The Dismal State of Japanese Agriculture and the New Generation of Change-Makers

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The TTP agreement notwithstanding, agriculture in Japan is in dire need of reform in order to harness the potential and the value of this sector.

It may be surprising, but on the list of countries (in Japanese) that earn through agricultural exports, a list led by The U.S, The Netherlands, Germany, Brazil, and France, Japan comes in at a distant around 45th. I believe this is a typical example of Japan’s failure to sell its high-quality products on the world stage.

Some reforms have been kick-started into life by Shinjiro Koizumi (in Japanese), but the resistance of organizations like the JA (known locally as Nokyo) (in Japanese) persists, and lawmakers in the ruling party are loathe to call for reforms, fearing the alienation of the rural vote-bank.

In order to gain a better understanding of the situation, I attended a two-day town hall meeting organised by the responsible ministry departments.

It is true that people involved in agriculture are very hard-working, but it remains a fact that the wage rate when calculated per hour is a measly sum somewhere between 450 and 500 yen (4.5-5 dollars) . I think you will agree that the situation is unacceptable.

The second day of the meeting was led by Mr. Takashima of Oisix (in Japanese), and Mr. Kurita from SeakYuruyasai (in Japanese), two ‘outsiders’ who have started successful farming enterprises. They explained their business models, and Yuruyasai for example, is still relatively new (2.5 years) but salaries for participating farmers are 2000 yen (20 dollars) per hour, and they are aiming to increase the hourly wage to 2500 yen in the third year.

They are doing their best to harness the amazing asset that agriculture in Japan can be, an their reports seemed to have some effect on the public officials in attendance.

I knew Takashima personally for some years. He is a very capable person with a keen sense for business, having already floated stocks of his enterprise on the market. I had also invited Mr Kurita to attend this meeting with me.

I know Kurita from his days on the management team at WHILL, but it seems he has moved on to agriculture. I as well as others in attandence in this meeting, was very impressed by the thoughtfulness of his business model and execution.

These young entrepreneurs will be the driving force that will help change Japan, and I hope we can all support them in their endeavors!


Addressing a Corporate Research Division

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Panasonic Healthcare Holdings (U.S website) is a company based in Matsuyama on Shikoku Island, where I gave a talk nearly a decade ago.

Since then, they have parted ways with the parent company Panasonic after investment firm KKR bought an 80% stake, and have bought part of Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd, inviting an outsider, Hidehito Kotani, to take the helm of the company. Recently, Mitsui Co. Ltd has bought 20% of KKR’s stake.

It was to this entirely different company’s Gunma office (in Japanese) that I was invited to give another talk at.

There was a turnout of nearly 500 people, with researchers and engineers from 2 other R&D facilities joining to make a rousing affair.

The questions came thick and fast, and the enthusiasm of the young employees was evident. At the same time, the audience was overwhelmingly male, and there were very few foreigners, one from China asked a question – good thing. I think this is problematic, and indeed can be considered to be a significant weakness.

The gist of my speech? That the company’s departure from the norms and traditions of the company, and the willingness to pioneer changes such as foreign ownership and new governance structures has also trickled down to the employees, creating a vibrancy rarely seen elsewhere. I went on to say that I think it is this ability to depart from familiarity that spurs innovation, and then explained what I meant by ‘innovation,’ before finishing with some observations about the coming years.

It was a rare opportunity to speak at a company’s gathering so I felt good and very excited. To the employees I talked to: please strive to be the best! I am counting on you.


From Toronto to Doha


I left Toronto for Doha via Montreal to attend the Qatar Foundation Annual Research Forum. I was a member of the selection committee at its inaugural meeting of the Forum.

At the Forum, I met with the representatives of the venture company Spiber, which utilizes genetic engineering to create spider webs, developed by Mr. Sekiyama. He is an alumnus of Keio University Shonan Fujisawa Campus (SFC) and his mentor is Professor Masaru Tomita. I took notice of Spiber in 2010, when it was presented at the SFC’s annual Open Research Forum when I was teaching at the SFC. I also had dinner with the Spider team and had the opportunity to exchange many ideas and opinions.

Watching the activities of passionate, young people always lifts my spirits and makes me want to offer my support if any. I am cheering for Spiber’s success.

Although the relations between governments are important in diplomacy, the trust that is built through people-to-people exchanges and friendship also plays a crucial role in international relations.

To Toronto Again


I returned to Japan from Cornell University via Toronto but I went back to Toronto just three days later.

