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Adapting to rapid changes, Japan is reinventing itself through innovation

Akita Prefecture in northern Japan is known for its snowy winters, high-quality rice and premium sake. But in the city of Senboku, built on traditional industries such as agriculture and forestry, locals are carrying out experiments to run driverless buses and have drones deliver newspapers and books. It’s one of many ways in which Japan is showing its long-term resilience amid the changing technologies and economies of the 21 st century.


Tackling demographic change in the countryside

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Ringed by mountains, dotted with hot springs and home to the stunningly beautiful Lake Tazawa, Senboku City has more than its share of natural blessings. But like many areas in rural Japan, and more and more developed countries around the world, Senboku is grappling with a demographic problem. Due to a low birth rate and exodus of young people to Tokyo and other metropolises, its population of 26,400 is shrinking by 500 people a year and some 40% of its residents are 65 or over. To attract younger people, the city decided to become a leader in autonomous vehicle technology, starting with drones. In 2016, Senboku was designated a National Strategic Special Zone under the government of Japan’s reform strategy, allowing the city to experiment in a deregulated ecosystem.

In 2016, Senboku hosted the Drone Impact Challenge Asia Cup, Japan’s first international drone racing event. About 50 contenders from Japan and six other Asian countries staged drone races, thrilling an audience of some 1,400 people. The same year, it opened an enormous, 200-hectare drone testing area on a former ski resort. Dozens of individual and corporate users began honing their drone piloting skills at the free facility, prompting the city to open a smaller drone field in the town of Kakunodate. This year, it’s hosting its second international drone film festival, showcasing eye-popping footage from around Japan.

The city has also experimented with delivering newspapers and library books – the first was The Little Prince – to local schools, and is subsidizing a regular crop-spraying service for local farmers that makes use of drones, which are cheaper to operate than small, remote-controlled helicopters, the conventional method of spraying. In another agritech effort, the city has equipped three greenhouses with Internet of Things (IoT) sensors that monitor temperature, humidity, sunlight and other factors affecting shiitake and asparagus crops. Data is sent to farmers’ mobile devices, helping them save time and effort.

Senboku is also exploring mobility solutions. In a project sponsored by Japan’s Cabinet Office, it has been running trial services of a driverless public bus along the shores of Lake Tazawa. The Level 4 autonomous vehicle lacks a steering wheel and driver’s seat but can carry up to six passengers. It could prove useful for local elderly people facing mobility challenges. The private sector has also contributed, sponsoring a Level 3 autonomous car that has been used in trials.

“These measures can work as a first step toward solving the aging society problem,” says Hideaki Akihira, an official with Senboku City’s regional revitalization and comprehensive strategy division. “Drones could help elderly people by carrying goods to their homes. We’re also experimenting with using drones for rescuing people who get lost in forests. Meanwhile, we’re exploring ways to deploy a self-driving bus for tourists.”

Reinventing big-city job hunting

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Another example of how Japan is proving resilient is its new generation of startup companies that are transforming society. One of the hottest young companies in Tokyo is Wantedly, and it’s redefining an industry that’s both vital to the Japanese economy and mired in old-fashioned procedures: job hunting. Wantedly is a portal that matches job seekers with companies that share their aspirations. To keep the focus on these higher goals, job postings do not include information about salary or benefits. One of Wantedly’s services is Wantedly Visit, through which job hunters can visit companies on a casual basis to get a feel for the atmosphere and working conditions. While Wantedly has been compared to other online recruiting platforms, it’s aimed at a younger generation of digital natives who are comfortable eschewing old- school ways centered on resumes and formal interviews. Wantedly calls this social recruiting.

“We call it a dating process and we aim to achieve long-lasting relationships,” says Wantedly CEO and founder Akiko Naka. “When we began five years ago, nine out of ten companies turned us down, saying they were too busy. But our model has proven itself and has spread, and we now have over 30,000 clients.”

As proof that Japan’s recruiting industry is changing, Naka points to a historic event that happened in 2018. The powerful Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) abolished its rules governing when its roughly 1,400 member companies can start recruiting college students. Liberalizing the practice will result in more employment and more growth, Naka argues.

Now with some 100 staff in Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, Wantedly debuted on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in 2017, making the 34-year-old Naka one of Japan’s youngest women to lead a listed company. She founded the firm in 2010 after a few career changes. She joined Goldman Sachs Group in 2008 and sold equities to institutional investors for about two years. She left Goldman and tried her hand at working as a professional manga comic artist. Less than a year later, she took at job at Facebook. Finally she found that starting her own business was the thing for her.

Wantedly has since helped many companies grow. One is JapanTaxi. When Ichiro Kawanabe, chairman of major taxi firm Nihon Kotsu, founded the taxi hailing app firm, he used Wantedly to kickstart the process of recruiting an engineer who played a key role in the business. JapanTaxi has since been downloaded more than 6 million times and in 2018 announced a ¥7.5 billion ($67.9 million) investment by Toyota Motor.

“With Wantedly, companies are able to hire people they would never be able to meet via traditional media,” says Naka. “We create small touch points so you can pitch your company after you meet. Just about every startup has a page on our platform. We will continue to support new businesses as we expand our own.”

Check out more information about Wantedly here, Senboku City here, and the Government of Japan’s Abenomics economic policies here.

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