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Regionalism Revitalizes Japan — Second in a Series

The World Discovers the Other Japan A global cast of individuals and companies has tapped unsuspected potential in Japan— building businesses and building careers, investing capital and investing passion. Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya attract, of course, their share of the investment that is pouring into the nation. But some of the most interesting inward investment is unfolding outside of the megalopolises— in Japan’s medium-sized cities and even in towns and villages across the countryside. Thus is a teeming, international mix of input fueling the regional renaissance that is reinvigorating Japan.

Entrepreneurship Born of Cultural Heritage

Building on a Cosmopolitan History

Kobe, with a population of 1.5 million, epitomizes the medium-sized cities that are asserting impressive vigor throughout Japan. An important seaport, Kobe played a pivotal role in Japan’s Westernization and modernization and was long the nation’s most cosmopolitan city. It remains a business hub, served by Shinkansen bullet trains and an airport, as well as its famous harbor.

Kobe accompanies high-tech industrial infrastructure; superb air, rail, and sea access; and convenient public transport with urbane culture and spectacular scenery.Photo © Kobe City

The business-friendly environment in Kobe has attracted more than 240 foreign companies. Those corporate residents include the Japanese headquarters of Eli Lilly and Company, Nestlé S.A., and Procter & Gamble Co. Kobe’s appeal is evident in this testimonial from Nestlé, which has been part of the local community since 1922. “Kobe is a forward-looking city blessed with nature and a wonderful living environment. We are pleased to chart our future growth here.”

Also enriching Kobe’s business environment is an extensive infrastructure of research laboratories and related facilities. Highlighting that infrastructure is the Kobe Biomedical Innovation Cluster. The cluster hosts laboratories, plants, and offices of more than 280 medical- sector companies and other organizations from the private and public sectors along with hospitals and a world-class supercomputer.

Foreign companies that set up operations in Kobe benefit, too, from a generous package of financial incentives. Those incentives include reductions of up to 90% in local taxes for up to 10 years.

Building an Industry

Ross Findlay is an Australian entrepreneur in Hokkaido who has launched more than a business there. He has single-handedly put in place Japan’s first comprehensive menu of guided outdoor adventuring.

Findlay touts Niseko’s year-round sporting possibilities.

Findlay’s brainchild is Niseko Adventure Centre. He established the center in 1995 in Hokkaido’s Niseko district, famed for its ski resorts. His initial offering was summertime whitewater rafting. The center has since added kayaking and a winter slate of snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, and downhill skiing. Escorting the center’s customers on the different adventures are some 30 full-time guides and 15 part-timers.

Born in Melbourne in 1964, Findlay graduated from the University of Canberra’s Centre for Sports Studies in 1985. He came to Japan in 1989 and worked as a ski instructor in Sapporo before moving to the Niseko district in 1992. He noted the lack of sporting options for summer tourists and launched Niseko Adventure Centre to address that lack.

Niseko was great for winter sports,” recalls Findlay. “But it didn’t have much in the way of organized outdoor adventures for summer visitors.” Findlay takes pride in the growing numbers of summer tourists in Niseko, some of them lured by his company’s adventure offerings. He also notes happily that the district is bucking the demographic bane of rural Japan. Young people are flocking to Niseko, drawn by the outdoors appeal promoted so effectively by Findlay’s adventure center.

Building a Career

Sarah Marie Cummings has made her mark in the quintessentially Japanese industry of sake brewing. The first Western woman to earn certification as a sake sommelier, she has overseen a turnaround at the Masuichi- Ichimura Sake Brewery in the Nagano Prefecture village of Obusemachi.

Cummings transformed the Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery (right) into a magnet for tourists.

Cummings was born in Pennsylvania in 1968 and attended Pennsylvania State University. She spent a year in Japan as an exchange student in 1991 and returned on graduating in 1993 to participate in preparations for the Nagano 1998 Olympic Winter Games. Cummings later went to work as the public relations manager at the confectioner Obusedo in the Nagano Prefecture village of Obusemachi.

Obusedo was the offspring of the Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery, established in the mid-18th century. Cummings revitalized the brewery, remodeling the facilities, opening an onsite restaurant and guesthouse, hosting cultural events, and developing a portfolio of high-quality brews to appeal to the resurgent interest in sake.

