SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son delivers a speech in Tokyo on July 21, 2016. Photo: AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi
SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son delivers a speech in Tokyo. Photo: AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi

Japan’s abrupt slowdown should have Prime Minister Shinzo Abe turning his sights onto the nation’s richest man. The same day we learned Japan’s economy contracted 0.6% in the first quarter, Bloomberg reported that SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son was working on a second $100 billion venture capital fund.

His initial Vision Fund spent the last 12 months revolutionizing the global technology game. His determination to amass another one, a “2.0 version,” should send hearts aflutter from Silicon Valley to Bangalore.

And none more so than Abe’s.

Six months in the doldrums – not three

Wednesday’s gross domestic product disappointment came with an added blow: the 1.6% growth Tokyo thought it had amassed in the October-December period was revised down to 0.6%. That means the last six months were essentially a wash, economically speaking. That realization comes just as Donald Trump’s trade-war antics send intensifying headwinds Tokyo’s way.

Moments like this must be filled with lament for Abe, Japan’s self-styled Ronald Reagan – with a dose of Margaret Thatcher tossed in. Nearly six years on, Abenomics has put only modest structural reforms on the scoreboard. Instead, it relied on monetary and fiscal stimulus. That’s left Japan vulnerable to Trump’s growth-killing tantrum. It also means Japan has few domestic growth drivers on which to rely.

If Abe worked harder and sooner to deregulate labor markets, rekindle innovation, narrow the gender pay gap and prod cash-rich companies to fatten paychecks, the longest run of growth since the 1980s would have greater legs.

Son is just the man to see about resurrecting those animal spirits – he and the $200 billion he may have at his disposal before long.

For all Abe’s talk that “Japan is back” and for all his pledges to make the economy “exceptionally good,” Son and his ilk are deploying their cash elsewhere. Son can’t seem to grab enough stakes in American, European, Indian and Southeast Asian startups. Japanese operations, not so much. Abe’s lobbying job, it follows, is with visionaries like Son.

Time to hear from the all-new Japan Inc

Why not invite Son and fellow billionaires like Hiroshi Mikitani of e-commerce giant Rakuten, Tadashi Yanai of clothing juggernaut Uniqlo and others for a chat?

Abe and his economic team could sit down with them and ask what three or four steps Tokyo could take immediately to regain the reformist momentum. Not some shallow Trumpian photo op where Abe does all the talking and nothing changes, but a real meeting of the minds and imaginations.

Only by committing Abenomics to move from rhetoric to reality can Tokyo get tycoons to put some wind in its sails. It’s not like the world’s most celebrated value investors like Warren Buffett are making a beeline to Japan. The real Japan investment story concerns the outbound kind. In 2017, overseas purchases of real estate increased 70% from a year earlier.

It’s wise for Japan Inc to spread its wings overseas, of course. Given the nation’s shrinking and aging population, chieftains have a fiduciary responsibility to go where the growth is. Still, stinginess in corporate circles is partly to blame for the “deflationary mindset” still weighing on Asia’s second-biggest economy.

As strategist Nicholas Smith of CLSA Japan calculates, corporate earnings are up an average 22% in the fiscal year ended in March. And yet, inflation-adjusted “real” wages, broadly speaking, have barely budged so far in 2018 following a 0.2% drop in 2017. The question is how to get those profit-imbued companies benefiting from ultraloose Bank of Japan policies to open their wallets? How to get CEOs to share the wealth with workers?

It may be too late for Abe, of course, as scandals swirl and his support rates wallow in the 30s. What better way to turn things around, though, than creating a legacy and brainstorming with Japan’s real visionaries?

 Son and his $200 billion are only a phone call away.