More Lessons From Across the Sea

Japanses disaster entrepreneurism, Part 2.
The main port in Kobe, Japan has bounced back 20 years after a massive earthquake hit the city.

As I reported last month, I recently traveled to Japan to learn about civic engagement and disaster recovery – and a bit about entrepreneurism in the Land of the Rising Sun.

After spending time in the small city of Miyako, in the northeast region devastated by the March 2011 tsunami, the much larger Kobe was a very different experience. A port city like New Orleans, Kobe is home to 1.5 million people and sits in the middle of a multi-city metropolis.

 Twenty years after an earthquake wreaked havoc even beyond what we experienced here after Hurricane Katrina, only a close inspection revealing the many new buildings would give a visitor the first clue that this was the scene of epic destruction.

In a recovery of this speed and magnitude, surely entrepreneurism must have played a substantial role, right?

Yes and no.

“Money to support business operations was slow to arrive after the earthquake,” recalled Hisanori Nakayama, now a professor at Kobe Gakuin University but a city planner at the time of the disaster.  “Businesses received funds to help them retain workers, but not for an extended period of time, and this did not help smaller businesses stay afloat.”

The culture of loyalty between companies and their workers was a plus. Yasuzo Tanaka, owner of a large auto parts wholesale business, lost 11 buildings, most company vehicles and close to $1 million dollars in inventory.

“I could have given our employees retirement benefits and shut the business down – I wanted to do that,” Tanaka said. “But I felt I owed it to our employees to restart.”

Those employees, despite having lost everything on a personal level, worked long hours to help rebuild the business, and it began operating again only two months after the earthquake.

This embodies one major part of the recovery: Businesses rebuilt themselves. On the community side, Kobe established neighborhood-planning units in the mid-1960s; as soon as the fires were put out and enough rubble was carted away to have meeting spaces, every neighborhood in the city was given the tools and resources to begin formulating neighborhood plans. Some neighborhoods completed their plans in as little as nine months, and government began rebuilding according to those plans in less than a year.

Mostly, though, these were plans reconstituting what had been there before, albeit with safety improvements like wider streets. Clearly, the general trend was toward re-creating the past than innovating towards the future.

“There is a culture of seeking perfection in Japan,” Keizo Yamada told me at dinner one night. Yamada is director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. “Combined with a fear of failure, this perfectionism is a real impediment to entrepreneurism and innovation.”

While both New Orleans and Kobe have clearly taken different paths to recovery, each have met their goal by focusing on their own priorities and drawing on their own strengths ­— prooving there’s more than one way to bounce back. 

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.



Categories: The Magazine