Yoshikazu Tanaka doesn’t carry himself the way his standing as Asia’s youngest self-made billionaire would suggest. Rumpled and fatigued, the 34-year-old founder and president of Gree arrives late for an early morning interview. A public relations spokeswoman later apologizes for the tardiness, explaining the young executive has been traveling more over the last year. He now spends about half of his time overseas: Gree’s acquisition of U.S.-based mobile gaming company OpenFeint in late April means he jets to the company’s California office at least once a month, and he is often at various speaking engagements. He will head to Switzerland in June to attend the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders conference.
It’s a grueling schedule that leaves little time for his hobbies, which include backpacking and trying out new ramen shops. Mr. Tanaka’s attire is casual: sneakers, jeans and a dark gray zip-up hoodie with his hair falling where it may. The lint balls gathered at the end of sleeves captivate his attention for a good portion of the interview; he answers questions as he picks each one off then lines them up against the wall of his business card holder. It’s hard to imagine from such impressions that Mr. Tanaka possesses the kind of “guts and determination” he says he learned are necessary to succeed in the cutthroat Internet business from his mentor Hiroshi Mikitani, chief executive of Japanese online retailer Rakuten Inc. But Mr. Tanaka’s tenacity and clear global vision of the next step in social networking is apparent in his self-assured, succinct manner.
“In our industry it’s inevitable to be thrown into world-wide competition. There are a lot of hungry people out there and to compete with them you also have to be hungry,” he said of the lesson he drew from his time at Rakuten, which he thinks is the most successful Internet venture in Japan. Gree—named an abbreviation of “degree” from the concept six degrees of separation—was born as a side project while Mr. Tanaka was working at Rakuten. He left the company in 2004 when user interest started to explode, but says he keeps in touch with Mr. Mikitani. Mr. Tanaka and Gree’s meteoric rise at home and thirst to dominate the global social gaming scene is an enigmatic story among his contemporaries and even staid Japan Inc. giants that are 30 years past their rapid growth period.