Aging and shrinking populations, declining birthrates, a youth exodus to metropolitan areas – many of Japan’s rural economies face difficult demographic challenges with no clear solutions in sight.
Last year, one group of Rakuten employees embarked on a journey to help find those solutions through a new program called Dialogue for Change with Rakuten. As the name suggests, the program seeks to take on social issues by engaging in dialogue.
Many of the social challenges facing Japan are highly complex and multifactorial. The team behind the new project hypothesized that instead of black-or-white debate, dialogue between diverse community stakeholders might present a more effective path to potential solutions.
So what came out of Rakuten’s very first Dialogue for Change?
Empowering Women’s Leadership in Japan
The six-month program kicked off in mid-2022 in Kesennuma, a city around four hours north of Tokyo. 29 Rakuten employees took part, joining more than 70 dialogue partners ranging from members of local NPOs and governments to local high school students.
The inaugural topic was Women’s Leadership and Empowerment. Gender issues continue to be a challenge for Japan, with the World Economic Forum’s latest report on gender equality placing Japan 125th of 146 nations – a drop of nine places from the previous year.
Six teams, each featuring a mix of people from different backgrounds, were tasked with brainstorming concrete actions to bring about social change in Japan by empowering women in society.
Each team leveraged the diverse strengths and expertise of their individual members to build their own proposals, which were presented and explored at a final gathering in January 2023 at Rakuten’s Tokyo headquarters.
Women’s Leadership, Entrepreneurship and SUP
One team approached the topic from a business angle, exploring Rakuten’s social duty as a corporate role model and the ways it could become a leading company for women’s empowerment in Japan.
The team held dialogue with women from around the company, and worked with the Family Empowerment Network – an employee-driven support community – to hold an event for inclusive discussion on work-life balance.
The group nominated a female Rakuten employee in management as the role model to speak at the event, providing a valuable opportunity for younger employees to connect and share knowledge with their more experienced colleagues.
Another team proposed that encouraging more women towards entrepreneurship might diversify career opportunities and contribute to the revitalization of rural Japan. The team – made up of six members of different nationalities – overcame language barriers to survey women living in the Kesennuma area about local entrepreneurship and the support they would require.
Their efforts uncovered a demand for support in acquiring specialist skills in fields like IT, marketing and business planning. The team saw potential in leveraging the knowledge of Rakuten employees to help meet this demand, and are working to make this support program a reality.
Other initiatives included a collaboration with a local surf shop to build elementary school students’ confidence in their own abilities regardless of gender stereotypes by teaching them standup paddleboarding.
Akemi Kimura – a Tohoku-based Rakuten Ichiba merchant – was particularly inspired by this proposal.
“The idea of adults in the community getting involved to cheer on children’s efforts really resonated with me,” she remarked. “I think that if we can transform these challenges into fun experiences, children will learn to stay positive even when they run into obstacles in the future. I’m looking forward to seeing the positive impact of this initiative!”
Concrete actions for the future
Following the final presentations, the teams were mixed again to exchange perspectives on each other’s proposals and learnings from the six-month journey they shared. The program ended with a roundup of the concrete actions each team would take going forward, and a reaffirmation of the value of establishing a stage for dialogue between diverse stakeholders.
“As someone who is engaged in community development in Kesennuma, this initiative gave me a great feeling of hope. I have a new appreciation for how we take our ability to engage in dialogue for granted,” remarked Takuma Kato of Kesennuma NPO Maru Office after the event. “I think Rakuten’s ideals are similar to rural Japan’s in that we’re both striving for change. Rakuten’s involvement in this initiative has given us many ideas for our activities. I can’t wait to see how this dialogue movement spreads across the country as we take concrete action in the future.”
Chieko Sugawara from Kesennuma’s depopulation task force gave her perspective on the project from the municipal side.
“With government work, I feel the importance of interacting with citizens and engaging in dialogue every day,” she said. “I was surprised that a private firm like Rakuten would take on an initiative like this and I felt a strong potential for public-private collaboration going forward. I think this project will serve as a great opportunity to facilitate relationships between regional areas across Japan, and I have high hopes for future activities!”