Six years on from the devastating earthquake and tsunami, Japan’s Tohoku region is still working to restore its pre-3.11 way of life.
Among the brands to have unveiled recent initiatives to support the area is the retail chain Aeon, which on 9 March announced that it will lead tourism activities including snow-trekking in the city of Tono. As well as drawing visitors and increasing spending, it aims to raise understanding of the plight of residents affected by the disaster. The company also makes a point of selling local food produce, which has seen a decline in consumption due to fears of nuclear contamination.
Looking further back, Yahoo Japan has also worked to encourage volunteers to holiday in the region while contributing relief efforts.
It’s easy to leave such efforts to big brands, but the agency world, and individuals with creative or technical skills, can play an important role too. Akio Iida, ECD at Dentsu Isobar, began looking for ways to help the Tohoku area soon after the disaster happened. Then working as an art buyer at Wieden + Kennedy, he started by collecting donations of toys for children. Travelling back and forth to the affected city of Ishinomaki from Tokyo over a period of several months, he was inspired by the young people he met who, having lost everything, focused determinedly on the future.
To support them, Iida set up Ishinomaki2.0, a collective of creative people ranging from advertising professionals to architects and engineers. The idea was to pool thinking and resources to create assets that would help society, even in a small way, to get back on its feet. At its core, the group aimed to help producers and small businesses in Ishinomaki market themselves more effectively to the rest of Japan.
Initial efforts centred on services such as website design and the production of flyers and other informational literature. But with most members being from Tokyo, Iida said it soon became apparent that this was a temporary fix. It was important to mobilise Ishinomaki residents to join in order for the movement to be sustainable, and for the area to achieve its ultimate goal of operating independently. The balance has since shifted so that Ishinomaki2.0 comprises mostly locals, but draws in outside collaborators too.
One success story to come from the project is a collaboration with the high-end furniture brand Herman Miller: around 20 people from Herman Miller worked to help Ishinomaki produce and promote furniture made from indigenous rubber trees, which Iida says is now famous around the world. Ishinomaki residents now run the business autonomously.
A more recent initiative, which is still in development under Iida’s supervision, is Vegital. It’s an app that he says takes inspiration from Mercari, an innovative Japanese online marketplace, to help local farmers—even those with no experience or understanding of pricing—sell their vegetable produce.
Iida says having set up Ishinomaki2.0 has led him and in particular junior agency staff to realise that they can apply their professional skills to help social causes. The ongoing project has also yielded solutions that could be equally relevant to other more rural parts of Japan, which while not affected by a natural disaster are nonetheless struggling to brand their produce and stay afloat amid issues like depopulation.
“The [marketing] industry could do more,” he says. “There are so many possibilities” given the technology marketing professionals employ on behalf of paying clients on a daily basis. Iida would like to see more people engage in personal projects to help challenged areas of Japan. The key for that to happen on a bigger scale is that people approach it as a fun activity, rather than as a heavy moral obligation.
“We need not to see it too seriously,” he says. “To enjoy it is really important. That way communication of the experience will be more organic—not just a case of telling people about the disaster, but about how interesting and fruitful [the project] was.
“3.11 was a trigger to think about all of Japan’s problems, not just those in Ishinomaki…We don’t think we have a lot of power within ourselves to make a change, but we do and realising that we can if we all get together can [help] drive the country to a new place.”