TOKYO -- Before last year's devastating earthquake, college student Tatsunori Hirota envisioned a life as a "salaryman," one of the nation's countless tradition-bound corporate foot soldiers in white shirts and black slacks who fill the city's subways every morning and night commuting to and from nondescript offices.
But the psychological aftershocks of the disaster have created a new sense of urgency among a small but growing number of young professionals and college students like Hirota. They are abandoning the path of the corporate salaryman to chart their own way by launching tech startups and connecting to Silicon Valley.
"We lost family," said Hirota, a Tokyo University economics student who, after the magnitude 9.0 quake, began studying programming and cofounded an e-learning website, Mana.bo, that received positive feedback from Silicon Valley venture capitalists after he visited the Bay Area over the summer.
"We felt death closer than before," he said. "Now we don't want to work for the big company. We want to work for ourselves. The biggest risk is that something could happen to you before you do something you really love. It could happen anytime, anywhere."
The shift in attitude comes as Japan's technology sector, once a rival of Silicon Valley, struggles to remain relevant in a global economy that is leaving it behind. Observers say Japan's inward-looking and risk-averse culture has for years dampened the nation's entrepreneurial spirit. In its 2010 report, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor ranked Japan lowest among advanced economies in terms of attitudes toward launching new businesses. It noted that Japanese were the least likely to consider becoming entrepreneurs.
In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, which cost more than 13,000 lives and triggered widespread power outages and radioactive leaks from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear powr plant, there was a "shattering of trust in big institutions" across Japanese society, said Phil Libin, CEO of Mountain View-based Evernote, a provider of note-taking and archiving technology that has operations in Tokyo.
That collapse of faith extended to large tech companies, many of whom have broken with long-held promises of lifelong employment with mass layoffs.
"The younger generation -- their parents are getting fired from the big companies," said Nobuyasu Kondo, an executive with Tokyo-based GNT, a Japanese mobile and gaming platform. "They realize if you work for the big company, you can still get fired. So why not take a risk and start your own company?"
At the same time, Japanese realize their nation's future prosperity and economy, surpassed recently by China as the world's second-largest economy, is vulnerable in the global market, said Ted Yamamoto, a general partner at UTEC, a venture firm tied to Tokyo University whose mission is modeled after Stanford University, which long has fostered tech entrepreneurship among faculty and students.
"It's obvious the Japanese market is shrinking," he said. "The population is shrinking. You bypass Japan to go to China and India."
Government officials, academics and industry leaders say that if the nation is to regain its technological mojo, it needs to jump-start an entrepreneurial culture, and that includes tapping into Silicon Valley.
"To come to Silicon Valley, that is the dream of many startup companies and entrepreneurs in Japan," said Yukiko Pollard, general manager of Tokyo-based image processing software company Morpho, which opened a San Jose office this year.
But young Japanese entrepreneurs face daunting obstacles. In Japan, there is nothing resembling the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Silicon Valley. And while companies like Mana.bo are able to tap into venture capital here for initial startup funding, there is a dearth of investors willing to spend the larger sums needed to fund deep research and development to prepare startups for the global market, experts say.
"In Silicon Valley, you can get $20 million (in startup funding) without owning a suit. In Japan, it's much harder to raise money," said Evernote's Libin, a big fan of Japanese technological prowess looking to make investments in the country.
Most Japanese entrepreneurs have no ties to Silicon Valley. Unlike Chinese and Indians, relatively few Japanese venture abroad for studies. Last fall, a mere 54 students from Japan were enrolled at Stanford, while 757 Chinese and 488 Indian students were on campus. So Japanese are far less likely to know people embedded in Silicon Valley's startup culture.
But that's changing as Japanese, from school students to young professionals, look beyond their borders for study and careers. And at home, there has been an upsurge in interest in learning English in a society that previously saw no need to speak languages other than Japanese, observers say.
"Our embassy just put on a college expo and I can't tell you the number of students who came up to me and said, 'I would like to study at Stanford,' " said U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos, the former CEO of the powerhouse Palo Alto law firm Wilson Sonsini, which works with many Silicon Valley companies. "We are seeing more and more of that -- Japanese having an interest in going to school in the United States, connecting with the Silicon Valley. Everywhere I go now, there is a lot of this type of discussion."
For sure, there is brainpower aplenty in Japan, whose engineering brilliance has never been in question.
"The creativity of the Japanese people is as strong as it has ever been," said Allen Miner, founder of SunBridge Partners, a Sunnyvale venture capital firm pursuing startups in Japan. "The Japanese are as ambitious as ever. Pretty much every Japanese startup founder is thinking about how to create a company that will thrive for 100 years."
A sense of rejuvenation was in the air recently at an informal networking cafe established by a Tokyo University student. The cafe, which includes a large blackboard for brainstorming, acts as an informal think tank for young people looking for change.
Emi Tamaki, 28, said she dreams of participating in a new startup culture in Japan, an area with a high concentration of startups she calls "Silicon Reef."
"I want to make many companies," said Tamaki, co-founder of H2L, a maker of a device that can be used to rehabilitate a hand injury through therapeutic movements controlled by a computer, or to teach someone to play a musical instrument by directing finger movements.
Issei Takino, co-founder of Mujn, which makes software that aims to revolutionize assembly line robots, spoke with the brashness of a young Steve Jobs: "We can change the world."
Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496. Follow him at Twitter.com/svwriter.