Revitalizing Tohoku

Barnett F. Baron, President & CEO of Give2Asia

By Barnett F. Baron

This piece was originally published by the Council on Foundations, in their blog, RE:Philanthropy

As we approach the first anniversary of the Tohoku disaster, my colleagues and I at Give2Asia are taking stock of our work for relief and recovery and considering the future. Tohoku will need business and philanthropy investments for several years to come, and we are encouraged by the innovative and entrepreneurial approaches of some Japanese social organizations that we have been privileged to support.

Prior to the disaster, Tohoku was already a marginalized area facing the twin challenges of a depressed economy and a rapidly aging population. The three Tohoku prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima accounted for about four percent of Japan’s GDP; their coastal areas directly affected by the tsunami accounted for less than half of that. The pre-disaster economy of coastal Tohoku was largely based on family-run farming and fishing. Under pressure from years of outmigration by younger and more educated people looking for better opportunities elsewhere, the average age of farmers was 65.2 years in Miyagi prefecture, 66.3 in Iwate prefecture, and 66.8 in Fukushima prefecture.

The Government of Japan recognized the need to rebuild Tohoku on a new economic foundation. It introduced tax and other incentives to attract domestic and international investment. It also increased the budget of the Ministry of Reconstruction and created a Reconstruction and Design Committee composed of local stakeholders and various experts to produce a set of reconstruction guidelines. Introduced in late June, however, the guidelines disappointed many who had hoped they would provide a more specific, innovative, and operational framework for a coordinated approach to rebuild Tohoku. In a culture in which consensus, conformity and proper etiquette are the norm, discontent with the government’s inadequate response to this complex humanitarian disaster have sparked a level of public demonstrations, and a loss of trust in government and the media, that is unusual for Japan.

In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, thousands of Japanese of all ages volunteered to help in the relief effort. More than 900,000 volunteers participated in relief and recovery efforts in Tohoku, often with transportation, training, and work assignments organized by Japanese nonprofit organizations. Even more promising is the commitment of young Japanese students and entrepreneurs to bring innovation and enterprise to the economic revitalization of the region. These entrepreneurs are seeking support for their ideas and projects to strategically revitalize the local economies with the input and involvement of local communities.

For example, Entrepreneurial Training for Innovative Communities (ETIC) is now working with young social entrepreneurs across Japan to revitalize small businesses in Tohoku. ETIC is currently supporting 30 revitalization projects by placing two young, educated ETIC fellows with each project leader to assist them with the planning, design and implementation of their plans. ETIC will select another 20 projects and leaders in the next year and is working with these leaders on fundraising. (Click here for more information on ETIC and its fellows.)

Consider Tsutomu Tamakawa, a 24-year old born in the city of Sendai. He graduated from Tohoku University with a law degree and worked in the marketing department of a glass company that creates cutting-edge optics for the semiconductor industry. When the earthquake hit, he knew in an instant he wanted to help. “I was afraid,” he said, “I knew people in Tohoku can’t depend on the government.”

Rina Sasaki, Tohoku native and also an ETIC fellow, had only just graduated from college when the earthquake hit. With her business partner Yasuhiro Watanabe who left his job at a Japanese manufacturer, she is learning to run a new business that provides on-demand transportation for elderly people to do their errands and see their family and friends.

Eat and Energize the East is another social enterprise supported by Give2Asia that is working to revive agriculture in Tohoku by connecting farmers and fishermen directly with food service providers and retailers throughout Japan and by regular testing of Tohoku’s agricultural products to rebuild consumer confidence after Fukushima.

These projects are led by young people who are like many of the young people my colleagues have met in Tohoku. These are not the people that we sometimes read about in the U.S.—young Japanese in crisis, stymied and frustrated by economic stagnation, deflation, and general pessimism. Tsutomu says that despite his feeling that his government left people to fend for themselves, he’s optimistic and energized.

Not all of the innovators are young. “My wife and grandson are still missing,” explains Mr. Sato (Sato-san), a 70-year-old fisherman in Tohoku.

“The tsunami was estimated at 6 meters, but was actually 20 meters high. My wife, my three brothers and I ran to a place that was 15 meters high because of the report,” said Sato-san. “All I remember is holding on as the waves washed over me again and again. When I came to, my wife was missing. That night, I walked through 10 centimeters of snow to my wife’s hometown, but I could not find her.”

In spite of Sato-san’s tragedy, he has taken the initiative to lead relief and recovery efforts in his community. In coordination with local disaster responder PARCIC, Sato-san has been working to restore the local fishing industry, which provided a livelihood for 205 families in the area prior to the disaster. PARCIC has established a fishing cooperative in the region and Sato-san was elected by his peers to lead it.

Before the disaster, local fishermen farmed abalone, oysters, scallops and seaweed. PARCIC has rebuilt several wakame seaweed farms so far, which use less equipment and capital than the other farms. For the fishing families, this is a welcome start to regaining a financial foothold. PARCIC also markets the produce and tests for radiation to combat consumer fears. Once the wakame farms are running, PARCIC plans to rebuild the abalone, oyster, and scallop farms. However, this will require still more boats – an unmet need in Japan right now.

Economic research has shown that major disasters have often been followed by periods of innovation and growth, if that rebuilding is characterized by structural reform, eliminating dysfunctional economic relations, introducing technological innovation, and selective targeting of new investments. Even Tohoku has experienced a short-term spurt of construction since March 11, 2011, but whether that can be sustained remains to be seen. Much will depend on the ability of local communities, social entrepreneurs and officials, particularly municipal mayors, to develop innovative plans to attract domestic and international investment, and to overcome the inertia of Japanese economic policymaking.

Social entrepreneurs and innovators – and those seeking to fund their work – have the opportunity to seek out and make possible promising new approaches to economic revitalization in Tohoku and commit a basic tenet of disaster response, which is to “build back better.”

Barnett F. Baron is the president and CEO of Give2Asia. Previously he was Executive Vice president of The Asia Foundation in San Francisco.

Download “Lessons Learned: The 2011 Disasters in Tohoku, Japan,” written by Give2Asia’s disaster response lead Gillian Yeoh, and expands on Give2Asia’s lessons-learned from working within Tohoku.

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