Shinzo Abe at Stanford: Innovation will spur Japan's future

Japanese prime minister touts innovation links to Stanford, Silicon Valley. He also hailed a new partnership with the Stanford Biodesign program that will train the next generation of Japanese biomedical experts.

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Video by Kurt Hickman

Following the symposium, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended a roundtable with Stanford and Silicon Valley leaders.

Japan must transform its economy in a way that mirrors the innovation ethos in places like Silicon Valley and Stanford University, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday during a speech on campus.

As an example of how to encourage such creativity, Abe hailed a new partnership starting this fall with Stanford that will train the next generation of biomedical experts. In doing so, he urged a “fundamental change” in how Japanese society views the process of innovation, from how ideas originate to competition in the marketplace.

Japan Biodesign will be launched in collaboration with the Stanford Biodesign program and five higher education and research institutions in Japan. Faculty members will work together to create new interdisciplinary systems based on Stanford Biodesign. Stanford leaders will train and mentor their Japanese colleagues.

Abe, who is the first Japanese prime minister to visit Stanford, marveled at how the tech sector in the United States has “consistently evolved at top speed.”

He said, “I want the best and brightest Japanese talent” to learn about Silicon Valley.

The Japanese leader also announced more plans to connect Japanese companies, employees and networking events with Silicon Valley and places like Stanford. He said it was important for the participants to emerge “reborn” with a well-honed sense of how to succeed in a highly competitive global marketplace.

Abe shared the Bing Concert Hall stage with Stanford President John Hennessy and George Shultz, the former U.S. Secretary of State and distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution. Abe’s talk, titled “Innovation, Japan and Silicon Valley Symposium,” included an introduction and remarks by Hennessy and Shultz. The event drew a full house of invited guests and members of the Stanford community.

“It is a great honor” to be at Stanford, Abe said in beginning his remarks.

He noted that Japan is revisiting its regulatory and tax systems in order to encourage more economic dynamism and competition. “The Japanese people will benefit from innovation,” he said.

The challenge, he acknowledged, has been the slow pace of innovation in Japan. Today, however, the Internet economy and big data are creating “enormous changes” in his country’s economic approach, he said. “We have to catch up, or otherwise Japan will lose vitality,” Abe added.

Cultural connections

In his introduction of Abe, Hennessy chronicled Stanford’s long history and friendship with Japan and its people.

Shinzo Abe at the podium

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaking at Bing Concert Hall on Thursday. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Japan, he said, is home to more Stanford alumni than any other Asian country, and when the university’s doors first opened in 1891, the pioneer class included a Japanese student. Currently, 139 students from Japan are enrolled at Stanford.

Hennessy described Abe as focused on revitalizing Japan’s economy and stewarding it toward a greater global role.

Shultz, who knew Abe’s parents, shared recollections of poignant moments between Abe’s politically prominent family and his own.

Abe joined a roundtable discussion after his speech with Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; Stanford Board of Trustees Chair Steve Denning; Stanford School of Medicine Dean Lloyd Minor; Stanford political science Professor Emeritus Daniel Okimoto; Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang; and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, among other scholars and dignitaries. He also met with Stanford students before leaving campus.

Afterward, McFaul said in an email, “I think it is fantastic that Prime Minister Abe came to Stanford and Silicon Valley after his very successful visit to Washington. He demonstrated that deepening U.S.-Japanese relations requires not only strong government-to-government ties, but also deepening ties between our societies, including educational institutions like Stanford.”

Abe’s state visit to the United States this week included the first address by a Japanese leader to a joint session of Congress. Abe served as prime minister of Japan in 2006-07 and returned to the position in 2012.

‘Working together’

On Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama said after a meeting with Abe that the two countries had made progress in trade talks on a massive 12-nation trade deal that would open markets around the Pacific Rim to U.S. exports. Both nations face domestic political obstacles to concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

“This agreement would expand the coverage of the free trade agreements for both Japan and the U.S. substantially,” said Stanford economist Takeo Hoshi, director of the Japan Program at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, in an interview. “The U.S. and Japan have been working together to maintain peace and sustain economic growth in the Pacific Asia.”

Hoshi said that Abe’s visit to the Silicon Valley confirms that Japan is serious about transforming its economy from one based on exports to one focused on innovations.

“Going forward, we can learn a lot from Japanese experience and their reform attempts,” said Hoshi, who is also a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute.

Stanford Biodesign

Founded in 2001, Stanford Biodesign has pioneered a new training methodology in which interdisciplinary teams of engineers and physicians go through a rigorous process of carefully characterizing unsolved clinical needs before jumping to technology solutions.

For the Japan Biodesign program, the bulk of the educational activities will take place at the campuses of the partner Japanese universities.