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Earthquake Recovery in Japan: Entrepreneurs to the Rescue

"Disaster relief" usually brings to mind images of tents, food and water convoys, and emergency medicine. But since 2011's earthquake, tsunami, and reactor meltdown in the Tōhoku region of Japan, a Tokyo-based social entrepreneurship group called ETIC has added a whole new dimension: an entrepreneurial recovery effort. 

Through its fellowship for young business leaders, called the "Disaster Recovery Leadership Development Project,” the group is enlisting 200 fellows from some of the biggest corporations in Japan to move to the recovering region for 3 to 12 months and help run temporary housing units, put companies back together, and rebuild the transportation system.

“It’s like Americorps,” said Koumei Ishikawa, ETIC’s Research Division Manager and a former business consultant. “In Japan, a lot of young businesspeople feel that their work is not vital. Social enterprise has hope.”

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the east coast of Tōhoku in March 2011, killed more than 12,000 people, sent tsunami waves six miles inland, and damaged or completely flattened more than a million buildings. Combined with the tsunami and the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, it was the most economically damaging disaster in world history, costing Japan an estimated $235 billion, according to the World Bank.

Running startups in the rubble

ETIC, which has been building the startup and social enterprise sectors in Japan since 1993, initially responded to the disasters with traditional methods: sending emergency supplies and short-term volunteers. But over time, the organization realized that they could contribute by rebuilding economic and social  infrastructure.

The region hit by the disaster had already faced a brain drain of young people to the big cities, since accelerated after the earthquake. ETIC’s program has so far brought 74 fellows to the region to work with 30 local social enterprise organizations. Thirty percent of them are Tōhoku natives returning to rebuild their hometowns, and most of them have several years of work experience.

The types of work they have been doing may not seem like obvious needs - 35 percent of the fellows are doing operations management or business development, and another 16 percent are focusing on marketing and service/product development – but these have proven to be invaluable skills. So is the “energy and drive” that the fellows have brought, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s, according to ETIC’s report on the project.

"We were quite over-capacity as we had to manage 50 volunteers in five areas, from logistics arrangement to responding to the needs from schools and municipalities," one project leader said. "But the fellows never complained and they focused on the project. I appreciate them a lot!"

ETIC is doubling the size of the program because of the demand.

Sometimes it takes an (octopus) village

Many ETIC fellows have been covering basic infrastructure – livelihood, healthcare, support of education or seniors. The fellowship of Kazuki Murai, age 31, a sales and marketing manager who’d worked in fair trade and for a major travel company, was about selling octopus charms.

Murai was sent to Minami-Sanriku, a small town known for octopus fishing that had been devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. Before the disaster, the local tourist office had sold bright red octopus charms, which caught on with students at exam time because the pronunciation of the word “okuto-pasu” sounds like “place and you will pass” in Japanese.

In the aftermath, a group of volunteers decided to start making the octopi again for a fundraiser and job creation project in the village, which had lost boats, homes, and shops. In September, Murai took over product management, sales channel development, and online sales, marketing and promotion, and the octopus charms have taken off.

Creating an “entrepreneurial cycle” for Tōhoku's future

It’s reminiscent of much of the innovation and community-building work that has gone on in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. The Foundation for Louisiana's CEO Flozell Daniels, Jr. gave the keynote at ETIC's conference in Tokyo in February. Like some of the NOLA experiments, ETIC is developing a grander vision for what it could accomplish. Their bet is that this is a juncture to truly create change, to push Tōhoku and Fukushima beyond just recovery and onto new path.

But they have to work fast. Many residents of the affected areas have been living on short-term government relief and in temporary housing, and the local economy is not strong enough to reemploy all those that lost their jobs. ETIC hopes to create “a positive spiral of entrepreneurship” by bringing young business leaders to the region to work on a regional incubation program, including in Fukushima.

“The fishing industry in Tōhoku is very old-fashioned, so we have started a program on how to apply IT (to the industry) in junior and high school there,” said ETIC founder and CEO, Haruo Miyagi. One of the major things they've done is to make the industry much more sustainable and safe by fostering aquaculture, he said, which has also made the fishermen more independent and reduced reliance on subsidies.

Miyagi and Ishikawa were in San Francisco last month at the 10th anniversary celebration of Give2Asia, an international umbrella charity that focuses on health, education, and disaster relief. The charity funded the recovery program with a $400,000 grant.

With a full-time staff of 32, ETIC started in 1993 with the “Entrepreneur Internship Program” (they have placed 2,000 long-term interns at startups and social enterprises in Japan.) Since 2001, their NEC-ETIC Incubation Program for Social Entrepreneurs have helped incubate, grow, and train 95 startups.

Hannah Miller

Hannah Miller is a writer, ecologist, and adventurer living in Colorado. She is interested in everything, but particularly in creative sustainability practices, the Internet, arts and culture, the human-machine interaction, and democracy. She's lived in Shanghai, New York, L.A., Philadelphia, and D.C., and taught English, run political campaigns, waited tables, and written puppet shows. She definitely wants to hear what you're up to. You can reach her at @hannahmiller215, email at golden.notebook at gmail.com or at her site: www.hannahmiller.net.

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