Kimi Takura quit his fast-paced job as a deliveryman when he was 22 after he was hospitalized for a month with exhaustion.
Out of work, he sold his much-loved Jaguar car, bought a secondhand bus and started a one-man business driving Taiwanese tourists around Japan.
He worked every day he could for the next year, ferrying passengers between Tokyo and Osaka, and to Kyoto and other sightseeing spots, when a travel agent offered to lend him money to buy three more buses.
Takura’s business boomed so much he found he needed even more.
For a country boasting multinational giants, including Toyota Motor Corp. and Sony Corp., there are comparatively few people like Takura in Japan willing to spurn the security of lifetime employment for a riskier, but potentially more lucrative, career as an entrepreneur.
Only a quarter of small Japanese companies have been in business for less than a decade, compared with more than half in most countries in the developed world.
“I loved driving,” said Takura, chief executive officer of Heisei Enterprise Inc., who dropped out of high school after his father’s business went bankrupt and worked to earn the money for his own car.
He recalls being told that if he was going to drive around, he should at least carry some paying passengers. “I thought it was a great idea,” Takura said in an interview in Fujimi, northwest of Tokyo. “I could drive and earn some money at the same time.”
The company Takura set up in 1992 now operates a fleet of 400 buses for sightseeing, overnight services across Japan and daily school runs.
Heisei gets about 60 percent of bus bookings online, compared with about 30 percent at competitors, according to Takura.
It’s posted a profit for 20 straight years, supporting about 800 employees.
Still, the 51-year-old is far from satisfied. Around December next year, he plans to list Heisei on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in a 10 billion yen ($87 million) initial public offering to ensure the company will continue even after he retires.
“Usually bus companies don’t do IPOs,” he said. But “we’re seen as an IT bus company because we get so much of our money through the Internet.”
Part of the reason Japan has fewer startups is it lags behind other countries in venture-capital funding.
The level of venture investment is below the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development median and far short of the U.S. and Canada, according to an April 2015 OECD report.
A year after he started his one-man business, Takura needed finance to expand and getting it was tough.
He was lucky: A Taiwanese travel agency owner asked him to run more tours, but Takura said he couldn’t afford more buses.
He went to the man’s office in Taiwan to discuss it and was asked to come back a few days later before he returned to Japan.
“The man put a brown paper bag full of money on the desk with 20 million yen in it and said ‘now you can buy the buses,’” Takura said. “I was flabbergasted.”
Part of Heisei’s success comes from targeting tourists on smaller budgets.
The company’s VIP Liner service offers trips between Tokyo and Osaka, and Tokyo and Kyoto, from 3,000 yen one way — less than a quarter of the price of a seat on the bullet train between the cities.
Despite his willingness to go against the grain in Japan, Takura is still bound by the society’s confines. Hiring more drivers is becoming difficult as the population ages and declines, he says.
The average age of Japan’s approximately 130,000 bus drivers is about 48, compared to an average of 42 for all industries in the country, according to figures from the Nihon Bus Association.
Faced with this dilemma, Takura raised annual salaries by about 15 percent over the past two years to as much as 6 million yen to attract new staff.
But “people still aren’t coming,” he said.
That’s why Heisei is branching out as it seeks to profit from the country’s record tourism boom.
The company now owns five guest houses from Tokyo to Osaka, and plans to buy more, Takura said. Their location near bus stations means passengers can walk to them when they finish their ride.
Heisei is also buying small residences near its guest houses to rent out at low rates, inspired by the popularity of Airbnb.
All told, Takura plans to offer accommodation at 50 properties within three years.
Last year, more than 24 million overseas visitors came to Japan, about triple the number four years earlier. The government is targeting 40 million in 2020, the year of the Tokyo Summer Olympics.
Takura says people who want to become entrepreneurs should follow their passion, like he did when he bought his Jaguar and then sold it to purchase a bus.
He has a luxury car again now — this time a Mercedes Benz, which he uses in his business.
“People should find something they like and do it,” he said. “I’m now a bus nerd. Nerds do what they like and it doesn’t feel like work.”