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Japan's 'Zuckerberg' leads new wave of entrepreneurs

By Pamela Boykoff, CNN
updated 10:51 AM EDT, Mon October 7, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Yoshikazu Tanaka is billionaire founder of mobile games company, Gree
  • The company is valued at $7 billion; personal wealth $2.2 billion
  • Tanaka hopes his company can change Japanese society
  • Mobile gaming sector one of few areas experiencing growth

(CNN) -- One of Asia's youngest self-made billionaires, 35-year-old Yoshikazu Tanaka looks the part of a young internet tycoon.

The Japanese founder and CEO of mobile social gaming business Gree arrived for his CNN interview wearing a hooded sweatshirt, ripped jeans and a pair bight red shoes. His personal wealth is valued at $2.2 billion so he can afford to wear whatever he wants to the office.

Gree has grown from Tanaka's self-financed project into a company with a market value of around $7 billion. The share price is more than sevenfold what it was at its 2008 IPO.

The company is now partnered with Tencent, one of the largest social networks in China, and in April 2011 it acquired OpenFeint, a large U.S.-based gaming network.

Tanaka hopes to take Gree into Europe, the United States and emerging markets like Brazil to increase the number of users to one billion, five times the current level.

Q&A: Andrew Stevens meets Japan's 'Zuckerberg'

What makes Tanaka's success so intriguing is that he's built a profitable business against the tide.

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The Japanese economy has just begun its third decade of lackluster economic growth and large Japanese companies like Sony, Panasonic and Toyota are retrenching after facing record losses or scandals abroad. The triple blow of last year's earthquake, tsunami and reactor meltdown at the Fukushima-Daichi nuclear plant added to the country's gloomy economic outlook.

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If traditional Japanese corporate powerhouses are flagging, few have risen up to replace them.

Tanaka believes a key weakness of corporate Japan has been its insular attitude.

"I think the biggest problem is that so many people have not been able to accept the fact that we cannot survive without trying to compete globally," he says.

It's easy to lay blame at the feet of the politicians but Japan is a democracy and so everyone has to share responsibility, believes Tanaka.

He hopes Gree can have positive impact on Japan as an example of a successful start-up.

"People say there is no culture of growing a business from scratch in Japan but actually social games and our company Gree became successful within seven years," he says.

Tanaka is aware of the comparisons to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, and not just in his dress sense.

Both men started companies for themselves in 2004 and continue to lead them as they've grown into global players.

Both believe there is more to business than just making money.

"Facebook became very big; big enough to change society. I think we can change society as well, but in our own way," he says of Gree.

He doesn't know if the online gaming industry can be the savior of corporate Japan, but he believes there are few other sectors where the prospects are so bright in this struggling country.

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