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Global Japan
MAY 30, 2013

Beyond 3/11: Four lessons for sustainable business

By Steven Neo Say Bin
Photo by Christina Tsao

Two years after a tsunami devastated Japan’s northeast, GLOBIS MBA students embarked on a three-day tour of the region to see what’s changed, what hasn’t and the lessons that can be learned from the recovery effort. Neo Say Bin shares his reflections.

I was fortunate to be able to join the recent GLOBIS Japan Study Tour to meet with local communities and businesses in the Tohoku region to find out how they are rebuilding their communities. During the visit, I met numerous passionate individuals in Sendai, Minami-sanriku, Onagawa, Shiogama, and Yamamoto that were realizing their own personal missions by using their expertise to rebuild their own communities. More importantly, I learnt these four important lessons about creating a sustainable business plan:

1: Be realistic in strategic planning and prioritizing initiatives

During a visit to a local aqua farm in Minami-sanriku, the local fishermen recognized the regulatory limitations that restricted their farming capacity. Although they have plans to increase their revenue streams by promoting blue tourism in the region, their business initiatives are limited by the speed of reconstruction in the surrounding areas. These views were echoed by the mayor of Onagawa where limited resources are prioritized to help reconstruct basic essential facilities for the local communities before embarking on business investment initiatives. Furthermore, he is realistic about the reconstruction plans and is only targeting to restore the total population to pre-tsunami levels of approximately 10,000 people.

2: Think creatively to solve challenges

When the administrators of the El Faro hotel, Ms. Sasaki and Mr. Komatsu, shared their story of building the hotel in Onagawa, I was extremely impressed by their creativity and their passion in resolving challenges during the early stages of their business venture. The use of trailer houses was a creative solution to a regulatory restriction which prevented them from constructing permanent buildings in the area. The furnishings used in the hotel were also a solution to minimizing costs by utilizing affordable IKEA furniture and mixing it with local materials to provide an authentic aesthetic appeal.

3: Trust and involve everyone in the endeavor

During a visit to the Onagawa collaborative school by Katariba, I was impressed with the willingness of the school administration to involve the students in the design of the study room. The students appreciated and respected the responsibility that was given to them, and they not only designed an impressive layout that maximized the space usage in the study room, they even wrote a constitution which outlined the rules and regulations pertaining to the appropriate behavior to be exhibited in the study room.

4: Choose the right markets to enter

Visiting the GRA (General Reconstruction Association) strawberry farm in Yamamoto was an exciting experience as the farm represented a perfect marriage between traditional farming expertise and modern technological initiatives that produced some of the best strawberries that I have ever tasted. During a group discussion between GLOBIS Full Time students and CEO Mr. Hiroki Iwasa, we found that the strawberry farm needs to start exporting to Asian markets, such as Singapore and Thailand, where the consumers’ willingness to pay for “Made in Japan” premium strawberries were much higher than other markets.

Besides these business lessons that I have learnt, the trip was an emotional and enlightening journey for me as well. Although mother nature can be seen as cruel at times, there is a reason for every phenomenon. During the visit to the Onagawa collaborative school, I was surprised to discover that the students adopted a positive perspective on the tsunami. They felt that the tsunami enabled the community to strengthen their bonds with each other to rebuild their communities and create a better environment for everyone. Everywhere I visited, I felt the warmth of the people, and their passion and resolve to help their communities to rebuild and thrive despite the numerous obstacles that lie ahead. It is these bonds and feelings that are passed along which resonated with my personal mission of being a facilitator of technology and media to empower people to take action to change and innovate societies. I am fortunate to have met friends that share my passion, and after my MBA journey, I will continue to pursue my path to use technology and media to enable people to act upon their own personal missions.

As the saying goes, “If you walk with your friends, you can reach dreams that you can’t yourself.”