[IMPACT Interview] First Lady Akie Abe (Part 2/3) “Who helps us recognize the entrepreneurial mission?”

2016/05/18 | By IMPACT Japan

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Akie Abe (Part 2/3)
Who helps us recognize the entrepreneurial mission?

This is the second portion of the interview with Akie Abe, Japan’s First Lady. When do entrepreneurs recognize their own mission? Who helps them recognize it? The following is the full text of Akie Abe’s presentation at the Post-Disaster Innovation Forum (PIF) 2016 held at the INTILAQ Tohoku Innovation Center, in which she discusses these ideas.

Akie Abe
Akie was born in Tokyo in 1962 and married Shinzo Abe in 1987. She is not your stereotypical First Lady and instead engages in a wide range of activities, including setting up schools in Myanmar, farming fertilizer-free “Akie Rice” in Yamaguchi Prefecture, and running the UZU izakaya. She has also declared herself to be “the opposition party at home” by openly disagreeing with the policies of the Abe administration.

William Hiroyuki Saito
William is a second-generation Japanese-American born in California in 1971. He serves as a Special Advisor to the Cabinet Office. He is an entrepreneur who sold his business to Microsoft in his 20s and is currently actively engaged in efforts to foster the next generation of leaders. He co-founded the IMPACT Foundation Japan and serves as its Chair. The IMPACT Foundation Japan designed, opened, and operates the INTILAQ Tohoku Innovation Center, which serves as the base of the foundation’s activities, with support from the Qatar Friendship Fund.

Why does Akie Abe visit the affected areas in Tohoku?
Just following her heart to help people in need

Today, before arriving at INTILAQ, I was having a meal with people affected by 3.11 in Minami Sanriku and was asked why I visit Tohoku so often.

So many people died in the affected areas, and I do not want the sacrifices of these lives to be forgotten. Why did so many people lose their lives? It doesn’t make sense for society to just continue as things were before the disaster. We need to make things better in Japan and the affected region. I believe experiences from the affected areas need to be shared more broadly and used as the driving force for changing Japan. That is what comes to mind when I visit Tohoku.

When do people discover their “mission”? Where did you encounter the catalyst that made you take up the themes of Tohoku and Yamaguchi?

I am not actually someone who sets a clear goal ahead of time and then feverishly works towards it. However, when I get invited to give presentations or attend other events I try to explain to young people that there is too much information in the world and that they should avoid losing their course. The most important thing is what their hearts tell them to do. If they sincerely follow their hearts, there will surely come a time when they realize what their path is and what the mission that God has given them is. Their mission is not something that can be taught by schoolteachers or parents. It is something that each individual needs to realize for themselves.

It is important for us to continue moving forward and taking on challenges in order to reach this moment. So Tohoku was where your heart told you to continue being involved.

I haven’t necessarily set a clear goal of “this must be accomplished.” However, people are still suffering in the affected areas and maybe my efforts can contribute in some way to improving the situation. Some people are happy simply from the fact that I am there. This is why I have come so many times to the area.

It’s a shame we have to cut our conversation short today, but now is the time for your speech to the World Junior Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. Thank you for your time today. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Tohoku and advice for entrepreneurs from the younger generation in your presentation.

Thank you as well.

Below is the full text of the opening remarks delivered by Akie Abe on March 13, 2016 at the Post-Disaster Innovation Forum (PIF) 2016 at the INTILAQ Tohoku Innovation Center, marking five years since the disaster.

The PIF is a symposium hosted by the World Disaster Risk Reduction Industry Organization founded by two high school students in 2014 (Ayaka Nirei and Ruka Saito) that aims to promote awareness about disaster risk reduction more broadly. Symposium participants include young students interested in disaster risk reduction activities, including high school students, and many adults with expert knowledge in various related fields. The “Good Gensai Award” for excellent ideas that contribute to disaster risk reduction was announced on the same day. Akie Abe is a director of the organization and supports its activities.

Preparing for disasters – Community building is needed alongside physical preparations

Hello everyone.