I took part in a conference in Toronto, which focused on innovation in Canada and Japan and the areas where the two countries could increase their cooperation. Throughout the discussion, many people from both the Canadian and Japanese sides brought up how little attention each country paid to each other. The keynote speech was given by the co-founder of BlackBerry, Jim Balsillie. We were seated next to each other at the main table and had the chance to talk about many things.

I mentioned to Mr. Balsillie that I once moderated a key note speech of the other co-founder of BlackBerry, Mike Lazaridis, in Kyoto in 2007. I told him that I immediately started to use the BlackBerry when it became finally available in Japan for retail sale in 2008. Throughout his keynote speech, Mr. Balsillie emphasized the phrase, “Freedom to Operate,” and so we discussed many topics in our conversation. The Ambassador Monji was also present at this gathering.

The host organization of this conference was the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), which is a relatively new think tank. The Balsillie School of International Affairs. And both organizations are created by Mr Balsillie.

I have many exchanges with people in Canada and feel that it is a country of moderation and excellence. Although Canada shares a similar history with Australia of being a former British colony and a resource-rich country, there are some major differences. The environment and cold climate may be an influencing factor.

In my talk, I spoke about the potential for Japan and Canada to work together and to create new possibilities by combining their strengths and offsetting their weaknesses. Japan has four times the population of Canada but the two countries share the similarity of being geographically located next to countries with ten times their own populations. I raised these points and took a global and long-term perspective in my talk.

The conference concluded with a speech by the Minister of Trade, Chrystia Freeland. Her skill in the question and answer session attest to her brilliant career as a journalist.

In Japan, it is rare to find people like Mr. Balsillie and Minister Freeland in Japan. The existence of such individuals is a strength of Canada.

Meeting at Sendai with Young Entrepreneurs Active in Tohoku Reconstruction Efforts


On the afternoon of March 14th, I headed to Sendai. I gave the closing presentation in the event, “The Role of Entrepreneurs in Disaster Recovery.” This was the public forum for the International Disaster Prevention Conference, hosted by Sendai City.

The keynote speech was by Professor Michi Fukushima of Tohoku University, followed by excellent presentations by five young people filled with entrepreneurial spirit (1).

These young people who chose to work in northeastern Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake have diverse backgrounds, including those who lost their families during the earthquake, those who found their homes gone and were in shock, and those who left their jobs in other parts of Japan or abroad to go to destroyed towns and some return to their hometowns to become involved in reconstruction efforts.

This includes Mr. Masatsura Takahashi of Iwakitakahashi, Mr. Mitsuhiro Sato of Shimatsuji-kojiten, Ms. Ruriko Mitarai of Kesennuma Knitting, Ms. Megumi Hikichi of Walatis, Mr. Hiroki Iwasa of General Reconstruction Association (GRA) and others.

They are all truly incredible, amazing young individuals. They all have made use of the unique tradition, culture, and environment as well gotten people involved in the creation of a new social value (this is my definition of innovation), overcoming obstacles with their hopes and devotion. People who supported this process started to appear and join, forming a new organization and creating a raison d’être that they had in common.

It is the third time this year that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with Ms. Mitarai, who has a global perspective and is able to widen the framework of the work that she is doing.

Finally, I gave my talk, focusing on projects which are helping to foster young people who are active in such reconstruction efforts in the Tohoku area. I spoke about the activities by IMPACT Japan, Qatar and the Intilaq project, “Tohoku Innovators Hub.”

I had a wonderful time sharing such experiences with impressive young people.

I also got to see five MBA students from the Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business who I had just met two days ago.

The Japan Start-up Prize (Nippon Venture Prize); ‘New Business’ Conference and CONNECT !


On the 22nd of January, the ‘Japan Start-up Prize/Nippon Venture Prize; ‘New Business’ Conference and Connect’ (in Japanese) was organized by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).

The morning session started with a presentation by Tom Kelley (of IDEO fame) and Christian Bason. It was followed by a discussion between the two presenters, with Naohiro Nishiguchi moderating.

In the afternoon, we had a section that was organized by Hal Morimoto of Astoria Consulting and me. Focusing on corporate venture capital (CVC), this 140 min. section detailed how the scene has been dramatically changing over the past couple of years (Japanese).

Part 1 was titled ‘To seek return on investment, or to seek strategic profits? The way of CVC’ along with ‘CVC best practices’, with an expert panel composed of Erik Vermeulen, Hiroki Saito (in Japanese), Akimichi Degawa, Tomotaka Torin (in Japanese), and moderated by Moriyoshi Matsumoto.

