Interviewed by Isao Tokuhashi & Yu Nakamura
Written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Today we introduce you to the evangelist of Japanese eco-friendly lifestyle. Reina Otsuka, CEO of Ecotwaza.
To sum up Ecotowaza works in a few words, “Transmitting lifestyle which Japan’s rich natural surroundings have nurtured and products that are associated with nature”. She makes overtures of “green living” to people across the world.
She has a beautiful smile, she looks affable so she is working on eco-stuff… No, she is exactly the athletic type. She used to be a hard-core salesperson. According to Reina, she loves to build organizations. She chose environmental issues as her lifetime’s challenge, and started the activity of connecting Japan and the rest of the world through eco by herself. The original point of her actions that involve the whole world is her early experience.
Determination in girlhood
I think Japan is a very beautiful country. The forests are beautiful, broad leaf forests are really beautiful. There are four distinct seasons in Japan. We are blessed with water sources.
But I don’t think there are many people who spread that beauty overseas. Especially as for the environmental problems, few people would be able to do that. I want to spend the rest of my life tackling this matter and make maximal use of my strength, English language skills and communication ability are enough to interact with people who have various backgrounds. That’s why I work on spreading Japanese eco-friendly lifestyle and products that are made in this country which is known for its rich natural environment.
However, the issues have been tackled from many different angles. Each eco-product manufacturer, community or organization approaches them in its own way and those spread nationwide. To organize them and provide commentaries on them, that’s our mission.
I got interested in the issue when I was an elementary school girl. I spent my early childhood from age 2 to 10 in New York and got child asthma after I came back home. Also I often looked at the news coverage of the Gulf War and I felt that human behavior is very stressful on the earth. That was a trigger to get interested in the issue.
Then I decided to solve the environmental problems through business in the future when I was a junior high school girl. If the environment is only seen as an economic resource, the problems related to it will never be solved . In order to resolve them, we need to recognize that human beings, society and economy exist in a natural environment. I was thinking like that. “If there’s no company who acts on that kind of idea, I’ll build one myself!” Originally I was interested in building a new organization, I think that’s also one of the reasons I decided to start my own business. I started a theater company when I was a high-schooler and organized an ecological research club when I was a college student.
“I am American”
I went to the US when I was a baby because of my father’s work. So to me, Japan was a “foreign country”. I thought that Japan is a very beautiful country as I heard about it. But as soon as I came back home, I got asthma because I lived in Tokyo. There was a gap between my image of Japan and the actual one, so I thought “What a polluted country Japan is!” and hated it at one point. That might be an “identity crisis”, which is unique to children who returned home from overseas. At that time I thought that I was an American and different from other Japanese.
As time past, I went to the US again in my third year of college. I had a chance to study at UC Berkeley for 9 months. There are students from all over the world there, so people naturally asked each other, “Where are you from?”. I answered “From Japan”, but I added, “However I grew up in the US”. I did that purposely.
One day, I only said I came from Japan. Everybody accepted me without any hesitation. “No need to say I’ve grown up here” I thought. I was born in Japan, my parents are Japanese and I was strongly influenced by Japanese culture, so I started to think like I had nothing to be ashamed about in my background, I could say that I came from Japan straightforwardly. That was my first experience of transmitting Japan overseas.
While I was in the US or was traveling to various countries, I could look at home objectively. Then I realized that there are many wonderful things in Japan. But actually those things are hidden in the places which are hard to find from outside, are not transmitted properly and don’t become widely understood. So I wanted to be a bridge.
Now I can recall that I wrote “I want to be a diplomat” on the graduation paper of elementary school. I think I originally had that kind of seed in me.
The wave has come!
I established my own company called “Ecotwaza” in July 2006, when I was working at Recruit. But it started essentially in July 2007. It was difficult for me to double in brass so the main activity was an event in autumn in the first year.
“Do I have to keep doing both things?” just when I thought like that, I saw Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” on a Saturday.
I was touched by the audience response rather than the movie itself. When I was a high-schooler, the world trend was like “You should work on the environment issues as a volunteer.””You should think of those issues and economy in separate terms”. But everyone was empathizing with the call “Environmental matters and economy must go hand in hand” from Al Gore at that time.
“Now is my only chance to realize my idea.” Then I expressed to my boss my intention to leave work at the beginning of the next week. Originally I told its recruitment staff that I wanted to leave here in about three years and establish a company, and my boss advised me like “Do this kind of assignment if you want to be a corporate manager.” Its work environment was really wonderful for me, but surprisingly my resignation was accepted without much resistance.
I told someone that I wanted to quit the company a couple of times. But everybody said, “I believe now is not yet the time to do that.” or “What have you accomplished so far?” so I hanged in there. But after I saw “An Inconvenient Truth”, I prepared to meet my fate. I think everybody felt my determination, so nobody stopped me at that time.
I’d already been told that I had to wait for a “wave” to come. When the time is right to start, things go on their own. I thought the wave just has come so I left the company. It was like a leaving from a port alone.
Unlimited amount of work, unlimited potential
Recruit is the company which instilled the ABCs of businesspeople in myself and they asked us to put 120% of our energy into the job, not 100%. I went out to real-estate firms on advertising sales for the housing information magazine everyday. Now I’m not dealing with things like classifieds, but my attitude to work is exactly the same as at the time. Environmental issues are in a race against time to resolve, so we cannot finish even if we work around-the-clock. There is an endless amount of things that we must tackle.
Proposing my idea to the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) section of a big business would be larger in terms of the amount of money, personnel and impact on society that would be created than if I established a small company from scratch.
