Part one in a two-part series on post-disaster Japanese entrepreneurism.
I recently traveled to Japan to research disaster recovery in that nation. On my itinerary were Kobe, now just about completely recovered from the massive earthquake 20 years ago, and Miyako, a city centrally located in the northeast region that was devastated by a tsunami four years ago.
In New Orleans, we experienced a surge in entrepreneurism as part of our recovery. I wondered if something similar had occurred in Japan.
“Japanese culture is not really conducive to entrepreneurism,” Dr. Makiko Ueno, director of the Urban Community Research Center for Asia, told me over breakfast one morning. “Individuality is not really encouraged.”
In my observation this is true in the sense that you seldom see new business concepts launched by smaller entrepreneurs. Individuals may open traditional businesses like restaurants and shops, but dynamic, innovative thinking comes more often from the safety of the corporate environment. Teams coming up with new ideas can develop them more fully before launch – also sharing and diffusing failures when they occur.
In Miyako, there is a thriving seafood market, and many people make their living as independent fishermen or small store and restaurant owners. But nothing leaps out and screams “Innovation!”
Which is what made one particular exception I encountered all the more fascinating.
As was the case in New Orleans, in Miyako after the tsunami, information of all sorts was at a premium. Into that void stepped Hisao Hashimoto. Hashimoto launched a small radio station in a vacant room in a farm cooperative, with an initial broadcast range of just 9 miles. The station provided everything from information about relief supplies to messages from family members trying to reconnect with each other. Initially Hashimoto relied on volunteers to go out into the community to seek news. However, as awareness grew, government officials began coming by on their own to share information.
Though operating without a permit from the Japanese equivalent of the FCC, the station was able to increase its signal strength, and in the months after the tsunami, to expand the types of community information it provided. It also began broadcasting in other languages, such as Korean, which is spoken by a significant portion of the population in the area.
About three years later, Hashimoto was able to transform the station into a business enterprise, obtaining a commercial radio license and moving into a real studio. The station now reaches most of northeast Japan, and Hashimoto was recently elected to the Miyako City Council.
Still, his enterprise remains a rare post-tsunami new business. “Miyako is not seeing new businesses yet,” Hashimoto told me. Like all entrepreneurs, however, he is an optimist: “As the infrastructure is rebuilt and people are resettled, I see opportunity.”
Next month: the Kobe experience.
Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.