One Japan: Millenials, AI and Robot Innovation


By Trevor Clarke, TRA Director

For all the talk about technology-based innovation and disruption there really aren’t many companies that truly break the cultural and operational mold they’ve built for themselves, especially in a place like Japan. Things improve, yes. All the time. But rarely do you get an organisation or group of organisations pushing the envelope, let alone ripping it open.

So when a collective of like-minded millennial workers from some of Japan’s biggest companies have been given the license to use tech to innovate and change some of the most rigid stereotypes about work and social life, it is worth paying attention.

One Japan is a group of millennial employees from 45 large, major companies in Japan. They partner with each other to create new products and experiences.

“Normally Japanese have got only few chances to work with the young generation,” said Shun Matsuzaka leader of McCann Millennials, one of the organisations participating in One Japan. “So we came up with the idea of creating a new open innovation unit. Just come up with the idea that you want to realize and you can just create it. You can also get involved as a partner, like tech companies or major companies, media companies, and so on. Even like university students.”

One of the outputs the collective has created is an AI-powered robot called Soramaru, which was exhibited in Tokyo recently. Among other things, Soramaru reads your brain waves (you wear a headband) and can provide feedback on things like your mood or concentration levels.

The One Japan group also tagged a range of Starbucks coffees and provided suggestions to those that trialed Soramaru on which drink they should have depending on their mood.

Soramaru has also walked people through mindfulness meditation and there are plans to have the robot mediate meetings to make sure they stay on time and on track.

When you think about it the applications are extensive. In my view, the interesting part of this is not necessarily the robot itself, although it is impressive. It’s the fact that this was a collective effort between young Japanese workers from multiple different organisations that took only a few months to complete.

Typically Japanese firms don’t partner in this way and certainly don’t normally give young employees the opportunity to pursue such ideas in this manner.

“Soramaru has got more than 50 or 60 partners to create one robot. They are really happy to provide their own skills and technology to Soramaru,” noted Matsuzaka. “I think the platform model is really good and is just something Japanese companies are not very good at because they try to create once on their own.

“It is my mission to join in the Soramaru project to make Soramaru really popular, more than Pepper. I think Pepper is really popular in Japan because maybe the commercial. I mean they spent billions and billions of money to make it really popular.”

The lesson from this for all those looking to be “innovative” is pretty simple – give your people a chance to really do things different and they can. But they need the support and license to do it. The technology, including robotics and AI, are readily available, often in an ‘as-a-service’ model that remove the need for months or years of development time.

The One Japan collective, and particularly the McCaan Millenials group, highlight something that should be common sense by now, but continues to be a roadblock to innovation for many – the first and most important steps to take are cultural.