In communities struggling to rebuild after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake there is a particularly strong need for programs to train leaders over the medium to long term. In response to this need, the Nippon Foundation and Daimler AG have established a fund to offer scholarships and to support reconstruction in the disaster areas. This article showcases a promising young leader who is one of the scholarship recipients.
Daimler-Nippon Foundation Innovative Leaders Fund
Immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake struck Japan in March 2011, the internationally renowned German automaker Daimler AG, with the help of the Nippon Foundation, made a gratuitous loan of 50 vehicles and other assistance to effectively meet the needs of communities stricken by the earthquake. A year after the earthquake, when reconstruction efforts were in full swing, Daimler and the Nippon Foundation set up the Innovative Leaders Fund to foster the human resources indispensable to future rebuilding.
The Graduate School of Management, Globis University, which was chosen as the partner for the fund, enjoys a reputation for providing professionals with an opportunity to earn an MBA. In April 2012, Globis University opened a campus in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, and began organizing a series of special lectures, including one titled, “Tohoku Social Venture Program,” in the belief that what the region needed most were talented people who could propel the reconstruction effort forward, based on a vision similar to that of the fund. More than 15 people have been enrolled as degree and non-degree scholarship recipients since fiscal 2012 (April 1, 2012 to March 31, 2013), with either 50% or 80% of their tuition covered by the fund. Following graduation, they can also receive up to five million yen for starting up a new business.
From Corporate Sales to Community Redevelopment
Yosuke Komatsu, a 30-year-old native of Sendai, is a member of the Onagawa Town Reconstruction Liaison Council Strategy Unit. When the earthquake occurred, he was working in the Hokkaido office of Recruit Co., a major publishing and human resources firm. The news of the devastation caused by the tsunami came as a shock to him, since he had previously been in charge of sales in the coastal area of Miyagi Prefecture.
Komatsu immediately decided to get involved in the recovery effort, as he recalls: “I couldn’t stop crying when I saw the footage of the tsunami swallowing up buildings I used to pass by when I was in Miyagi. I took time off from my job and went to see some friends living near the coast in the stricken areas. Walking around, I realized that the central government’s recovery fund was only enough to construct new buildings but could not bring the town back to life. What was needed, I thought, were new industries. The feeling I could do something to help revive the towns grew in me.”
In September 2011, Komatsu left his job at Recruit to pursue his dream. It is not unusual for young Recruit employees to depart the firm to start up their own businesses but still maintain good relations with the company, and Komatsu received the encouragement of many supervisors and colleagues regarding his decision. With the help of a number of other former Recruit employees, he put together a plan to turn a few trailer houses into lodgings and began gathering information from local governments, chambers of commerce, and businesses in the stricken areas. Komatsu was particularly interested in pinpointing the type of assistance needed over the long term in the region, and conducted thorough research toward that end. He traveled from town to town, city to city, from Kisennuma in the north to Yamamoto Town in the south, to find the ideal location. Ultimately, Komatsu chose Onagawa because of the enthusiasm people there showed for the project from the outset, as he recalls:
“I went to Onagawa with my plan and gave the same talk as I had at other places, but the people there asked me to come back the following week with a more detailed proposal. The following week, chamber of commerce officials and members of an association of traditional ryokan inns were also present. This marked the beginning of the trailer lodgings project. Even though I was a complete stranger and outsider, the people listened to my presentation with interest. Their openness and decisiveness amazed me. Of all the places in Miyagi stricken by the earthquake and tsunami, Onagawa is the smallest but also the hardest hit, with 80% of its buildings destroyed. Despite this, the people’s spirits were indomitable. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the town and its people. This is where my dream began to take shape.”
Land for the trailer house lodgings was provided free of charge by the town, and four ryokan owners whose businesses had been washed away by the tsunami took charge of running the lodgings. Komatsu became the only out-of-towner to work in the Onagawa Reconstruction Liaison Council Strategy Unit. He divided his time between making the preparations for the lodgings and supporting the rebuilding effort of the town’s residents.
A New Chance to Learn
Komatsu found out applications were being accepted for the Daimler-Nippon Foundation Innovative Leaders Fund scholarships while he was working on the project in Onagawa. The needs-based scholarship covers part of the tuition at the Globis School of Management in Sendai for students living in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures. Capital is also made available to graduates who wish to start up a business.
Komatsu felt that a totally new perspective was needed for the redevelopment of the stricken areas, and knowledge of management was indispensable for this purpose. He realized the scholarship was his chance to acquire the knowledge needed and immediately decided to apply.
Though Komatsu was initially very motivated, the interview and reports for the application drove home the heavy responsibility he would have as a grant recipient. And after enrolling, each additional class added weight to his sense of responsibility.
Komatsu’s inner struggle ultimately gave him a new perspective on what he wanted to achieve. “I realized that, although I was there to ensure the success of the project in Onagawa, the main players were the residents themselves. As an outsider my goal was to help them uncover new possibilities and achieve more than they had imagined. Creating a new model for regional revitalization, based on what I’d learned in Onagawa, and using it to effect change in other places around the country was the way I could show my appreciation to the town for giving an outsider like me a chance and to the people at the fund for providing me with an opportunity to learn.
Putting Knowledge to Work
At the end of 2012, we visited Komatsu at the Sendai campus. The lecture on the day of our visit was titled, “Leadership in Times of Crisis,” highlighting the case of a manager of a distribution firm that reopened for business soon after the disaster. The students analyzed the decisions made by the manager and discussed the measures that people in positions of power need to take at such times. The class ran 15 minutes over its scheduled time, as students enthusiastically debated such questions as what steps managers must take in an emergency, how information should be conveyed to employees, and the link between a business and the surrounding community.
Komatsu says that the questions addressed in the lecture were particularly difficult because he related them to his experiences in the aftermath of the quake, adding: “In class, we’re constantly encouraged to think for ourselves, and we’re able to acquire the skills and techniques needed to reach a goal. It’s only been six months since I began my studies, but already I’ve used the sort of critical thinking emphasized in the Globis curriculum during my meetings in Onagawa. This has resulted in more focused discussions and the generation of more concrete ideas. The lectures on finances have also helped me provide advice to smaller businesses and negotiate with financial institutions and public organizations. It’s interesting to be able to put into practice in Onagawa what I’ve learn in class and to get results so quickly.”
The second group of scholarship recipients is now enrolled at the management school. With the help of the Nippon Foundation and a leading global automaker, the young people who can pave the way for the future of Tohoku are moving closer to achieving their dreams.
Photographs by Kei Kodera