For fans of Japanese soccer, Takeshi Okada is a legend. The former national player is best known for his tenure as manager of Japan’s national team, during which he brought together young talent such as Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Yuto Nagatomo to lead Japan to its best-yet result at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
In 2014, Okada became owner and chairman of FC Imabari, a team in the J3 League (the third division of Japan’s J.League professional football association), located in southwestern Japan’s Ehime Prefecture. Against all odds, he has led the club profitably for the past eight years, in part thanks to his unconventional management style and lofty ambitions for Japan’s rural future.
“Just try it. If it doesn’t work, go home. If you just debate forever about how it’s never been done before, it’ll never happen. You need the courage to take the first step, the passion not to give up. If you have that, I think anyone can succeed.”Takeshi Okada, CEO, FC Imabari
During the annual Rakuten Travel Conference held this March, an industry event in which Rakuten Travel’s accommodation providers gather to gain insights from experts and network with one another, Vice President of Rakuten’s Travel & Mobility Business Yoshiyuki Takano talked with Okada about his unique takes on business management, leadership and rural revitalization.
Given that 2021 saw Rakuten Travel beat industry averages to bounce back from the challenges posed to the tourism industry during the pandemic, outside-the-box vision for business growth is a fitting theme to represent this year’s conference.
FC Imabari: Driven by purpose
“When I started at FC Imabari, I had no experience in business,” Okada revealed. “Someone told me that 90% of startups — although for us it was more of a restart — fail within five years.”
Facing formidable odds, Okada had serious doubts about taking on such a risk.
“That same person then told me, if there’s no-one to take these risks, our society will never change. That inspired me to make something of those first five years.”
In a scramble to learn about business management, Okada sought the counsel of prominent Japanese business figures, but was met mostly with grand visions and corporate philosophies.
“No-one told me anything about actual management. Everyone just gave me their philosophy, their visions, their missions,” he recalled. So he came up with his own vision: One of “a society that values richness of spirit over material wealth.”
It was this philosophy that guided Okada’s first years in business. He found himself turning down short-term profits to ensure healthy relationships with partners.
“Because I didn’t have any management experience, this mission was all I had to guide me,” he recalled. “With the benefit of hindsight, it seems I had the right idea.”
The pandemic has highlighted FC Imabari’s success. “While much of the J.League is losing money [due to the pandemic], FC Imabari is still turning a significant profit. There are many reasons for this, but one major factor is that almost all of our partners stayed on with us.”
Under a more traditional growth- and profit-focused management style, Okada thinks FC Imabari could have ended up in a very different place.
“Sure, we need to grow. We need to make a profit to pay our employees. But we don’t need to make more than our philosophy requires. We don’t need sudden astronomical growth,” he argued. “This philosophy has allowed us to stay profitable for the eight years we’ve been in business.”
“Someone asked me at a conference how I managed to pay for all this incredible talent,” he recalled. “I said, I’m paying them with purpose. My employees got a good laugh out of that.”
He’s not entirely joking, however. “People yearn for a philosophy, a dream to work towards,” he continued. “They won’t follow someone who’s just looking for personal fame, or someone who just has a lot of money, or someone who’s clever. They’ll follow someone who’s chasing a selfless objective with everything they have.”
After eight years at the helm of FC Imabari, Okada now knows that it’s the job of a leader to take on risks.
“I say, just take the first step already. Just try it. If it doesn’t work, go home. If you just debate forever about how it’s never been done before, it’ll never happen. You need the courage to take the first step, the passion not to give up. If you have that, I think anyone can succeed.”
A blueprint for rural Japan
When Okada first arrived in Imabari, he found locals less receptive to his bold visions than he had hoped.
“They were like, what are you talking about? It’s a bit late for that. You don’t understand the situation here. They completely expected me to play around for a while then jet back home. That I wouldn’t put roots down. No-one wanted to listen to me.”
After two years in charge of FC Imabari, Okada had a realization.
“Tourism needs to be about building the whole town. And building towns is really about building communities, building people.”Takeshi Okada
“This whole time, we’d been eating with people from the club, working with people from the club, drinking with people from the club. We’d been waiting for them to come to us, but it was us that needed to go to them.”
Okada told each of his employees to go out and each make five friends in the community. They joined local futsal teams, helped seniors move heavy objects — and even chopped wood. “It was a roundabout way of doing things, but gradually people started saying, sure, I’ll go see one of your games.”
As community trust began to build, the sports park playing host to FC Imabari’s games began to draw crowds of over 2,000. Game nights had become a source of much-needed liveliness for the depopulated town. “Everyone was coming to enjoy the excitement and atmosphere of the game. They were coming to meet new people, make new connections.”
It was clear that FC Imabari had become about more than just soccer. Okada set about building the club’s new stadium as a hub for lively entertainment, transforming the parking lot into a football park, a food court, a maze for kids, a market and more.
In the years following, Okada has only doubled down on this community approach, coming up with a range of initiatives to bring people together. He believes his club’s success can be a blueprint for the rest of rural Japan.
“That’s the kind of community we want to make. If all 58 J.League teams did this, we could really change this country. That’s our dream.”
Tourism is about building a community
“When I first arrived in Imabari, no-one wanted to listen to me. People already thought their town was done for. But now it’s starting to change, and people are realizing that their town is a really fun place to live,” he ventured. “That’s the most important thing about rural revitalization: changing mentalities.”
This kind of positive mentality creates a virtuous cycle that draws in new people — people who visit a place as tourists but end up wanting to relocate and work there. Okada certainly believes this is the case with Imabari: “We’ve been named the town most people in Japan want to move to. We have 1,500 new people coming to live here each year.”
For this, Okada credits the people of Imabari themselves, not the economic measures that are usually the main focus of rural revitalization efforts. Tourism, he believes, is an opportunity for much more than simple sightseeing.
“Creating jobs for young people, developing tourist attractions — that’s not it,” he declared. “Tourism needs to be about building the whole town. And building towns is really about building communities, building people. It’s not just about building tourist attractions, but rather transforming the mentalities of local residents.”