Wow the world in regional Japan
Building on its successful tourism think tank events in recent years, the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan (BCCJ) held the event “Wow the world in regional Japan” on June 8 in partnership with RSA Japan Fellows’ Network.
Members of the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce from across the UK and Japan joined BCCJ members and friends for the interactive session, which addressed the potential of regional Japan for businesses.
From zero to win
Adam Fulford, CEO of Fulford Enterprises and chairman of RSA Japan Fellows’ Network, introduced how companies in urban centres can work with local people in Japan’s regions for the betterment of both parties.
Through partnerships, collaboration or investment, communities can gain access to “diverse realms of experience and expertise” while strengthening their “identity and independence.” Companies, meanwhile, can see concrete positive outcomes from their efforts, for their brand and staff as well as the communities they support.
A key way to establish a mutually beneficial relationship is to gain the trust of the community, Fulford said. His company has developed the concept of a bilingual karisonmin (community intern) who lives and works among the local community for several months to do that.
Karisonmin Priya Mu, who lived in Yamagata Prefecture for five months, aimed to support the community’s present and future. She documented local places, practices and people’s relationship with nature; helped out at community events; taught English; collaborated with local craftsmen and set up an online presence for the community.
She also liaised with Yamagata Research Institute of Technology to explore the feasibility of freeze-drying the prefecture’s renowned sansai (mountain vegetables). Once freeze-dried, they can be exported, stored as emergency rations or utilized as a barter product to increase commercial opportunities in the community.
Fulford’s vision is to establish a network of what he calls Shuraku Operating System Nodes, comprising (in Japan) a karisonmin, a local committee and a community portal in English that includes an online shop. The first node is already functioning in Nakatsugawa, Gifu Prefecture. The hope is that it will eventually become part of a cloud of nodes that covers all of Japan, and the world.
Case study: Fukushima
Investment by corporates in local projects can have a vast and wide-ranging impact on all involved, according to Zoe Vincent, project manager at Fulford Enterprises. Vincent, who formerly promoted Fukushima to overseas markets as a tourism destination following the triple disaster that devastated Tohoku in 2011, shared how the prefecture continues to benefit from the support of urban-based businesses.
“Through international tourism campaigns, the prefecture has been rebuilding its image, but some misunderstandings about safety remain, even in Japan,” she said, pointing out that the prefecture is safe and produces high-quality sake and fresh produce (only 3% is inhabitable due to the nuclear accident). “Investment makes a big difference to individuals or communities affected by stigma, especially in agriculture, as we need to repair the image of products.”
Fukushima is ideal for businesses looking to invest because of its unique characteristics, she added. One is the Fukushima Innovation Coast Framework, a national project launched in 2014 to build a new industrial infrastructure in the coastal region, which has attracted new industries including robotics, medical care and renewable energy. Companies can also benefit from Fukushima’s vast size (the third largest prefecture in Japan) and proximity to Tokyo (about two hours by Shinkansen). Vincent also pointed to the prefecture’s strong spirit of collaboration that sees local competitors work together for the benefit of the community.
Jun Yamada, CEO at Aizu Electric Power Company, shared his experience of setting up a solar plant after the 2011 disaster. Comprising about 50 solar panels, the enterprise is small, but plays a critical role in the community by providing local, community-driven, clean energy to support the regeneration of the business ecosystem. The company is now diversifying into areas that include wine-making.
Koki Kawauchi, Director of Fukushima Ouse Winery in Osemachi, Koriyama City, spoke about his own determination to “sweep away the reputational damage to Fukushima’s fresh produce as a result of the disaster.” Ouse Winery is operated by Mitsubishi Corporation, and offers Kawauchi, a Koriyama native, an opportunity to showcase some Fukushima products.
There were no established vineyards when Mitsubishi Corporation started the initiative a few years ago, but now the winery collaborates with 13 local wine makers. The winery’s output is 70,000 bottles annually, including brandy and cider, which has received several awards.
Treasures in rural Japan
Despite the challenges facing the regions, including a lack of people, leaders and capital for business development, Fulford said rural Japan offers “treasures in plain sight.”
Many of the elements that once made small rural communities thrive are disappearing, though, including engaging with nature on an everyday basis, connectivity with other neighbouring settlements and cultural diversity.
He said the wide-ranging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have demonstrated that urban communities are more fragile than rural ones, and called on attendees to more fully appreciate the value inherent in regional Japan.
In closing, he outlined the common headaches facing both corporates and communities—including name recognition, attracting and retaining people, and ensuring cultural and business fit—as well as how they can be addressed through partnership.
Through collaboration, “both sides have something to contribute and gain,” he said, adding that companies can bring their SDG commitments to life while building their reputation, cultivating staff skills and better grasping Japan’s demographic trends and culture. Communities, meanwhile, can access diverse realms of experience and expertise while learning and being inspired.
“Just think of the many possible positive outcomes you could generate by sharing each step of the journey with your stakeholders and the world,” he said, encouraging organisations and individuals in urban centres to engage with rural Japan.