Hiroshi Mikitani: the visionary who built Japan’s Amazon

Hiroshi Mikitani’s talent for trend-spotting has already made him a billionaire. Now he has his sights firmly set on a new challenge. Jane Lewis reports.


Hiroshi Mikitani: a trailblazer
(Image credit: © 2019 Bloomberg Finance LP)

This year is shaping up to be a big one for Hiroshi "Mickey" Mikitani, the flamboyant billionaire behind Japan's largest e-commerce outfit, Rakuten.Long renowned as a talented trend-spotter, several of his long-term bets are coming to fruition at the same time. So far, so lucrative. As Reuters notes, Rakuten's shares are up 38% this year "on rising investor expectations of returns on its technology investments", which in turn has propelled Mikitani's personal wealth to around $6bn.

"We have seen the future and this is it," declared Mikitani in 2015 when Rakuten took a 12% stake in the US ride-hailing company Lyft for $300m. When the latter recently floated at a lofty $72 per share, Rakuten booked a $989.7m gain before shares fell below their IPO price. The outfit has reaped similarly fat returns from its investment in Careem, the Middle Eastern ride-hailing firm, which was sold to Uber for $3.1bn at the end of March. And the next big payday is likely to come from the "scrapbooking" website Pinterest in which Rakuten invested $100m in 2012 which will shortly list in New York at a top-of-the-range valuation of $11.3bn.

The event that changed everything

In around 2010, Mikitani realised that, to continue to prosper, "Rakuten had to expand internationally", says the Financial Times. A big part of that strategy has involved taking big punts on hot foreign start-ups. But it has also found other forms of expression: not least in Mikitani's awkward-sounding "Englishnization" programme which began life a decade ago as an overnight edict to "shocked" staff to start communicating in English, or face demotion.

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Born in Kobe in 1965, Mikitanihimself had no problems learning English. He picked it up as a child when his father was a visiting professor in the US Mikitani later returned to the US to take an MBA at Harvard Business School. After joining the Industrial Bank of Japan, his life seemed mapped out: he would work hard and climb the corporate ladder. The event that changed everything, he later recalled, was the 1995 earthquake that destroyed his home city. He saw the destruction, and the loss of relatives and friends, as a turning point. "It made me realise I wanted to revitalise Japan's economy." He was 30 at the time, and the internet was at an early stage of development. He spotted an opportunity.

"No one was buying things online," he says. He wanted to help small companies, so developed a platform to help mom-and-pop retail stores sell their products online. There was no venture capital available, so he took on the risk himself, recruiting his wife, Haruko, to run the back office and never looked back.

Preparing for AI

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.