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By: Debbie Howard

Even though Japan has historically been “change averse,” movement over the past several years on a number of fronts has been notable. Reform and change have been and continue to be in large part driven by the dramatic foundational shift of the “rapid aging of Japan.” This demographic tidal wave is the most accelerated among all developed countries and is placing immense pressure on Japan’s employment, pension and healthcare systems, not to mention the overall economic and social fabric.

Considering this backdrop and with the U.S. and Japan representing just over half of the world’s economy, new opportunities are emerging for Japanese and Americans from a wide range of disciplines to explore fresh approaches to collaborative problem-solving. One interesting approach has been to bring together multidisciplinary thought leaders from both Japan and the U.S. through the U.S.-Japan Innovators Network, whose mission is to “explore new ways Americans and Japanese can work together to find solutions to challenges facing both societies in today’s global context.” It is co-organized by the Japan Society of New York and The Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, and is supported by these non-profit organizations as well as several corporate sponsors.

The U.S.-Japan Innovators Network connects people and ideas through network-building exchanges, private retreats, Internet discussions, public symposia, and long-term projects. Since its beginning in 2005, Network members have met in San Francisco, Tokyo, New York and Kyoto to explore issues such as community revitalization, building essential skills for social innovators, new models for business entrepreneurialism, and the role of play in fostering creativity and innovation.

For example, the recent private two-day retreat in Kyoto titled Invigorating Communities, Designing for Inclusion was hosted in collaboration with the Kyoto Keikan Machizukuri Center. Kyoto, a city of 1.5 million and Japan’s traditional seat of culture, was chosen in part since it faces challenges familiar to many American cities. At the top of the list are the revival of downtown commercial districts and the inclusion of economically depressed “outsider” groups. Participants — who were architects, urban planners, and leaders in culture and civil society from the United States and Japan — shared what has worked and what hasn’t, as well as presenting problems that have yet to be resolved.

Then in February of 2008, the U.S.-Japan Innovators Network is organizing a public symposium titled For Profit, For Good: Integrating Social Value into the Bottom Line in Tokyo, with keynote speaker Jim Donald, President & CEO, Starbucks. Co-organized by the Japan Society of New York, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun and The Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, this symposium will explore new approaches being taken by both U.S. and Japanese companies that go beyond traditional corporate social responsibility by integrating social innovation with the profit motive.

Moving forward, such new-style collaborative efforts can do much to create social value and catalyze change for a better future in both Japan and the U.S. Given the challenges and stakes at hand, there has never been a better time for exploring new ideas and directions.

Debbie Howard is President of Japan Market Resource Network and Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

Originally Published in Nikkei Weekly, 17th December 2007

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