On eco-tech, a Japanese firm plays cross-cultural matchmaker

Reina Otsuka founded Ecotwaza and now serves as its president as well as editor of the company’s eco+waza magazine. Photo by: Devex

eco+waza claims to be the world’s first Japanese-English bilingual magazine focusing on Japanese eco-technologies and eco-related philosophies. Behind the magazine stands an energetic entrepreneur eager to provide a bridge between Japan’s somewhat insular business culture and the rest of the world - including developing countries.

eco+waza derives from the English abbreviation for “ecological” and the Japanese term waza, which stands for technologies, techniques, and craftsmanship. These words describe the vision of Ecotwaza Co., the firm behind the magazine: to become “a bridge between Japanese eco-friendly technology and the world.”

The magazine showcases a variety of green products and the mostly small and medium-size businesses based in Japan that produce them. Examples of these “eco-products” include bamboo tableware sets, kitchen sponges that do not require detergents to clean dishes, and a wall finish made from recycled milk cartons that has the appearance of traditional Japanese paper. eco+waza also provides information on traditional Japanese philosophies and technologies in bilingual articles written by local writers.

Ecotwaza acts as an overseas market development partner for the companies and products that are showcased in the magazine. In addition, the company operates an online e-commerce site, eco+waza web, where consumers can purchase green products directly.

“Each item is not just environmentally friendly, but has unique plus-alpha [value-added] features,” said Reina Otsuka, president of Ecotwaza and the magazine’s editor in chief. “We always write explanations about different aspects of the product, such as the philosophy, culture, and history behind it.”

The Web site and magazine also provide contact information for manufacturers interested in establishing partnerships with overseas retailers, and manufacturers who want to use Japanese environmentally friendly materials. Many of the manufacturers do not have English-speaking staff, and for these companies, Ecotwaza acts as the local contact point to help overcome communication and cultural barriers.

For non-Japanese companies looking for eco-products from Japan, Ecotwaza offers search and selection services. Ecotwaza’s goal is to ensure that overseas businesses can easily communicate with Japanese companies via e-mail and telephone, and vice versa.

Ecotwaza is now in its third year of operations, and it has been expanding steadily over the past years. However, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the company or its dynamic president and editor in chief.

Turning an idea into action

Otsuka got the idea for Ecotwaza after returning to Japan from the United States, where she spent a large part of her formative years. She suddenly came down with asthma, which she blamed on Tokyo’s polluted air. It was then that she realized environmental issues were becoming subordinated to purely economic decisions in the modern world. Otsuka decided to make a difference.

In order to obtain more international business experience, Otsuka went back to the U.S. She was studying business at the University of California in Berkeley on Sept. 11, 2001, and said the turbulent time that followed had a major impact on her life.

“We weren’t fighting, but everyone was pretty emotional at the beginning,” she recalled. “But then, the director of the house [where I lived] gathered everyone together and gave a very good speech. He said that it was very easy to communicate hatred, which can then form a chain reaction, but it’s very important and difficult to be the first one to stop the chain reaction and do something different.”

This experience remained with Otsuka when she returned to Japan to complete her degree in legal studies and international relations at Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo. After graduation, Otsuka joined a major Japanese publishing firm, but the desire to bring about change stayed with her, and she began to develop her plans for starting a company.

To Otsuka, the central philosophy behind the modern-day economy is “a desire for possessions.” But, she said, “this desire to possess is not working.” Her idea was to apply traditional Japanese ways to modern society in order to change the focus from the provision of “products” to the provision of “lifestyle services.”

Ecotwaza assumes that even if some environmentally friendly products are more expensive than their mass-produced counterparts, they tend to be more durable and better constructed, and hence better-suited to the provision of lifestyle services than cheaper products, which are often designed to be short-lived and disposable. Otsuka saw durable products that provide lifestyle services as essential to a sustainable society - and as a business opportunity for companies.

An inspiring vision

Otsuka’s studies in international relations gave her unique insight into development and trade. In all of the projects and programs she studied, government formed the apex of a pyramid of participants that included global companies, non-governmental organizations and society. But there was little or no inclusion of SMEs or local companies. Otsuka decided to create what she terms “inter-local” - or “glocal” - networks.

Despite her business background, Otsuka admitted that she “didn’t have any know-how and wasn’t sure where to start.” But her lack of practical knowledge and hands-on experience didn’t stop her from establishing Ecotwaza.