Part 2 was titled ‘The CVC Market and Ecosystem’ with Jessica Archibald, Alastair Breward, Chris Erickson, and George Arnold, with Kari Andersen as moderator. Between these experts, they presented the audience with numerous, practicable, pragmatic and sensible advice. I felt that it is really important to heed the advice of these people. Building up trust, perseverance, creating a presence on a global stage, showcasing the technical skills of Japan were some of such points raised.

I was only able to be there for part 2, delayed because of an important matter that had suddenly cropped up. I was very impressed by the discussion, and as the panel wrapped up, I made my way onto the stage and thanked the participants for their insights. During the discussion, the prevalence of ‘groupthink’ as a characteristic of many Japanese corporations was mentioned, and I took the opportunity to elaborate on this a little further. All in all, the response to this event was very positive.

Finally, the awards for the first ‘Japan Start-up Prize’ / Nippon Venture Prize were handed out by Prime Minister Abe, who had just come back from the Middle East. Awardees included Mitsuru Izumo for Euglena, Yoshiyuki Sankai for Cyberdyne, Takeo Higuchi (CEO of Daiwa House), Naoko Samata for Coiney, Kazuhide Sekiyama for Spiber, and Koichiro Yoshida for Crowdworks. It was a night where young entrepreneurs stood out. Well done!

It was an event that energized and delighted.

The One year anniversary of the GHIT


The GHIT is an acronym for the Global Health Innovation Technology Fund, the first of its kind where the public and the private sector join hands in order to tackle global health issues. It was started a year ago, on June 1st.

So, what’s so special about it? I believe it is the fact that this initiative provides a structure where it is possible to supplement the strengths of Japan by dealing with its weaknesses. The strengths I am referring to here are the core technologies and chemical compounds that Japanese pharmaceutical companies have to offer the world, but which are still ‘seeds’ requiring nurturing.

On the other hand, the internal obstacles which mire efforts to make these strengths viable and competitive on the world stage are the so-called weaknesses. These include the limiting of hiring to only people straight out of college, an organisational structure that arranges itself on the basis of seniority rather than ability. The failure to encourage a corporate culture that embraces opposing views and constructive criticism is another reason why Japanese firms are lagging behind on a global scale. Put simply, there is a problem with a certain mindset that the Japanese organisation has.

Another thing that makes GHIT unique is its funding structure. Five large pharmaceutical companies make an initial investment over a span of 5 years, the Gates Foundation matches this amount, and the Japanese government, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare matches the total investment of these two, meaning that taxes paid by Japanese citizens also comes into play.

Although I had not been involved in the setting up of this unique schema I was asked to be the representative director and chair in the final stages. The reason why I was asked to do so, as any one who regularly visits my site may surmise, is the fact that the GHIT is international in nature. The board of trustees and the auditing body is composed half of Japanese and half of non-Japanese members, with representatives appointed by the Gates Foundation also included within the council members.

This setup, as keen readers may also have noticed, is slightly different from the more conventional Japanese approach of public-private-academic partnership, in the sense that the Gates Foundation is involved, lending the whole undertaking more open to the world.

The team put together under GHIT has worked hard and the efforts have paid off; there has been tremendous progress in its first year, I believe. The activities of the GHIT have been reported overseas in papers like The Economist, The Lancet, and the Financial Times.

The meeting of the Board of Trustees was held in Tokyo, June 6th, one year after its inception.. The review from the council members was also very positive.

After the evening reception, I went to Haneda. I was on my way to San Francisco.

A Bright and Energetic Next Generation


Last week, Ken Endo of SONY CSL, the breeding ground of crazy and eccentric individuals, stopped by my office along with Mr. Dai Tamesue and Mr. Sugahara of RDS. He came to announce that he has started a venture business in order to continue the research he had been conducting at MIT on prosthetics.

I have known him since he was studying for a PhD at MIT. I have supported him at See-D (in Japanese) and others.

While he has been active in promoting events that support people in poverty who use prosthetics due to accidents or land mines, he has also working with Paralympic athletes to further push forward the possibilities of humankind. One of his professors at MIT is Hugh Herr, who gave an astounding presentation on prosthetics at this year’s TED talk. With this technology, it may be possible for Paralympic athletes to surpass the record set by Olympic athletes. This was recently the case in the match between a computer and professional Japanese chess player (in Japanese).

