Japan may not be known for its thriving social entrepreneurship scene, but if you know where to look, there’s a lot going on…
But wait — what exactly is a ‘Social Business’?
A simple, comprehensive definition is:
“A business whose purpose is to solve social problems in a financially sustainable way.”
Unlike a traditional corporation, the prime aim of a social business is not to maximize profits — it is to address a social or environmental challenge (such as those embodied in the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals).
And unlike a non-profit, a social business is not dependent on donations or grant money to survive and operate. Profits in a social business are re-invested to increase and improve the business’ operations, ultimately helping to make a bigger, more lasting impact.
In the words of social business guru and Nobel Prize winner Professor Muhammad Yunus: “A charity dollar has only one life; a social business dollar can be invested over and over again.” (You can also see Prof. Yunus’ Seven Principles of a Social Business here for more).
Here are 5 examples of Social Businesses — Made in Japan
Pirika is an IT startup using technology to clean the streets and end the litter crisis. Originating from the research labs of Kyoto University, the team has developed the world’s most widely used anti-litter smartphone app, boasting over 800,000 users across 85 countries. Since its inception, 100 million pieces of litter have been picked up via the app. They also offer litter research and analysis services, as well as microplastics monitoring devices.
2. Alon Alon
People with Disabilities often face challenges finding work in Japan, and many jobs that are available are underpaid and menial; according to a Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare survey in 2015, the average monthly income for a Person with Disabilities is 15,033 yen (approx. $140 USD). Alon Alon employs young People with Disabilities to grow orchids (yes — the orchid market is significant in Japan), providing them with meaningful, stimulating, and well-paid work.
3. Mother House
Established in 2006, Mother House designs and manufactures ethical bags and fashion accessories in countries including Bangladesh and Nepal. The company uses local materials and pays up to double the average local wage to its workers. Employees are offered benefits like medical check-ups, meals, compensation for overtime work and company trips. Motherhouse now has 21 stores across Japan, as well as stores in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Every year, there are over 30 million people across the country who do not receive medical check-ups due to a lack of time and/or money; many of those are self-employed, NEETs or from low-income households. CarePro offers young people “One Coin” (500 yen, or $4.50 USD), on-the-spot health checks to fill that gap. The company has reached over 300,000 people through its low-cost, innovative health services by setting up small shops in train stations, shopping centres and other places with high foot traffic.
One of Japan’s major challenges is the lack of young workers in primary industries such as agriculture. Founded in 2007, MyFarm Inc makes effective use of farmland, encourages young people to get their hands dirty, and promotes organic farming across Japan. The company now has over 100 farms nationwide and thousands have graduated from its “Agri-Innovation” academy, equipped with skills to start their own pesticide-free farms and become the next generation of agri-leaders.
These are just a small selection of pioneering social enterprises that are changing the way we perceive “doing good” and encouraging discussion around the role of business in addressing systemic societal challenges.
As Japan continues to face complex social and environmental problems, such as its ageing population and impacts from a changing climate, the social entrepreneurship scene is bound to continue its growth trajectory and rise to the challenge.
For more about business in Japan, check out “Sanpo Yoshi: the Japanese business principle of success through responsibility”