are so popular here. When I tell people back in Japan that sushi and anime are popular in Israel, they’re really surprised.

KH: So how about Israel’s reputation as the “Start-up Nation”?

KS: Among your run-of-the-mill Japanese, awareness is still really low. First off, they don’t read English, so even things that become common knowledge in America can take a while before it becomes commonly known in Japan.

KH: So you have to explain Israel from a really basic level.

KS: And that’s a lot of what I’ve been doing in my recent trips back to Japan. Some folks, like the IT folks for example, are now aware of Israel’s prominent place in their industry, but even that’s a very recent phenomenon, like in the past year or so.

KH: Now that you’ve been living in Israel for 7-8 months, what has really left an impression on you?

KS: What’s really impressed me is the level of importance people in their families. One thing we did when we first came here was to go talk to as many local VCs, incubators, accelerators and co-workings spaces as we could. When we asked them what the most important thing was, many said without hesitation that it was their family. I also see that it’s common here for adult children to see their parents on an almost weekly basis. In Japan, if you see your parents once or twice a year, that’s considered good! Japan’s family life is really unbalanced right now, and it’ll be great if Japan goes at least a bit towards what Israel has.

Another thing that’s surprised me is how interested Israelis are in learning from Japan. After all, I came to learn from them! But more than a few Israelis have told me about how impressed they are at how Japan managed to transition from a military-oriented culture to one that is very much not. Of course, we had to lose a war for that to happen, but still I have been asked about how that transition was accomplished. I have also heard people express hope that, however important the military has been here since the founding of the state until now, it will become less so in the future.

It would be great also we can be involved in helping start-ups more widely within the region. I really think that lack of economic opportunity is a big part of what’s driving the violence in the region, so taking a longer view, it would be great if I can help some way with that. Then maybe onto winning a Nobel prize? (laughs)

Also, seeing how fundamentally Japanese culture changed before and after the war really gives me hope that people, cultures and entire regions can change. Perhaps us Japanese can do something in this violent region to provide some kind of know-how on making that transition happen. I know that this is getting a bit ahead of myself, but it’s definitely something that I think about.