“It is said there are approximately 800 different types of bacteria in your mouth,” proclaims a young man in a white laboratory coat to a dramatic gasp from his audience. A young lady steps up holding what looks like an enormous lollipop: “Never fear! The Edison Tongue-Cleaner is here!”

The Ishikawa Prefectural Kanazawa Commercial High School team making their presentation.

The Ishikawa Prefectural Kanazawa Commercial High School team making their presentation.

Welcome to the Rakuten IT School Championships, an annual competition in which student teams from all over Japan learn the fundamentals of e-commerce and then put their skills to the test in presentations to their peers. Explaining the virtues of the tongue-cleaner is a team from Kanazawa Prefecture on Japan’s western coast, and, judging from the audience’s gasps and laughs, they’re making a good impression.

The Championships, which this year were held in January in Tokyo, are the culmination of a year-long educational program organized by Rakuten’s sustainability team, which is also responsible for the Rakuten Santa Project and Rakuten Mobile Library.

First held in 2008, Rakuten IT School began with just three schools. Now that number has grown to almost 70, with schools hailing from across all of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Knowledgeable Rakuten employees are assigned to each school and charged with educating groups of students about the basics of e-commerce – what it takes to launch, promote and sell products on platforms such as Rakuten Ichiba.

“By educating high school students about entrepreneurship, we want to maximize their career opportunities,” explained Motoko Yokoi of the Corporate Social Responsibility department. “We also hope to help create jobs in rural areas of Japan and revitalize regional economies.”

The program is part of an effort to tackle a problem that has plagued the Japanese economy in recent decades. As Japan’s population declines, job opportunities for young people dry up in regional areas, forcing them to relocate to large cities such as Tokyo to find work. And the more those young people move away, the faster the populations in those areas decline.

From its outset, Rakuten has always believed that the internet and e-commerce have the potential to remedy this problem. Online merchants based in regional areas such as Kanazawa Prefecture, for example, can just as easily target customers living in Tokyo or Osaka as they can people living nearby. Those merchants can also become employers of local talent – possibly prompting more young people to stay in their hometowns.

Rakuten IT School plays an important role in this process, said Yuina Kobayashi, an e-commerce consultant for merchants in the Home & Life section of Rakuten Ichiba. Kobayashi volunteered to be a part of the program and was assigned to the Ishikawa Prefectural Kanazawa Commercial High School. She’s been making the trip out to Kanazawa each month since the middle of last year.

Promoting the "tongue cleaner" on stage.

Promoting the “tongue-cleaner” on stage.

“It’s great to be able to give these young people an opportunity to not only see but also experience the kind of work that adults are doing in the e-commerce sector. That’s not something many students have the chance to experience,” she said.

With Kobayashi’s guidance, the Kanazawa team created a new product page for their chosen product, the tongue-cleaner. Once it was completed, the page was actually adopted by Rakuten Ichiba retailer Dental Fit. The students’ final challenge was to present their page at the Championships in front of the 66 other teams and a panel of judges consisting of Rakuten merchants and business partners.

“The most difficult thing about e-commerce is working out how to sell something that customers can’t actually see with their own eyes,” explained one of the Kanazawa students.

Kobayashi's team after placing 3rd.

Kobayashi’s team celebrate after placing 3rd.

Another explained that teamwork was the most important lesson they learned. “Working together with other people, that’s a skill everyone will use when working in the future,” he said.

And, when the Championship’s final results were announced, those lessons had paid off. The Kanazawa students placed 3rd overall.

Second prize went to the team from Sakushin Gakuin High School in Utsunomiya, north of Tokyo, which built a page promoting curated bathing salts to middle-aged men. First prize was awarded to the Kirishima City Kokubu Chuo High School in southern Japan for their efforts in designing gift bundles for new mothers targeting not just the Japanese market, but Rakuten’s global customer base as well.

Providing the next generation with skills for success in e-commerce, the IT School initiative is a natural extension of Rakuten’s founding mission to empower and revitalize local communities through the internet. Supporting the education of younger people through this program gives them a window on the boundless opportunities that the internet provides, and also gives Japan’s regional communities one more path to economic revitalization.