Japan – a country of contrasts

”There are no children on the streets. No pregnant women. Of course you notice it!” Nhat Vuong, social entrepreneur and Founder of i-kifu shakes his head. Japan is not an aging society, in many aspects it has already aged. But as Nhat points out, the elderly still have money. They get care. A report from the Japanese Research Institute, 2008, on Household Expenditures supports his statement. The household spending power is redistributed from the young to the elderly. But the question is how long the economy can cope with a hastily declining number of workers in the national work force.

As Nhat points out, people are not that engaged in giving for the cause of the well-being of the elderly. If they give to society, they prefer to look at investments for the future, supporting children, education, the environment. The elderly will need support but they are not seen as investments.

The reason to why we meet with Nhat, a social entrepreneur based out of Tokyo since 5 years back, is to learn about the mentality of the young in Japan. The mentality of the entrepreneurs, the shakers and movers. Nhat himself is the founder of the i-kifu, meaning ”I donate” in Japanese. He has been working on the crowd funding venture since 2007, to give people the opportunity to achieve a social impact through their social engagements. His venture hands out karma points that can be exchanged for rewards to people that do good; either by donations or volunteering.

Nhat’s personal story is fascinating. Following the end of the Vietnam war, Nhat’s parents fled Vietnam in a boat and he was born in a refugee camp in Malaysia. From there his family was given asylum in Switzerland, with the help of the Red Cross, and Nhat enjoyed a safe upbringing just like any other child in the stable economy of the Swiss. His parents would mention to him how lucky he was that he could just go to school, not having to work, but the concept of poverty was hard to grasp. The only comparison he had was with his Swiss peers and just like them he desired the latest toys and the nicest gadgets. It was when Nhat for the first time visited Vietnam, 15 years old, that he was confronted with social injustice and extreme poverty. It was then that he realized that he wanted to make a positive social contribution to the world.

After finalizing his studies in Switzerland Nhat moved to Japan (mostly for love), started looking for job opportunities in the digital sphere and soon saw the opportunity to connect his skills in IT, marketing and gamification (peoples’ addiction to games and the reward systems these offer) with his social impact aspirations. The idea of i-kifu was born and now, some time and a lot of hard work later, Nhat has 25 Non-for-profits that share their projects through his site. Several socially minded businesses support the platform. The traffic to the site is growing even though the concept of crowd funding and donations is much less common than in other markets. In the US, for example, there are over 1 Million Not-for-profits whereas Japan only has 60 000. After the earth quake and the Fukushima disaster this is slowly starting to change, both in the social scene and in Japan’s orientation towards entrepreneurial ventures.

”Japan is waiting for an awakening. Some people were hoping that the earth quake would have the effect but that still remains to be seen. People live in invisible prisons, entrepreneurs and innovators are held back by social expectations- you are not solely responsible for your own success or failure, your family and friends share the shame if you don’t succeed. The circle of responsibility is strong and rigid. That is why it is difficult for Japanese people to try something new. The risk is too big”.

“When you approach someone with a really great idea the first question is: Has this been done before? Not? Well, please come back when a large corporation has tried it and it became really succesful. The entrepreneur scene is not easy. There is a lack of role models and the school system still focuses on training workers for long-term positions at large corporations”. But Nhat is optimistic. And determined to work the system. He says: “If I can make it work here, then I can succeed anywhere. Plus, as we learned from Steve Jobs, if you only ask people what they want and give it to them you will never reach the really groundbreaking innovation.”

Nhat also mentions the island effect; “Everything is so easy and accessible to the Japanese, they don’t really need to travel overseas or to learn English. Even if Japan was heavily dependent on technology export for a long time, cars and electronics, they themselves did not embrace technology at the same rate. Despite high-tech innovation in some Japanese corporations, there are still offices in japan that use their fax machine actively.” A country of contrasts, as Nhat describes it.

And the vision for the future? “The era when Japan thrived is gone. There is no longer time for time-consuming, hierarchical decision-making and deeply anchored decisions. Now the speed of technical development requires that companies try, fail, succeed, iterate faster. In previous times it could take a Japanese company six months to reach a decision, now, in six months, innovators from China and India would have rolled out the product already, succeeded or failed and moved on. That’s how innovation is achieved nowadays. Trial and error. Fast. Not processes with full internal consensus. Japan needs to embrace this. Iterate faster.”

Nhat pauses and formulates his conviction: “Japan has a huge potential. The people here are extra-ordinary. I have seen people achieve here what I didn’t think was humanly possible. They can do it. They truly can. With the right support they can achieve anything.”

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About Claudia Olsson

Claudia Olsson is the Managing Director of ACCESS Health International Southeast Asia, working on elderly care and innovations for the aging world. Contact her at claudia.olsson@accessh.org

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