I received a letter from Ayaka Nirei around the timing of the first PIF event. It informed me that she was planning a conference aimed at the reduction of disaster risk and wanted to invite me to attend.

What stood out to me was the words “We are the future. We should build the future.” I was moved by these words, and decided that I wanted to support high school students with these thoughts and taking this approach. I thus participated in the first event.

The two speakers were Ayaka Nirei and Ruka Saito, and adults with illustrious careers were listening intently to them. My sense from actually seeing the wonderful conference was that these are incredible high school students and that Japan has a bright future. I have been interacting with them since then. Today is probably the last time for me to see them as high school students because they are graduating this spring.

Today I see many people dressed in school uniforms. Please follow in the steps of these girls. I hope that with your youthful energy, you can lead Japan to becoming an even better country.

Since the disaster, I now think that while it is obviously important to always be prepared for a disaster, it is also extremely important to build human relationships and a community.

I have heard how many key contact points functioned well in Tohoku at the time of the disaster thanks to tight-knit human relationships. That being said, it worries me to think about what would happen if a disaster on a similar scale were to strike Tokyo. I have been discussing the need for community building in Tokyo too with many different people.

Young people on the frontlines of reconstruction say people can’t be trusted.
This is a huge problem.

I have visited the affected areas multiple times, and am very interested by the seawalls.

The tsunami took the lives of many people. People who experienced this fear wanted to build high seawalls and prevent the same thing from happening again and called for seawalls to stop a future tsunami right after the event.

The government responded by formulating an overall policy and prefectures, cities, and towns created seawall plans. Some of the structures are as tall as 15 meters and the length extends for about 400 kilometers with a budget of almost one trillion yen.

15 meters is very high indeed. Concrete walls as tall as a four-story building will shut off views of Tohoku’s beautiful ria coast.

Many people make their living from fishing, and there is concern about the impact on fishing operations too. Some observers suggest that the seawalls might dilute people’s awareness of living alongside the ocean and actually have the effect of delaying people from taking refuge when an actual tsunami occurs. While people might have asked for seawalls right after the disaster, no one I talk to now wants the construction of massive seawalls. Yet the plans are still moving forward. Construction has started in some spots and seawalls are steadily growing. People are asking whether this is truly the right choice. However, it is difficult to alter plans once they have been decided and are already in motion.

I met with a person in their 30s who works in the oyster farming business when I initially thought about addressing this issue. I explained that I thought this was a problem and suggested genuinely working together for a solution.

His response was, “What does ‘genuinely’ mean for you?” I wondered why he asked me this and initially thought this was a rather brash reply for someone in their 30s to my suggestion that we work together. After listening to him some more, I learned that he had already voiced the request to not build the seawall because of its impact on oyster farming to various people, and everyone gave positive replies at first that they understood and would try to get something done. However, they ultimately concluded that it was not possible and left Tohoku for someplace else. This is why he did not trust anyone, particularly people in high places.

My point here, more than construction of the seawalls, is the fact that young people in their 30s who have a central role in reconstruction say that people cannot be trusted. I was saddened by this situation. I concluded that this was the most serious problem we faced and that I should be someone they can trust, even if they have lost faith in others. This has motivated my actions when dealing with the issue.

Yet it remains difficult to change things once they have been decided. The media has changed its tone recently and TV programs and newspaper articles are raising questions about issues with the seawalls. While this might slightly alter the situation, it still remains a difficult issue.

I also started to realize that even before an earthquake or tsunami occurs, as part of our everyday lives, we need to be thinking about how we should develop our towns and communities.

Young people might be told different things by the people they encounter in their lives. They receive advice from teachers, parents, and bosses about the right school to attend, which company to work at, and what kind of future will bring them happiness. However, what someone really wants to do and what type of life they want to live is different for each person.

Even without a disaster, I believe addressing the questions of what happiness is, what types of towns and communities we want, and what types of lifestyle bring happiness contributes to disaster risk reduction and preparation for crisis management for when a disaster does occur. I hope you will think seriously about these points because they lead to personal happiness as well.

(Continuation of the interview with Akie Abe in Part 3)


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