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SIX Interview Series: Maria Ikeda of the University of Hyogo

Author: Maria Ikeda
Published Date: 3 April 2013

Maria M. Ikeda is Associate Professor at the University of Hyogo School of Economics and the Institute for Policy Analysis and Social Innovation (IPS). She is the current editor of the Japan Social Innovation Journal, the online journal of IPS at the University of Hyogo. Maria Ikeda was also a speaker at the launch of SIX Asia. The Japan Social Innovation Journal publishes innovative work on methods by researchers, entrepreneurs, policymakers and practitioners from the not-for-profit sector.

What motivated the University of Hyogo to create IPS and the Japan Social Innovation Journal?

The IPS was established in 2010 to enhance economic cooperation particularly with Asian countries in order to develop policies that address the various regional revitalization issues and to support local industries confronted by challenges in the global economy.

First among its aims is to conduct and disseminate sound and rigorous research on social innovative mechanisms that respond to the problems faced by Hyogo Prefecture and Hyogo’s companies faced by the challenges of rapid globalization. It is through the Japan Social Innovation Journal, that the Institute plans to engage researchers, policy makers, practitioners and entrepreneurs to think about these problems and discuss potential solutions. Second, the IPS aims to develop human resources who will promote projects that contribute to the development of local industries and the transformation of local communities. In other words, IPS functions as an incubator for socially innovative individuals and organizations.

How would you describe the context of social innovation in Japan? Is it a significant part of local governments agenda and is there a strong private initiative?

I think there is latent awareness about social innovation in Japan. Yes, local government units have section offices dedicated to social contribution matters and private companies pursue their respective CSRs, however, these activities seem to be compartmentalized initiatives that operate within the conventional parameters of “we as overseers of change” rather than “we engage individuals and organizations to lead or spur change in their respective communities”.

However, through the experiences of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 and the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, there has been a heightened awareness of the need for social enterprises, non-profits, charitable organizations and passionate individuals to respond to the need for change in order to effectively deliver social services at the grassroots communities which cannot be reached by government and private sectors in Japan.

The number of non-profits has supposedly quadrupled over the past decade and as of the end of 2012, there are some 47,000 non-profits in Japan. Recent news articles show that there has been an increase from 350 in 2011 to 500 in 2012 among young people who are looking into the non-profit sector for jobs. Many attribute this change to the NPO activities that were noted in media for their response to the Great East Japan Earthquake and who continue to support recovery efforts in Tohoku. Indeed, those numbers are very low compared to some countries like the US, UK or India, but along with the spread of NPO activities and increased awareness among the Japanese public, more people are expected to actively pursue socially innovative initiatives in the near future.

In one of your articles, Leadership and Social Innovation Initiatives at the Grassroots during Crises, you talk about social innovation as a response to the Great East Japan Earthquake. Could you give examples of initiatives that arose to recover from the crisis?

Thank you for your question-- we really need to write a follow-up to that article which we wrote more than a year ago. Right after the Great East Japan Earthquake, there was a hugely spontaneous response people in various parts of Japan (and the rest of the world) seeking ways how they can help those affected by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant crises. As the government had their hands full in containing the consequences of the crises, people were using social media (like SMS texting, mixi, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to get more information about the extent and consequences of the earthquake and tsunami and to find out how to bring help to Tohoku and other areas affected by the disaster.

“Kizuna” meaning “brotherhood or bonds of friendship”, a word used when people need to help each other was a prevalent byword inspired by the response efforts by several people and organizations right after the March 11 crises. If you do a search on the Web, you will get several hits for “kizuna”. This shows that “kizuna” continues to be the identifying keyword among recovery support initiatives of several organizations, both public and private which have started and continue their own projects to show solidarity with and support for Tohoku. Some private sector initiatives are noteworthy. Among these are oyster owner programs started by various companies in the fisheries industry to rebuild the oyster farms in the coastal areas of Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures. Basically people buy shares at 10,000 yen a piece (approximately US$100) in exchange for at least 20 oysters upon reconstruction of the oyster farms. In addition to oysters, some companies throw in some other products like fresh scallops in their “reconstruction gift sets” to owners.

"Shigeatsu Hatakeyamaestablished the Society to Protect Forests for Oysters."