Like Findlay, Cummings delights in pastoral Japan. “Enjoy the outdoors,” she urges, “and experience the real Japan . . . the heartland.”

Cummings became in 1999 the first non-Japanese member of the Japan Sake Brewers Association Junior Council. She has initiated a national effort to promote traditional brewing and fermentation in oke wooden barrels and has launched the company Bunkajigyobu to propagate regional culture and traditions.

Entrepreneurship Born of Cultural Heritage

Toshiro Nakamura (left), the founder and president of Nakamura Brace, explains his products and business to Shigeru Ishiba, Japan’s minister in charge of regional revitalization.

Toshiro Nakamura (left), the founder and president of Nakamura Brace, explains his products and business to Shigeru Ishiba, Japan’s minister in charge of regional revitalization.

Complementing the influx of foreign entrepreneurship into Japan is a dynamic portfolio of homegrown enterprise. Imaginative ventures are rejuvenating communities throughout Japan. Especially notable is the story of Nakamura Brace Co., Ltd., a manufacturer of prostheses in Shimane Prefecture.

Immediately striking about Nakamura Brace’s products is their lifelike feel and appearance. The company’s artisans craft artificial breasts, limbs, digits, ears, and other body parts from silicone. With items made to order, they shape and color the prostheses to match the customers’ physique and skin tone. Nakamura Brace exports its products worldwide, as well as serving domestic demand.

Equally striking about Nakamura Brace is the location. The head office and plant are in the village of Omoricho, a community of barely 400 residents. Omoricho is also the location of the historic Iwami Ginzan silver mine, a World Heritage Site. In the 1500s, that mine yielded as much 38 tons of silver annually—one-third of global production—and Omoricho’s population reached more than 100,000. But the population declined along with the output from the mine, which closed in 1923.

Nakamura Brace’s “medical art”spawns prostheses that look and feel like the real thing.

Nakamura Brace’s “medical art”spawns prostheses that look and feel like the real thing.

“Medical art”

Nakamura Brace’s founder and president, Toshiro Nakamura, was born in Omoricho in 1948. His father was a well-to-do landowner, but the family lost most of its property in Japan’s postwar agrarian land reforms. Nakamura needed a job after finishing high school, and a chance introduction led to a job at a Kyoto manufacturer of prostheses. After six years there, he traveled to the United States to study prosthetics at the University of California at Los Angeles, and he subsequently worked at a California maker of prostheses.

“I was amazed,” recalls Nakamura, “at the level of prosthetic care in the United States. Japan had nothing comparable, so I decided to set up a company here to supply prosthetic products as good as the ones in the United States. And I was determined to show that a company could succeed in Omoricho. I wanted to show that the village could flourish anew as a beacon of regional revitalization. Our silver had attracted the world here in the 16th century. Our creativity and artisanship would draw the world back to Omoricho in the 21st century.”

Nakamura did better than create products “as good as” their US progenitors. His company, established in 1974, spawned a new generation of prosthetics with artisanship he characterizes as “medical art.” The comfort and functionality of Nakamura Brace’s products have garnered attention throughout the global medical community, and the company’s performance as a model of regional entrepreneurship has also captured attention.

Community receptivity to new ideas

A recent visitor to Nakamura Brace was Shigeru Ishiba, the Abe government’s minister in charge of regional revitalization. Ishiba represents a district in Tottori Prefecture, which borders Shimane to the east. So he was interested in this tale of business excellence in a prefectural neighbor on the Japan Sea. Familiar with the region’s less-than-convenient logistics, Ishiba was impressed at Nakamura Brace’s success in winning and serving global business from its Omoricho location.

“I’ve seen several businesses that have achieved remarkable success in small communities,” commented Ishiba. “And something that most of them have in common is a strong and charismatic leader. It’s often a native of the community who has been away for study or work and who has come home, like you, Nakamura-san, with a compelling idea for a new venture.”

“I’ll always remember the encouragement that I received from the chamber of commerce when I came back in the 1970s,” recalled Nakamura. “The people there urged me to go with my hunches. That kind of openness to new ideas is important in fostering business in any community.”

Especially gratifying for Nakamura is the positive demographic change under way in Omoricho. The community welcomed six newly born members in 2014. And it is attracting residents, such as a couple that studied bread making in Germany and is setting up a bakery in Omoricho.