U.K. firms find new ways to mutually help Tohoku

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo

British companies operating in Japan have devised a unique program to reinvigorate businesses in Tohoku affected by the 2011 natural and nuclear disasters.

Members of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan raised ¥8.3 million to fund a range of projects designed to get small firms and communities back on their feet in the northeast following the March 2011 quake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns.

Lori Henderson, executive director of the BCCJ, said in an interview that British companies have been keen to show solidarity with the people of Tohoku and that she hopes this cooperation will long continue.

In the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, firms including GlaxoSmithKline PLC, Unilever PLC, Jaguar Land Rover Ltd. and HSBC Holdings PLC sent supplies and money to the shattered northeast, while some of the BCCJ’s 750 members, representing around 200 companies, assisted with relief operations.

Over the following months, the BCCJ members traveled to disaster areas to identify businesses and communities requiring specific assistance from the chamber’s Back To Business, or B2B, initiative.

Among the various projects undertaken, the BCCJ has helped to kit out temporary markets, community halls and cafes as well as to purchase freezers for local fishermen.

It also set up a bilingual website to connect communities from the stricken areas with potential donors, both foreign and Japanese.

Although the financial aid offered has been relatively small, the BCCJ initiative is unique among foreign chambers of commerce in Japan and relief efforts by the international community.

“We were delivering to a human need. When you have nothing . . . you need something to help you get up in the morning and you can’t hear these stories without wanting to help,” said Henderson, adding that all the projects were designed to act as a spur for economic activity.

The British contribution has led to “some small wins,” said Henderson, who visited London to brief The Japan Society on the initiative, but she admitted that a full recovery in Tohoku is still a distant goal.

The BCCJ is also willing to act as a conduit for British firms interested in setting up operations in the stricken areas of Tohoku. Among such businesses, Henderson noted that handmade cosmetics firm Lush has been actively employing elderly local residents and using locally grown vegetables in its products.

She further believes links between the two countries have been reinforced by the willingness of the British Embassy and British companies to stand firm and continue to operate in the aftermath of the disasters.

“Britain has been there throughout and the Japanese, more than anyone, value staying power and resilience. There may well be opportunities for British companies in the future based on this,” she said.

Henderson feels the crisis has, to some extent, also galvanized the British business community and noted that the number of BCCJ members is on the rise.

Turning to Japan’s economy, she believes British businesses are feeling “things are moving” forward and that the “mood is positive.”