In 2011 Ashoka opened its doors in Japan. Nana Watanabe, an author specializing in social entrepreneurship, was the guiding force. Working with five Changemakers locally, Ashoka Japan is unlocking the potential of youth innovation to gradually transform Japanese society.
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Ashoka's system-changing approach yields results in Japan
I first became acquainted with Ashoka around the turn of the millennium. Social problem solving had existed in Japan but the effects tended to be short-lived because of a focus on symptoms, rather than root causes. Ashoka's method of diagnosing social problems at the source and executing system-wide reform has demonstrated impact that is thousands -- even tens of thousands -- of times more effective. Japan was facing many issues. I decided we needed Ashoka.
I contacted their headquarters in Washington, D.C., but the initial response was skepticism. I realized then that I needed to provide solid data on the social ills peculiar to our mature society, like youth apathy and the phenomenon of extreme social withdrawal. Ashoka representatives were astonished to learn that reality on the ground was quite different from the image of a prosperous, pre-recession Japan. An Ashoka Country Office in Japan was set up here in 2011, putting us at the starting line at last.
Four Ashoka Fellows lead the way creating Changemakers of the future
After four-and-a-half years in operation, our impact so far has been modest, to be honest. But thanks to our five fellows, the seeds for transformation have been planted and have started to bear fruit.
Our Ashoka Youth Venture Initiative is on track, empowering the next generation with the spirit of entrepreneurship. The initiative is an incubation lab for youths aged 12 to 20. They are aware of the contradictions within the society in which they live, and have concrete ideas about solutions. They possess empathy. They are introspective, have the courage to take risks, and are resilient in the face of failure. In order to cultivate these traits in young people, we give them total flexibility.
From our Japan launch in 2012 through May of 2016, 69 teams have been formed, with three to five youths each; and we are on track to reach 100 teams by 2017. Some of our alumni have translated their projects into startup companies after graduating from college. By nurturing young Changemakers, the groundwork is being paved for social transformation.
We want to dispel the myth that. “ordinary people can't change society”
To maximize the impact of these seeds of change, structural change within corporations is crucial. Collaboration between Ashoka globally and Boehringer Ingelheim, the 4th largest pharma company in Germany, is undergoing a process . Starting in July, we will launch a corporate outreach program, educating the private sector about Changemaking, and arranging meetings between corporate sponsors and Changemakers.
This outreach is vital. Entrepreneurial, systemic change is not thoroughly understood in Japan. That's because it takes time for results to become apparent, and there is a bias against the idea that ordinary people can effect change.
Cultivating people who can become Changemakers requires starting when they are young. To foster traits like the ability to innovate and empathize, Changemaker schools must be set up at all grade levels. Over 100 Ashoka Changemaker Schools in 28 countries have been certified around the world. We are anxious to get these schools up and running right away in Japan.
Japanese tend to view "small and humble" as a virtue, but I would like us to think beyond our borders. Unless we start focusing on how we ourselves can change the world, broad social transformation will elude us.
Opened in 2011 as Ashoka's first East Asia Country Office. Over four years, five superlative Changemakers have been elected Ashoka Fellows. We support them as a community to magnify the impact of their activities. We are also identifying and cultivating young Changemakers via our Youth Venture Initiative. The idea of "Everyone a Changemaker" guides our daily activities. (Interview with founder and chairperson Nana Watanabe.)