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Revitalizing Tohoku

March 9, 2012

By Barnett F. Baron

One year after the complex disaster in the Tohoku region of Japan, much remains to be done to rebuild lives and communities in the stricken area. Tohoku will need business and philanthropic investments for years to come, and I am encouraged by the innovative and entrepreneurial approaches being implemented by several Japanese social organizations.

Prior to the disaster, Tohoku was already a marginalized area facing the twin challenges of a depressed economy and a rapidly aging population. The three Tohoku prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima accounted for merely 4 percent of Japan’s GDP with an economy largely based on family-run farming and fishing. Under pressure from years of outmigration by younger and more educated people, the average age of farmers and fishermen was 65.2 years in Miyagi prefecture, even higher in some hard-hit coastal areas.

The Japanese government recognizes the need to rebuild Tohoku on a new economic foundation. It introduced tax and other incentives to attract domestic and international investment, but the government’s reconstruction guidelines, introduced in late June, disappointed many who had hoped for a more specific, innovative, and operational framework to rebuild Tohoku. In a culture in which consensus, conformity, and proper etiquette are the norm, inadequate response to this complex humanitarian disaster has sparked a loss of trust in the government and media that is unusual for Japan.

In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, thousands of Japanese of all ages volunteered to help. More than 900,000 volunteers traveled to Tohoku, often with transportation, training, and work assignments organized by Japanese nonprofit organizations. Even more promising is the continuing commitment of young Japanese students and entrepreneurs to bring innovation and enterprise to the region. These entrepreneurs seek support for their ideas and projects to revitalize the local economies with input and involvement from local communities.

For example, Entrepreneurial Training for Innovative Communities (ETIC) is working with young social entrepreneurs to revitalize small businesses in Tohoku. ETIC currently supports 30 projects by placing two young, educated ETIC fellows with each project leader to assist with the planning, design, and implementation. ETIC will select another 20 projects next year and is working on fundraising.

Consider ETIC fellow Tsutomu Tamakawa, a 24-year-old born in the city of Sendai. He graduated from Tohoku University with a law degree and worked in the marketing department of a company that creates cutting-edge optics for the semiconductor industry. When the earthquake hit, he left his job to help. “I was afraid,” he said, “I knew people in Tohoku can’t depend on the government.”

Rina Sasaki, a Tohoku native and ETIC fellow, had just graduated from college and lived in Tokyo when the earthquake hit. With her business partner, Yasuhiro Watanabe, who left his job at a Japanese manufacturer, she is learning to run a new business that provides on-demand transportation for elderly people.

Eat and Energize the East is another social enterprise working to revive agriculture in Tohoku by connecting farmers and fishermen directly with food service providers and retailers throughout Japan. They also test Tohoku’s agricultural products to rebuild consumer confidence after Fukushima.

These project leaders are like many of the young people my colleagues and I have met in Tohoku. They are not the people that we sometimes read about in the media – young Japanese in crisis, stymied and frustrated by economic stagnation, deflation, and general pessimism.

Not all of the innovators are young. “All I remember is holding on as the waves washed over me again and again,” explains Mr. Sato, a 70-year-old fisherman in Tohoku. “When I came to, my wife was missing. That night, I walked through 10 centimeters of snow to my wife’s hometown, but I could not find her.”

In spite of Sato-san’s tragedy, he is leading relief and recovery efforts in his community. In coordination with local disaster responder PARCIC, Sato-san is working to restore the local fishing industry, which provides a livelihood for 205 families. PARCIC has established a fishing cooperative in the region, and Sato-san was elected by his peers to lead it.

Post-disaster research has shown that major disasters are often followed by innovation and growth if the recovery is underpinned by structural reform, eliminating dysfunctional economic relations, introducing technological innovation, and selective targeting of new investments. It remains to be seen if Japan will produce a dynamic recovery.

Social entrepreneurs and innovators-and those seeking to fund their work-have the opportunity to make possible promising new approaches to economic revitalization in Tohoku and commit to a basic tenet of disaster response, which is to “build back better.”

Download “Lessons Learned: The 2011 Disasters in Tohoku, Japan,” written by Give2Asia’s disaster response lead Gillian Yeoh, and expands on Give2Asia’s lessons-learned from working within Tohoku.

This piece was originally published by the Council on Foundation’s blog, RE: Philanthropy.

Barnett F. Baron is the president and CEO of Give2Asia, a member of the Council on Foundations. He was previously executive vice president of The Asia Foundation in San Francisco.

Related locations: Japan
Related topics: Tohoku Earthquake

1 Comment

  1. >>Post-disaster research has shown that major disasters are often followed by innovation and growth if the recovery is underpinned by structural reform, eliminating dysfunctional economic relations, introducing technological innovation, and selective targeting of new investments. It remains to be seen if Japan will produce a dynamic recovery.<<

    This is wishful thinking since they will have to rely on huge government handouts and protection to restore local agriculture and fishing–if indeed it can actually be restored after the Fukushima meltdowns and blow-ups. It's as if you are wishing them to rebuild the Tohoku into something that isn't present-day Japan.

    My advice would be restore natural areas along the coast and stop building in areas that are ravaged by tsunami so much.

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