Actually I talked to executive officers of Recruit about this. But if we have a future for decades to come, I felt that there is a possibility of things we can do expanding in all directions by founding a company even if our scale of operation and outfit is tiny at this time. I wanted to gamble on that great potential.
We got lost
The core age group which supports our activities is in its 30s , the same generation as us, but people across all age groups back us too. Many of the managers or contact personnel of our business partners are older and savvy, but they face us squarely. We really appreciate that.
Fortunately those kinds of bonds have been created little by little, but of course we took a long time to build such good relationships with them. Our original point is magazine publication and we do the whole task of publishing and selling by ourselves. We called on bookstores and increased our outlets.
Even though magazine publication takes time and effort, the amount of information which magazines can contain is much less than a website. But the reason why we stack to it is that we thought we needed to deliver something to touch, pick up and read in order to show people our ideas and preparations. “We’re making this” we wanted to say that with conviction.
In the first year, it was a continuing process of trial and error. We couldn’t expect much sales of magazine, so we dabbled in ecology-related marketing research and rental furniture business. Because we had to keep our company in business, we tried to do those things even though we had no experience in them, they were not our forte and we didn’t feel so much for them. “This is no good! I left a company because I wanted to spread Japanese eco-friendly lifestyle and technique around the world” Then we started over again.
For example, we brought furniture and delivered by train in order to save transport cost. I look back now and think we were inexperienced so needed to learn through trial and error.
eco+waza magazine (Quarterly)
Confronting the clients seriously
When I started a company, I had a business plan. But it didn’t work that way. A mid-20’s woman went to the eco-related exhibitions and asked people “Please let us deal with your products. We’ll introduce them in English to people across the world”, but of course they knew nothing of me, and there were no customers at all. “Which comes first, the egg or the chicken?” it’s a common saying, but we didn’t have either. So we started to think of other services.
Then we returned to the starting line and gave our full attention to the manufacturers. “Let us deal with your products. We’re serious.” We also knocked on the doors of small factories in Tokyo.
At such times, the magazine finally had a great effect. We showed our clients how their products were going to be introduced in our magazine. Then a company empathized with us the end of 2008. It’s called Sanyo Paper and it produces products which use plum charcoal. They were about to expand their business overseas, so they chose us as a partner.
Then the number of clients increased little by little based on referrals, and the number of our customers who buy products also increased. Now we tie up with about 80 companies, and our customers are in English-speaking countries such as Australia and UK, also in Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and so on.
Increasing the number of chewers
Our website was launched in 2009, a year after the magazine publication started. At that time, we had only an English edition. The magazine is written both in English and Japanese, so many of the subscribers are expatriates in Japan. When they were going home, they told us “I want to read articles in my home””I want to show it to my friends in my country” So we were often asked to make an English website.
We could launch the Japanese edition on September 26, 2011. Many of our supporters asked us, “We also want to read the article, so please make a Japanese website” and another trigger was the 3.11 Earthquake, which made us reconsider our country. Our ancestors who cultivated the wisdom to live with nature, the generations that preceded overcame the environmental pollution… we are surprisingly ignorant about the history which has been shaped by those people. “We Japanese should know it, but there are a surprising number of things we don’t know” we thought. Of course we will keep transmitting wonderful Japanese things to the world, but on the other hand we wanted to tell things to those who are close to us and would be encouraging, so we launched the Japanese website.
We introduce Japanese traditional crafts and products that are produced with new technology. I hope we can use both old things and new ones, utilizing the goodness of. Also those who use products which we introduce, who go ahead and consider the better quality use of them, who consider why they are eco-friendly, who consider what kind of things manufacturers are trying to do, who consider what they can do… we are focusing now especially on increasing the number of people who look at and think about the environmental issues as if they were their own. Our website is membership-based and we want to enhance the contents for members to relate to those issues.
We want Japan to be a country which attracts people from around the world
I want Japan to be the world’s research center. I’ve been thinking that Japan has to attach importance to attracting people from across the world. And there are still rich natural surroundings here. We have a history of overcoming environmental destruction. So we invite people from overseas to Japan to learn about our history. In the future, we want to collaborate with experts who work on global sustainability abroad.
I left a port alone, but now I have a chance to be invited to the international conferences and my friends have increased all over the world. Still our activities continue step by step, but we never limit our imagination and paint a bright future.
What is your ideal world?
“Reduction””Not too much consumption” My ideal world is the one where everyone understands these concepts.
Now we emit too much waste to be disposed of naturally by the earth and take many things out of our planet. We need to change that system. For example the energy issues, we cannot handle them with only CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) so we’ll have to change our lifestyle. Because no matter how much natural energy is diverted for practical use by technical innovation, that would be pointless if the use of the energy increases.
“Growth” or “expansion” tend to be considered the best things, but the energy flowing through the world is above the same in every age for every age group. Ernst Friedrich Schumacher said “The opposite word of growth is not stagnation, it’s ‘conservation’.” As these phrases go, I think reduction doesn’t mean loss, reduction is what we need to do to go to the next step. So people in the advanced countries should not be afraid to lose something, they should change their lifestyles a little bit and pursue a different kind of richness.
Now Japan is deemed to be a typical example of a mass consumer society, but there are many good things in Japan such as Japanese’ original spiritual nature or little vexations of daily living that we are not aware of.
So I don’t want Japan to be an advanced country in terms of the amount of stuff, I want it to be a leading country in terms of a “way to live” or a “lifestyle”. I hope we “Ecotwaza” could show Japan a course to be a country like that.