The company gained investor backing even though it initially lacked a concrete business plan.

“A lot of the people who invested in us say that they were not investing in the business plan, they were investing in me, or in the vision of the company,” Otsuka recalled.

The company received advice and assistance from these investors, who Otsuka referred to as “senpai,” or mentors.

“I started up Ecotwaza while I was still working at my old company. For market research, I went around Tokyo and asked SMEs what their issues were regarding international communication and the current business environment,” Otsuka said. “I found that there were a lot of interesting small and medium-size companies that weren’t doing very well. But even though there was strong potential for increased market exposure overseas, they were afraid of going abroad. So, I decided to start a business to act as a bridge to overseas markets for companies with environmentally friendly technologies or products.”

Getting SMEs on board

It might seem like a no-brainer to help local SMEs promote their products internationally, including in emerging markets. But Japan’s inward-looking culture can trend towards what some might say is near-isolationism, particularly at the local level.

Otsuka says that she initially had to overcome a lot of opposition to her belief that environmentally friendly products in overseas markets presented a major business opportunity. Most SME representatives she spoke to were highly reluctant to take their business overseas.

“Nobody wanted to go abroad,” she remembered with a laugh. “And nobody wanted to produce environmental products because they said there was no profit in it.”

Ecotwaza found two main reasons why Japanese SMEs are reluctant to go abroad. The first is the belief that foreigners won’t be able to understand the virtues of Japan and Japanese products. The second is the language barrier, as few Japanese SMEs have English-speaking staff. Otsuka saw an opening for a bilingual, bicultural organization with good domestic and international networks in sustainability-related fields to provide that support.

Initially, Ecotwaza tried a variety of methods to bring in revenue, some of which didn’t go as planned. One of these sideline businesses was dubbed Rent-a-kagu, Japanese for Rent-a-Furniture, which failed because most of the rentals ended up being long-term.

It was in these difficult early days that the teachings of one of her favorite business leaders helped her to carry on. Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda Motor Co., once said, “If 90 percent of people oppose an idea, then you should go ahead with it.”

A few years after Ecotwaza was founded, Otsuka began to see a change in how SMEs viewed business in Japan - and her business slowly began to take off.

“We spoke to the people I had met three years earlier about those same concepts, and they were really changing,” she recalled. “Society was changing as the economy started slowing down and businesses started to feel the impact from the economic crisis. In the end, I guess it just took time.”

Eco-entrepreneurship

According to Otsuka, emerging markets have great business potential for companies like Ecotwaza. Economies eager to grow sustainably need assistance to reach development goals with environmentally friendly lifestyle services, she argued, and cited specific opportunities for sustainable businesses focusing on non-disposable packaging, building material, and environmentally friendly household products such as detergents.

Key to the development of emerging markets will be the use of local knowledge and materials, and the creation of local capacity, Otsuka added.

Otsuka does not see herself as a social entrepreneur, or Ecotwaza as a social business.

“The purpose of companies is to increase value to society,” Otsuka said, noting that “kaisha,” the Japanese word for “company,” literally means “to meet for society.”

An essential component of Ecotwaza’s vision is that consumption is not the way forward.

“We need to reduce environmental problems and in the process create opportunities for business,” Otsuka said. “Business as usual and the pursuit of endless growth for growth’s sake just leads to an increasing number of environmental and social problems, with developing countries just wanting to ‘consume’ more and more, in a similar way to developed nations.”

Otsuka’s advice for young entrepreneurs interested in setting up their own environmental or social business? Meet people from different backgrounds, rethink development and the limits to growth. Most importantly, she said, “choose your own vision - don’t just follow someone else’s.”

Ecotwaza, for its part, is open to new ideas and partnerships.

The writer contributes occasionally to eco+waza magazine.

About the author

  • Luke Poliszcuk

    Luke Poliszcuk is CEO of eQualC Sustainability Communications, a corporate sustainability and CSR communications firm based in Tokyo. He has worked with a number of Fortune 500 and Nikkei 500 corporations, and is a member of Green Mondays, an international networking event for sustainability professionals in Tokyo, and a founding member of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals Japan. Luke is lead contributor and project manager for the Japan section of CSR International’s World Guide to CSR, and writes for other green media in Japan and abroad.

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