One of Japan’s well-known NPOs engaged in environmental conservation concerns is based in Miyagi and is called “Mori wa Umi no Koibito” (literally “forest is sea’s lover”). Mr. Shigeatsu Hatakeyama, the head of this NPO is an oyster farmer, entrepreneur and an environmentalist. His family has been harvesting oysters and scallops in Kessenuma Bay in Miyagi for three generations and through the years he realized that replanting forests upstream have a positive impact on the water quality in his area and consequently improve the quality of his oysters. He engaged with the farmers in the upstream areas of Okawa River and has been working with them to sustainably manage the local forests and the sea. He established the Society to Protect Forests for Oysters and has been advocating for more than 20 years annual tree planting events in nearby areas.

Mr. Hatakeyama continues to inspire many as after the March 11 tsunami which totally washed away his home and business worth millions of dollars, he even participated in an annual tree planting in a nearby town where he apologised for not being able to bring any oysters or scallops which he shares with the upstream foresters and farmers every year. During the event he spoke about his positive vision for the future of the Tohoku region which he believes can be a model Japan’s sustainable management of biodiversity in an agricultural and marine context. Several corporations like Mitsui Group of companies, Louis Vuitton Japan, Cosmo Oil, and so on support Hatakeyama’s efforts in restarting oyster cultivation and monitoring the impacts to the ecosystem. Mr. Hatakeyama’s environmental conservation efforts have been recognized by the United Nations recently. A team from Kyoto University is also helping Hatakeyama rebuild his agricultural farm and to design a model of reconstruction that can be implemented in other disaster-affected areas.

Kirin Holdings, one of Japan’s major brewer and beverage companies, in collaboration with the Nippon Foundation, Japan's largest private philanthropic organization started its own “Kizuna project” supporting the reconstruction not only of oyster beds but also of Tohoku’s agriculture and fishery industries including seaweed farming and various agricultural processing industries by providing forklifts and other heavy equipment needed to clean up the debris in the affected areas. Kirin is also one of the companies supporting Tohoku University’s Graduate School of Agricultural Science academic impact initiatives such as “Recovery of Village, Agriculture and Food Project” and the “Nanohana (or rapeseed) Project”.

"The “Cotton Project” was established to support farmers by growing cotton farms in the tsunami-affected lands in Miyagi Prefecture."

There is also the “Cotton Project” initiated by a Tokyo-based wearing apparel entrepreneur who quickly rounded up companies in the textile, wearing apparel and retail sectors and went to Miyagi to assess the damage to agriculture in March 2011. By April 2011, the “Cotton Project” was established to support farmers by growing cotton farms in the tsunami-affected and heavily salinated coastal agricultural lands in Miyagi Prefecture. The Cotton Project had its first harvest of cotton in October 2011 and was able to produce and sell cotton products like shirts, bags and accessories by May 2012. The team continues to plant cotton over 1.6 hectares of land in various parts of Tohoku and coordinates activities from planting cotton, buying the cotton at three times the market price from Tohoku cotton farmers, product development, to selling directly to the market.

There are also several voluntary activities supporting Tohoku’s children affected by the March 11 disaster. The Hatachi Fund is a consortium of non-profit organizations and social enterprises that was established in cooperation with the Nippon Foundation, aiming to support the children in the disaster-stricken area till they reach 20 years old (“hatachi” in Japanese). Among the various activities that this fund supports are the so-called “Hope seminars” conducted to support the education for children from Tohoku’s low-income families as well as the “Smile Factory for Kids” designed to support children with behavioural disorders particularly those who refuse to attend to school due to bullying, peer pressure and other psychological reasons in the devastated area.

Similarly the immediate response to the March 11 disaster of “Ashinaga”, a charitable organization dedicated to support orphaned children not only in Japan but worldwide was to establish an office a month after the earthquake in the city of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture to provide psychological and emotional care to children who lost their parents. Ashinaga (which literally means “long legs”) is currently amidst plans to build Tohoku Rainbow House and satellite facilities in the three Tohoku cities of Sendai, Ishinomaki and Rikuzentaka to heal psychological wounds of earthquake and tsunami orphans.

What do you think will be the greatest challenges for Japan in the future which will require new solutions?

Breaking away from economic stagnation and deflation and all the related issues that this phenomenon created over the span of two decades is the most important socio-economic challenge that Japan faces. Policy challenges of issues like Japan’s aging population and ballooning of the budget deficit emphasize that a review of institutions and a certain degree of deregulation to stimulate competitiveness and regeneration in various regions of Japan is necessary.

The key to this is to develop human resources and potential leaders of social enterprises and non-profit organizations who can turn the wheels of change at the grassroots or in Japan’s local regions. We at the University of Hyogo believe that it is the social mission of the IPS to analyze and build the theoretical foundations of fostering human resources that enable social enterprises and non-profit organizations to enhance their contribution and impact in the communities they serve.