Social Enterprises in Japan – What Does Slow Growth Mean for the Conscious Traveler?

Unlike developing countries where NGO’s and social enterprises pop up everywhere, civilized Japan has a society in place to support or at least speak out about its issues and needs internally through foundations and charities.

This leaves a very hard question for me to answer. How do we truly travel with purpose in Japan while wanting to see the sights as well? How do we chose our activities, and which local businesses do we support in the country when our time and money is limited as a tourist?

Is there hope?

It’s a lot harder to figure this out in Japan, than it is in let’s say, Cambodia. You can read through my travel guide of Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh, which lists several small businesses, social enterprises and charities that support various causes. But what about Japan?

Most social entrepreneurs in the country run traditional nonprofit organizations. They are relatively easy to set up because of the Nonprofit Activities Promotion Law from 1998. Since then, there has been a wave of support from society to encourage the establishment of standard nonprofit organizations.
Source:  Melissa Ip, Social Enterprise Buzz

To support this structure, large Japanese and international corporations give billions of dollars to these various foundations and traditional charity models every year, which is great!

For us average travelers through – that doesn’t really mean much more than a sign of a well established economy. For those of us who value conscious travel, we want local shops and restaurants where we can spend our dollars and know they are going to social causes. We want to put our tourist money where it counts! To do this, a well established industry of social enterprises is needed and English information on these types of companies is vital… and right now, this industry is not fully formed in Japan.

Why the Growth is Slow

The sluggish development of the social enterprise model in Japan is due to a combination of things, that actually other developed countries are also facing as well.

First of all, the tourism sector of the government is highly motivated to promote Japan in the best light possible. In a recent Japan Times interview with the Mayor of Kyoto, he stated: “To further develop tourism as Kyoto’s key industry, the city is targeting wealthy tourists. Since 2013 it has organized an annual event called International Luxury Travel Market Japan. It also expanded overseas offices from three in 2006 to ten in 2014, opening new ones in Hong Kong and Dubai this year.”

With the affluent traveler as tourism’s mission, and with the Tokyo Olympics just around the corner, it is very unlikely that the government will shed light on the social needs of their communities anytime soon to the rest of the world. Rather, they will continue to promote the country as a clean, safe, wealthy and innovative destination to international tourists.

This government mission, paired with a culture full of individuals that value a sense of privacy and pride, will cause a delay in the promotion of Japanese social enterprise to the rest of the world as well.

However, there is evidence that they are starting to re-look at the charity model and several new “talent” is emerging out of its universities, particularly around disaster zones.

The social entrepreneur society of Ashoka – Innovators for the Public, was started in 1980 by visionary Bill Drayton and now has over 3,000 members in 70 countries. The network provides a platform for people dedicated to changing the world through social enterprises through support, connections and start-up financing. Their Japan branch, launched in 2011, recently was included in the society’s Youth Venture program that inspires and supports a team of young people to lead socially based start-ups to further spark change in their societies.

Similarly, ETIC – Entrepreneur Training for Innovative Communities trains a group of Japanese students to implement their social causes through a university program each year. It’s off to a sluggish start though, with only 50 applicants a year.

But there are signs of hope! Japan’s national broadcasting organization NHK aired a documentary on social entrepreneurship last year featuring Kiva, a microfinance platform along with a small innovative health care provider Mobile Medics Healthcare. At the Asia Forum for Social Business at Kyushu University last July, Fukuoka was named a “Social Business City”, and will continue to act as a hub for promoting social enterprise throughout Asia.

But for the time being, traditional charity models remain as king in Japan. And there is a lot of work to be done.

Craftsman trades and family-owned shops and restaurants are often passed down from generation to generation. It will certainly take a new wave of their children, who are exposed to new thoughts on social entrepreneurship, to start adapting their inherited businesses to new social models.

This mind shift will not be easy to achieve, as Japan’s society is rooted in the ideal that working for large corporations is the most stable option available for lifetime employment, and businesses that are handed down from family members should be carried on without the slightest change, as a form of preserving its heritage and tradition.

Our Duty as Tourists in Japan

With that said, we as tourists must strive to travel with significant and purpose while adapting to the current local culture and the readily available structures. We have the hope that groups such as Ashoka and ETIC are bringing change and that with time, the country will advance.

Until then, here are the top ways available to us, for how to give-back during your time traveling in the country:

Small businesses that promote a rich, traditional Japanese heritage

Seek to support family-owned, local businesses that bring economic stability and preserve the unique Japanese culture you came to the country to see. Stay away from larger international chains if you can help it…it just makes for a more bland experience anyways. Give your money to grassroots entrepreneurs! The small restaurants, eclectic shops and cozy Japanese ryokans (inns), are run by people who have an innovative streak by nature. At one time, they took a risk to start their own businesses from scratch. Support them.

Unique Japanese-run innovative companies that you can learn from

The country is teeming with product innovation and interesting expressions of art. Seek these out and learn a thing or two.

Locally-run charities that provide opportunities for short term volunteering

Although social enterprises are less frequent, the country does have a large network of charities. The hard part is finding information in English. I recommend Hands on Tokyo – it’s an easy way to find ways to volunteer on a short term basis in the city with locals and internationals alike. Their website is great. The team at Hands on Tokyo also personally recommended Foreign Volunteers Japan to me. It has a wide variety of opportunities listed as well in more of a blog and forum style.

Foundations that you can travel to Japan with for a specific cause

Have more time and want to help with disaster relief? I would visit the site Disaster Japan for links on what to look for when choosing a program and a list of several different foundations, from U.S. based groups to locally run initiatives.


Feature Photo Credit: Thinkstock/istock/whitetag

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