By Lena Ryuji, Citizenship Manager, Microsoft Japan

It has been three years since the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan struck on 11 March 2011 off the Pacific coast of the Tohoku region. The recognised death toll in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures is 15,882, while 2,668 people are still unaccounted for. Locals are still struggling in their efforts to rebuild communities, re-establish livelihoods, find suitable housing, as well as recover from the trauma which has left a large hole in all our hearts.

However, tough as the situation is, many Japanese, including myself, see that there are opportunities that can potentially be catalysts for positive, long-term change.

Rebuilding communities
After the disaster, thousands of Japanese from all walks of life and of all ages, including Tohoku natives who had previously moved away, returned. They were here mainly to volunteer, but many also committed to revitalising Tohoku through a sustainable model of local innovation and social entrepreneurship.

At the Microsoft Japan office, one of my main priorities is to organise information technology (IT) skills training programmes around the country. When the disaster struck, we immediately launched a project in the three main disaster areas of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, where we joined up with industry partners to provide computers with Internet access, and partnered non-profit organisations (NPOs) to provide user support and IT skills training.

What we are seeing now is a steady local rejuvenation where local communities that have built up capacity, are now taking action for their own livelihoods and well-being. For instance, participants in our programmes are innovating new livelihood models using the e-commerce platforms we created together. In Iwate Prefecture, a group has successfully rehabilitated apple orchards, and using an e-commerce platform this year, managed to broaden market exposure and sold the entire harvest!

I also see innovation of another kind where the locals are transferring their skills into new and viable livelihoods. For example, locals who have spent years maintaining fishing nets launched a community start-up to sell handmade sweaters. Due to the intricate detailing and high-quality materials, product inquiries are coming in even from overseas. There are broader campaigns revolving around “Buy Tohoku” to encourage economic rebuilding, which would provide more stable long-term support for reconstruction than emergency donations would.

I have learnt much from observing how our Tohoku nonprofit partners, mostly small outfits that sprouted up post-tsunami, pursue opportunities readily while continuously learning. It took only 1.5 years for them to take on full leadership. Initially, it was such a difficult situation that much coordination was from Tokyo. Now, they are in control and engaging with us in the ways they wish. For instance, our partner organisation in Iwate, @Rias NPO Support Center, informed us that they wanted to replicate an Office 365 cloud project together with Dynamics CRM, and even said to me, “We have already arranged for the funds to support it!” They have clear expectations of what Microsoft’s role should be, the outcomes they wish to attain, and are completely self-sufficient.

Changing roles post-disaster
Another significant change we have observed is how women are emerging as important faces in the local community. According to Professor Akiko Nakajima, specialist in gender-based architecture at the Wayo Women’s University, Chiba, women in Tohoku used to be viewed as powerless in comparison to their counterparts in the big cities, and the disaster has broken this myth.

Many women, most of whom had fishermen husbands who perished in the disaster, are taking on employment to support their families, with some starting their own social enterprises and companies. They are making their voices heard in post-disaster recovery, and are at the forefront of demands for health checks for children, evacuation of children from areas with consistently elevated radiation levels and are seeking greater privacy and security in shelters.

A new model for economic development
For decades, the high rural to urban migration rates to Tokyo and Osaka for more attractive employment options, has created high pressures in those cities, while other regions have declined. Tohoku was no different. With an economy dominated by fishing and farming activities, and with higher levels of educational qualifications attained by young people, the area was facing a high out-migration rate, and the average age of those left behind was about 65 years.

If the current openness continues—where corporations are slowly exploring supporting Tohoku survivors, especially stay-at-home mothers, by providing freelance or remote working options and where youth entrepreneurship is being encouraged—this could create new labour market practices that can alleviate the youth unemployment crisis, encourage a stronger innovation culture and be a model for other towns and cities.

In order to give back to the international society who supported us so generously throughout these years, we hope to establish a post-disaster economic recovery and sustainable livelihood model which can be applied in any country, not only for revitalisation, but also to enhance the resilience of communities.

Young innovators, entrepreneurs of Tohoku

We will keep going
There have been ancient stone markers along the Sanriku coast, warning future generations “not to build homes beyond this point”. To make it easier for people to remember these warnings, survivors and volunteers have been planting cherry blossom trees along a 170-kilometre stretch marking the farthest points inland that the tsunami waves reached. In years to come, when the trees blossom in spring, we will remember those who have perished on 11 March 2011, and the strength and resilience Tohoku region and Japan showed in response.

As the Japanese saying nana-korobi ya-oki (“seven falls, eight times getting up”) goes, I know we will keep going, no matter what.