March 11, 2021, marked the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. The unprecedented catastrophe seriously damaged Japan’s economy, but it also became an important turning point for many entrepreneurs.
These entrepreneurs are now taking steps not only to support restoration and reconstruction of their region, but also to bring a brighter future to the disaster-stricken areas and to Japanese society as a whole.
The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward sought out some of these innovators for a look at what they’re doing.
Rebuilding Hometowns with Strawberries
“It was just a miserable sight, like a burned-out field after an air raid.”
This was the first impression of Daiki Iwasa, the 43-year-old CEO of GRA Inc., an agricultural venture in Yamamoto, Miyagi Prefecture, one of the hardest hit areas in the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. He rushed to his hometown, Yamamoto, the day after the earthquake, and was shocked to see that everything — including the fields of a special local strawberry variety ー had been washed away.
At the time, he was running an IT company in Tokyo, but he returned to Yamamoto every weekend to help local residents clear away the debris, because “I want to rebuild my hometown,” he said. With that thought, he left the IT business to his partner and launched a non-profit called GRA Inc. in Yamamoto.
The short shelf life of strawberries tends to favor buyers by keeping prices low, but this creates problems for farmers who cannot make a living. That’s where Iwasa saw the need to develop a brand of high-end strawberries that could be sold at consistently stronger prices. He set the goal of “establishing agriculture as a business attractive to investment from capital markets.”
Cultivation of the new variety of strawberries began in the fall of 2011 under the guidance of local farmers. But strawberries are very delicate, and the sweetness can vary from temperature and humidity differences, even in the same production area. To overcome this challenge, Iwasa made use of his IT experience, applying advanced technology to control greenhouse temperature, humidity, and lighting.
The brand “Migaki Strawberries” was launched in December 2012. The fruit was marketed online and through department stores nationwide, with the best quality gifts (420 grams, or 14.8 oz) going for ¥5,500 JPY (about $50 USD). GRA also started a project using this expertise to establish Migaki strawberry cultivation in India.
Since the initial project, GRA has focused on modernizing agriculture and creating new jobs and industries in the earthquake-devastated Miyagi region. Today, the town of Yamamoto is attracting young new residents to what is also one of the best surfing spots in Northeast Japan.
Supplementing Support Through Crowdfunding
The Great East Japan Earthquake was also a catalyst for the pioneering crowdfunding (CF) company Ready For (Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo), which raises funds through donations over the internet for new projects.
“We don’t have enough volunteers or money for the immediate recovery efforts.”
In May 2011, about two months after the Great East Japan Earthquake, Ready For CEO Haruka Mera, 33, listened to this compelling appeal of two university students who had come from Sendai to stand in front of her apartment, where her office was at the time.
They pointed out that, in the event of a large-scale disaster, the Japanese Red Cross Society serves as a hub for accepting donations. But it takes time for money to be allocated since the amount is decided based on the scale of the damage. There is also a system for directly supporting groups involved in restoration, but it receives less attention than the donation points that are widely announced in the media.
Taking advantage of the experience gained through the 3.11 disaster, Ready For has since helped support groups helping in the recovery of large-scale disasters by raising money through crowdfunding. In July 2010, when torrential rains caused severe damage in many locations, it managed to raise about ¥13.8 million JPY (over $126 thousand USD) in one month and deliver the funds to volunteer organizations working on the recovery.
In January 2021, a new fundraising framework called “Community Chest” was launched in collaboration with 10 major organizations. The new gateway has made it possible to speed financial assistance to assistance groups working in disaster-stricken areas in as little as 10 days.
Crowdfunding has also collected funds to support COVID-19-related efforts, including the medical professionals who are treating those who become sick. “I want to support people in need,” said Mera, who has also been working to promote a culture of donation in Japan.
A Light of Hope for Traditional Industries
Another entrepreneur who wants to change society through corporate initiatives is Rika Yajima, 32, president of Aeru (Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo). Projects she sponsors include activities such as the development of wooden tableware for children with the aim of connecting traditional industries to the next generation.
At the moment of the Great East Japan Earthquake, she was in a website design meeting in Kamakura City, Kanagawa Prefecture. It was the moment “that the earthquake changed the lives of many people,” but she added, “Life is born at any moment. That’s why I didn’t want to stop setting up the company.” Five days later, she registered her company with the appropriate legal affairs bureau.
More and more traditional industries are going out of business due to problems finding a successor. Yajima, who has visited more than 1,000 workshops since her company’s founding, has started providing consulting services on the succession problem for that reason.
“Keeping the light of hope alive is the driving force behind our effort to overcome these difficult times,” says Yajima. The strong convictions of these entrepreneurs are leading the way to make a new Japan.
Author: Nobuhito Matsumura