Prior to the March 11 disaster, Tohoku had experienced a decades-long drain of young professionals and families. After the disaster, 65,000 more people left the region in a mass exodus; 80 percent of those were under 30-years-old. As a result, Tohoku has become one of the regions with the highest percentage of elderly people in Japan. In some parts of Tohoku over 35 percent of residents are over the age of 65.
To help reverse this trend, create jobs, and catalyze economic activity, Entrepreneurial Training for Innovative Communities (ETIC) leads a program of entrepreneurial mentoring and fellowship. ETIC is identifying 50 promising young leaders with innovative entrepreneurial projects and will assign 100 fellows, two to each of the 50 projects, to support and learn from project leaders. Each fellow must be under 40 years old with professional experience, and commit at least three months to working in the region. All 50 projects are aimed at developing long-term innovation and enterprise in Tohoku.
ETIC has 39 of the 50 projects already underway and has identified and assigned 63 fellows to project leaders so far. Projects are a mixture of for-profit and non-profit ventures and involve a wide range of recovery activities, including education, community building, healthcare and mental health support, and industrial revitalization.
“One thing I really want to hear is people speak about Tohoku ten years later like March 11 was a turning point of not only Tohoku but for Japan. Tohoku should be some kind of ground zero for Japanese social entrepreneurs,” said ETIC’s Research Division Manager, Yoshi Ishikawa in an interview with Give2Asia. “So that kind of situation would mean all kinds of new jobs and new kinds of public services. All brought on by the disaster. That’s why we are sending so many young people to the disaster area.”
Here are the stories of two entrepreneurs working for ETIC in Tohoku:
Tsutomo Tamakawa lived in Tohoku for 22 years and earned his bachelor’s degree in law from Tohoku University before he left his home for the greener professional pastures of Tokyo. In the capital, Tamakawa-san earned a job with Asahi Glass Co. Ltd., where he travelled the world developing innovative new businesses including an international consortium within the semiconductor industry.
When the earthquake and tsunami struck, Tamakawa-san had been in Tokyo for two years. At the age of 24, he left his job to join ETIC as its representative in Miyagi prefecture. One year later, he still has no office and must travel between Tokyo and Tohoku several times a month. Himself a boomeranged native, his job is to identify other prodigal sons and daughters with the experience and expertise to rebuild Tohoku.
As a young, successful professional Tamakawa-san is an example for ETIC’s fellows and project managers, embodying ETIC’s recovery strategy – returning young people and revitalizing the economy through innovation and entrepreneurship.
Rina Sasaki is a 23-year-old ETIC fellow from Iwate Prefecture, one of the areas badly damaged by the tsunami. Sasaki-san graduated from college four months before the disaster, and like many from Tohoku, she left the region to find a job. Also like many young people, she returned to help rebuild her community.
As an ETIC fellow, she works with another entrepreneur, Yasuhiro Watanabe, a former engineer at a Japanese manufacturing company. The pair are working for Guru Guru Ouen-dan, a social enterprise that provides on-demand transportation services to elderly residents living in temporary housing. This collaboration between Guru Guru Ouen-dan and Community Taxi, Inc. was recently selected as one of the “Social Business Know-How Replication Projects” by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.