What differentiates one vacuum cleaner from another? Why buy leather shoes online? Who needs a $150 coat hanger? These are just a few of the questions posed to students of the Rakuten IT School over the past nine months.

Last week, those months of studies culminated in the 11th annual Rakuten IT School Championships, held at Rakuten Crimson House in Tokyo. Hosted by Rakuten’s sustainability team in cooperation with Rakuten Ichiba and Rakuten Travel, the event welcomed students from across Japan.

“We started in 2008 with just three schools,” said Rakuten Executive Officer Akihiko Kuroki. “Today, we have 55 teams from schools all over the country.”

Rakuten IT School began as part of an effort to use Rakuten’s IT knowledge and experience to benefit rural communities. “Our corporate philosophy revolves around the notion of empowering people through innovation,” explained Kuroki. “How could we put this philosophy into practice outside of regular business? That’s the question that inspired the foundation of the Rakuten IT School.”

Starting from May 2017, Rakuten representatives – regular employees from Rakuten Ichiba and Rakuten Travel – were sent to high schools across Japan to give lessons on topics ranging from basic marketing to product page design. Students were divided into teams and then required to create page designs selling a particular product or travel package – with guidance from a local Rakuten Ichiba merchant or Rakuten Travel hotel – before actually taking the page live on each platform to see how well it performed.

In December, each participating school selected one team to advance to the national championships in Tokyo, where they presented their results and explained how they had applied their learnings to create a successful page.

Presentations were then evaluated by a panel of judges that included Rakuten President of E-Commerce Naho Kono, Chief People Officer Masatada Kobayashi, Rakuten Travel Vice President Yoshiyuki Takano, Kuroki and Japanese star sprinter Dai Tamesue, who gave a motivational speech to the students in attendance.

“The thing that makes Rakuten IT School so unique is how hands-on it is,” Kuroki explained. “Students don’t just memorize facts, they work with real merchants and hotels to build real things that function in the real world. It nurtures an entrepreneurial mindset, as well as leadership skills.”

But it isn’t just the students who are being educated. “Even though Rakuten employees are the teachers, the truth is that they too learn a lot from the experience,” Kuroki revealed. “It’s important for employees to experience what it’s like to lead teams like this, to get a feel for what it’s like to move an organization.”

Rakuten Ichiba’s Madoka Hasegawa, who lead her team to victory in the Rakuten Ichiba category, agreed. “It’s the first time I’ve participated in the program, and I’m so happy because I got to teach a school from my hometown. My students are so sincere and bright and I learned so much from them.”

The program reflects core Rakuten values not only in the way it prepares the upcoming generation for a hi-tech future, but in the way it connects rural businesses and communities, forging relationships and long-lasting alliances.

Scroll down for some photo highlights from the championship round:

The Niigata Prefectural Sanjo Shogyo High School team’s highly visual demonstration of what it takes to sell a vacuum cleaner won them first prize in the Rakuten Ichiba category.

The Niigata Prefectural Sanjo Shogyo High School team’s highly visual demonstration of what it takes to sell a vacuum cleaner won them first prize in the Rakuten Ichiba category.

The Ehime Prefectural Imabarikita High School demonstrated not only how to promote a hotel on Instagram...

The Ehime Prefectural Imabarikita High School demonstrated not only how to promote a hotel on Instagram…

...but how to get a whole lot of likes, too. The performance earned them the “Judge’s Special Prize”

…but how to get a whole lot of likes, too. The performance earned them the “Judge’s Special Prize”

Humor was an important element in the presentations...

Humor was an important element in the presentations…

...with even the judging panel unable to contain their laughter.

…with even the judging panel unable to contain their laughter.

The Kobe Municipal Shinko Tachibana High School team demonstrated how to market leather shoes to office workers in Japan.

The Kobe Municipal Shinko Tachibana High School team demonstrated how to market leather shoes to office workers in Japan.

Love was a key element of the presentation from Rakuten Travel category runners-up Kanagawa Prefectural Shoko High School

Love was a key element of the presentation from Rakuten Travel category runners-up Kanagawa Prefectural Shoko High School

An energetic performance from the Toyama Prefectural Takaoka Shogyo High School team earned them first place in the Rakuten Travel category.

An energetic performance from the Toyama Prefectural Takaoka Shogyo High School team earned them first place in the Rakuten Travel category.

The judging panel at the 11th annual Rakuten IT School Championships included one of Japan's most successful sprinters of all time, Dai Tamesue.

The judging panel at the 11th annual Rakuten IT School Championships included one of Japan’s most successful sprinters of all time, Dai Tamesue.