Before the earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region of Japan in 2011, it was already plagued with a number of challenging issues. Many, especially the younger generation, could not envision a future for the towns. Up to 35 percent of the population in the coastal area was made up of people over 65 years old, yet a migrating young population, who saw more opportunities in bigger cities, left the elderly behind and the future of the towns in jeopardy. Located close to sea waters, many of the towns anxiously relied on shrinking primary industries such as fishing and agriculture.
Threats to the livelihoods of these communities have been accelerated by the earthquake, which has already made a deadly impact. But it’s also because of the earthquake that over the last two years, the younger generation has chosen to migrate back.
An ETIC project
A supporter of entrepreneurship development in Japan since established in 1993, the Entrepreneurial Training for Innovative Communities (ETIC) created the Disaster Recovery Leader Development Project (DRLDP) three days after the disaster hit.
In the early stages of the project, much of the activities focused on immediate relief, such as providing emergency supplies and gathering volunteers. Three months after it was created and seeing the needs of the local communities, the project evolved into a fellowship program that brought in young people to support local leaders and entrepreneurs with recovery efforts.
The ETIC originally began as a student organization out of Waseda University aiming to develop entrepreneurship capacity among young people in a nation where lifetime employment – a system where employees work for a single employer during their lifetime and layoffs are restricted – at a large company is the norm. Beginning in 2001, the organization focused on social entrepreneurship, creating programs and opportunities to inspire young people to start ventures and pursue entrepreneurship to benefit society.
Although innovative disaster recovery programs existed in the communities, the ETIC noticed that these efforts required human capital. Young talent, which is scarce in the region, was particularly important. There is also an urgency to create jobs since a government emergency employment support scheme ends March 2015, while an estimated 100,000 people lost their jobs because of the disaster.
In adversity-turned-opportunity fashion, the DRLDP fellowship program began dispatching young “fellows” to the Tohoku region in May 2011. Aside from helping with recovery, the DRLDP provided an avenue to encourage social entrepreneurship.
“The disaster can be turned into the opportunity to bring in the innovations that [have] never seen before in Japanese society,” said Lisa Takayama, a fellow of the DRLDP.
Meet the fellows
Takayama, 40, has lived in the Philippines for 13 years working in the international development field for the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Japanese embassy. Using her international experience, she became a fundraising fellow for Katariba, a nonprofit that conducts workshops for high school students on career development.
Katariba established the Collaborative School in the Tohoku region to support children’s education. Children whose homes were swept away were forced to live in temporary housing or their relatives’ houses, and often had limited space for studying. Katariba provides a space for them, not only to improve academic performance, but to recover emotionally and nurtures them as future leaders.
Tomoya Tada, another fellow, wanted to help with Tohoku’s recovery efforts. The 25-year-old, who works at a global consulting firm, was finally able to take some time off work in July 2011 to visit university friend Yuichi Tomohiro in the remote Oshika Peninsula, which was the closest point on the main island to the earthquake’s epicenter. Inspired by the people he met who took pride in their work, Tada sent an email to his boss on the way home, saying that he would like to quit his job and head for Tohoku.
Able to take a leave of absence, Tada headed for Tohoku in September 2011 and launched a new business with Tomohiro. They employed women in Oshika to make accessories using local materials and handled production, sales, accounting, and business development. Beyond job creation, their business helps with community building.
“I’m really happy to see local people working with positive attitudes. Our goal is to create sustainable business and community,” said Tada, who intends to stay in the region for at least three years.
By the end of February 2012, the DRLDP developed 74 fellows, which prompted organizers to raise their original goal of 100 fellows to 200 fellows by March 2014. By the end of March 2013, they had sent a total of 145 fellows across 78 projects.
Fellows, with an average age of 24 years old, are self-motivated, outcome-oriented individuals committed to full-time work from a period of three months to a year. They are provided with a monthly stipend between 100,000 to 150,000 yen (roughly US$1,000 to $1,500) as well as training programs. About 37 percent of fellows who have graduated from the program continue to work in the Tohoku region.
Local leaders and entrepreneurs are very pleased with the fellows. Based on a survey of 18 leaders by the ETIC, 67 percent said the fellows helped “very much” with the heavy burden of daily operations and 56 percent said they helped “very much” with bringing in fresh ideas, needed expertise and skills, and inspiration to colleagues.
“The fellows filled the ‘skill gap’ such as IT skill, use of social networks, providing external viewpoints, speed of the work or English skill — all were the important contributions that the fellow brought to us,” said one project leader.
To make recruitment easier, the ETIC developed the Michinoku Shigoto (Michinoku Work) website to display job details. The website is updated as project needs surface.
The ETIC expects the DRLDP to run until 2016. Aside from the fellowship program, they will concentrate efforts on bringing in business executives to transfer know-how of product and business development to local businesses. Beyond supporting businesses in the affected area, their projects will encourage entrepreneurs from outside of Tohoku to start businesses in the region, which is already an area of interest among the fellows.
Photo from Michinoku Shigoto.
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