Mr. Sugie of WHILL also came to visit, the first time since he moved his base to Silicon Valley. WHILL is a venture business that was set up by young engineers from four major Japanese companies. They introduced me to Mr. Hasegawa of WINGLE (in Japanese), which supports children who have unique talents that are less compatible with conventional educational methods.

Also, Mr. Matsuda of Teach for Japan, who I introduced on this site just recently was featured in the Globe section of the Asahi Shimbun (in Japanese).

There are many amazing individuals who are active in a wide spectrum of areas.

SAFECAST, Paving The Way For The Future Of Radiation Measurement


Ever since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the official reports about radiation levels issued by the government as well as the radiation monitors on-site have been met with suspicion. Notwithstanding the fact that the disaster was caused by unprecedented natural causes, the way in which information was relayed to the public has been heavily criticized and doubted.

A week after the Fukushima Nuclear disaster, a decentralized model of documenting and sharing radiation readings that was dependent on the participation of the locals called ‘Safecast’ was set up. I have discussed this organization previously in my blog.

It all began with the assembling and usage of personal measuring instruments and sensors, checked to see if they provided accurate readings. The data collected through the use of these instruments was made available instantly on the sensor network. This was an elegant solution to the problem of the need for transparency and visibility, and the trust gained through the achievement of these two goals was backed up by the necessary technical expertise.

And as if to mirror global trends, the methods to build a sensor, the process by which to share the data online, and other required steps have all been simplified and put down in an easy-to-understand manual, allowing for anybody to participate and thus spreading this movement globally.

The accolades do not stop there. The IAEA recently recognized Safecast as one of the prime examples of contemporary information processing, and have rated it very highly. A quick look through the following two sites ( 1 , 2 ) will help form a rough idea of what I am saying here.

An article by ‘Atomic Reporter’ sums it up, remarking that it is “no wonder Safecast has a following at the IAEA. Two random guys in Japan became more widely trusted by many than 60-years of UN-agency authority”.

I urge you to go through the two websites mentioned, because although they are a bit lengthy, they are an accurate portrayal of the going-ons within the IAEA, and show how the Safecast team earned their fans within the crowd.

In our modern day and age, where the proliferation of the internet and increasingly smarter devices is making information more accessible, it is important to remember that sources of information must ensure independence, transparency, scientific verifiability, and adhere to international standards. It is when these four criteria are met that a source of information is afforded trust and belief. The NAIIC report was also executed with these four criteria in mind.

But can the same be said of the Japanese government, the authorities at TEPCO, the bureaucracy, the companies, media, universities, all these organizations dependent on maintenance of the status quo? How do they measure up to the needs for public disclosure, transparency, and international standards?

You can be a part of the Safecast network in various ways: one could perhaps build one’s own sensor and upload the data from the readings. This network of cooperation  is slowly but surely being cast across Japan and the rest of the world.

Before and After March 11th


As I mentioned in my blog post on the 11th of March, these past two weeks have been occupied by events related to the work I did in the capacity of the Chairman of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission by the National Diet, a commission that is the first of its kind in the history of Japan’s constitutional government.

At Tokyo University, I was invited to speak at an event organised by Kan Itou and his collaborators. Here I was invited to speak for 20 minutes about the NAIIC report, but unfortunately, that was all I did, as I left right after my speech to go to Ueno station to board a Shinkansen for Sendai in Tohoku. In a program titled ‘Sendai for Startups! 2014’, the group Impact Japan and the Sendai local government worked in tandem to provide a stage for entrepreneurs and business start-ups. Ms. Oikawa of Oikawa Denim (link in Japanese) presented as a local entrepreneur, while I presented Impact Japan’s new initiative in partnership with Sendai, IntilaQ.

This was followed by a lecture at Club Kanto, and then a 2-day meeting at the Swiss Embassy, after which I spent my weekend participating in an event organised by ‘The Simplest Explanation of the NAIIC’ and the Japanese Red Cross Society (link in Japanese), an event attended and by many high school and university students. It was an opportunity to learn of the ongoing struggle of the evacuees, showing the complexity of the damage caused by the triple disaster. As if this were not enough, I followed up with a visit to Bunkyo ward in Tokyo, and then had an opportunity to listen to Dr. Muto (link in Japanese), who is widely credited for having successfully introduced a new system of medical system into tsunami-devastated Ishinomaki city. The event was prepared by the Japan-North America Medical Exchange Foundation (JANAMEF) and fittingly spoke of the ever-changing situation in the world and how it affected the future of Japan.

Although change here in Japan is a slow and laborious process, there are some glimmers of hope in the actions of the young people of today. I wish them success in their endeavours!