Since 2018, the Rakuten Social Accelerator program has worked with around a dozen socially-oriented groups tackling everything from building solar-powered phone charging stations in Tanzania to reviving abandoned houses in depopulated Japan. The program partners volunteer employees to work with the groups over a period of six months, leveraging Rakuten’s technological and business expertise to help them take their social missions to the next stage.
In 2020, however, COVID-19 put a stop to many of these groups’ activities. Social work is an inherently human-to-human activity, and pandemic precautions made regular community efforts all but impossible.
Rather than put the program on hold, Rakuten instead saw an opportunity to help these social organizations in a uniquely Rakuten way: by taking them online. Thus, 2020 became the first year of the RSA Online program.
Rather than set a lofty target for 2030, I want us all to work out what we can do together in the near future.Seichu Kobayashi, Rakuten Chief Well-Being Officer
2020’s program featured three community-oriented organizations, each with their own unique goals and challenges. To showcase the results of their six-month collaboration with Rakuten volunteers, participants gathered on a Zoom call in December 2020 and delivered their reports.
Building fans in rural Japan: The city of Hida
The goal is to increase ‘fans of Hida’ — not just tourists or residents, but anyone with links to the region.
For seasoned travelers of Japan, the name Hida might ring a bell: the thatched roofs of the Hida Folk Village are a popular destination for those wanting to experience a more traditional Japanese village atmosphere, while foodies will know the region’s gourmet Hida-gyu beef.
However, the region’s issues with its aging, declining population are even more severe than the rest of Japan. The city of Hida has been looking for ways to breathe new life into the community.
In 2016, the city partnered with Rakuten’s e-money service Rakuten Edy and formed the ‘Hida Fan Club,’ through which the city can reach out directly to visitors. The same year, the region received a huge influx of a different kind of tourist: anime aficionados. The 2016 smash-hit movie Your Name (Kimi no na wa) is set in the picturesque region, and several recognizable locations have become pilgrimage sites for fans of the movie.
But this fresh gust of wind came to an abrupt standstill with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, and restaurants, souvenir shops and other tourism businesses saw a significant hit to their sales. Rural revitalization through tourism was now off the table, presenting a new and unique challenge to Hida City and the volunteers from Rakuten.
To overcome these difficulties, the volunteers instead decided to make use of an existing program called ‘Hidasuke’ — a play on Hida and the Japanese word tasuke, meaning help. Launched in March 2020, the Hidasuke online platform matches Hidans in need of help with volunteers looking to provide help.
The goal is to increase ‘fans of Hida’ — not just tourists or residents, but anyone with links to the region. To accelerate this process, project members were divided into 2 teams.
One team launched a special online campaign, through which fans can buy certain local products geared towards sharing with friends and acquaintances, to encourage a reciprocal exchange. Participants can also receive a special currency unique to Hida for use at participating stores, as well as the chance for a luxurious prize of high-grade Hida-gyu beef.
Another team set out to spread the good word of Hida’s ‘slow life,’ holding livestreams showcasing some of Hida’s traditional crafts — specifically ‘warosoku’, or Japanese sumac candles. Over two four-hour livestreams, fans gathered to enjoy the steady, bright flame of the warosoku, hand-crafted entirely from organic plant material.
As a result of these online efforts, the 20 Hida businesses involved made over a thousand sales in the first ten days, recruiting 120 new members to the Hida Fan Club.
Going online: Not a hindrance, but an advantage
The Okayama NPO Center is a non-profit that provides learning support and valuable real-world experiences to children in the western Japanese prefecture of Okayama. Again, the pandemic presented a significant hurdle for many of the group’s activities in 2020.
The Rakuten volunteers decided to play to their strengths and help Okayama NPO Center make their operations virtual, spreading the word of their operations through blog interviews, redesigning their website and boosting their crowdfunding efforts to help supplement their financing efforts.
With schools closed and children in isolated communities unable to socialize, the team decided to launch a number of virtual hangouts with students in the community. People of all ages, from elementary to university, joined Rakuten employees in Tokyo to chat about ‘everything but study,’ discussing the future, everyday issues and student concerns.
Who supports the support groups?
Setagaya is one of central Tokyo’s 23 wards — one that also happens to be home to Rakuten’s headquarters, Rakuten Crimson House. The Setagaya Community Foundation (featured in the main picture above from pre-pandemic times) works to support key stakeholders that make up the community by managing funding, organizing volunteer activities and events and pushing forward a variety of community projects including greenification, urban farming and promotion of local produce.
The foundation plays something of an incubatory role for other social groups supporting life in Setagaya, working under a stated goal of rearing an ‘ecosystem that supports the community.’ However, two years after its foundation, members were struggling with getting the message out to groups they were looking to support.
Volunteer UI/UX experts from Rakuten worked with the group to help refocus the foundation’s branding and message, redesigning its website and broadcasting its activities and community events online. With its renewed online presence, the group hopes to be able to reach more of the community than ever before.
What exactly is this ‘new normal?’
“I think we gave everything we could to this online version of RSA,” Rakuten CWO (Chief Well-Being Officer) Seichu Kobayashi told participants over Zoom.
“There’s no right answer to all of this,” he continued. “But this term ‘new normal,’ which I’ve been hearing a lot recently — I think we should step back and think about what exactly is ‘normal.’ Every person has their own life, and ‘normal’ represents something different for each and every one of them. That’s something this year has taught us.”
Despite the virtual nature of the event, Kobayashi urged participants to keep their work grounded in reality. “Rather than set a lofty target for 2030, I want us all to work out what we can do together in the near future.”