As Japan tries to mobilize underemployed workers and revitalize business outside major city centers like Tokyo and Osaka, crowdsourcing — the allocation of tasks to remote workers online — may become a valuable tool.
Crowdsourcing has blossomed with the advent of the online economy, and the United States has become a hotbed of activity for crowdsourcing platforms — companies that connect clients with willing workers.
The past several years have seen crowdsourcing flourish in Japan, too. Such platforms have secured capital from major global investors, and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry noted the benefits of crowdsourcing in its 2014 White Paper on small- and midsize enterprises.
Leaders of major Japanese platforms say the value placed on long-term employment and complex hierarchies in the work culture means crowdsourcing faces challenges gaining acceptance. But it also holds great potential to help harness the talents of capable people who have been left behind by the nation’s traditional employment system.
Mothers of young children are one such group, said Yosuke Akiyoshi, CEO of Lancers Co., which taps some 420,000 registered workers to help deliver on projects in areas as diverse as design and writing.
Crowdsourcing could even help reverse the migration of businesses and people to Tokyo from other regions of the country, Akiyoshi said, pointing to a major goal of the government’s new five-year policy plan.
“The stable income gained when Tokyo firms’ tasks are outsourced to the regions gives people incentives to move outward, and this return of people in turn reinvigorates local economies,” he said.
With the proportion of workers who enjoy permanent employment likely to slip below 50 percent next year, society has started to pay close attention to ways to move on from “the 20th century working model,” said Koichiro Yoshida, CEO of Crowdworks Co.
His company heads an industry body that aims to ensure high standards at crowdsourcing platforms and grow the number of “crowdworkers” to 10 million by 2018 and 20 million by 2023.
Japan’s growing ranks of retirees make excellent crowdworkers, Yoshida said, adding that the oldest on his books is 85.
Translation is one occupation ideally suited to crowdsourcing because it helps Japanese businesses provide services in multiple languages.
Many firms have avoided using translation services because of costs and delays, said Robert Laing, CEO of Gengo, a Tokyo-based translation company built on crowdsourcing. But his company is working to change that.
Gengo provides services to more than 2,000 mainly Japanese clients each month, many of which are small and midsize enterprises that do not need high-level technical translations.
“They just want to communicate, and we’ve got a price point and turnover time that’s extremely fast — an hour or two and you can get on with your day,” Laing said.
Larger firms are already starting translation work in the run-up to the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo, and Laing expects a further rush of smaller businesses in the years leading up to the games.
Some crowdsourcing workers in Japan have turned the method into a full-time career, allowing them to earn as much as they would in a lucrative position at a major company. But such workers are in the minority, the industry leaders said.
The largest group falls outside the traditional Japanese employment system. They can improve their livelihoods while allowing society to benefit from their previously untapped potential, Akiyoshi said.
Analysts overseas have raised concerns that crowdsourcing is much kinder to the clients than the workers, who might have to put up with a substandard income and miss out on networking opportunities and other benefits that come with a conventional job. But Crowdworks’ Yoshida said such pitfalls can be avoided in Japan if crowdsourcing companies act responsibly.
“Japanese businesses value process as well as results, and we find clients are willing to pay more for quality and build relationships of trust with the workers,” Yoshida said.
Lancers makes sure crowdworkers can obtain references from clients for completed projects, which can reveal more about their competence than a traditional resume.
Akiyoshi said his mission is ultimately to change the way Japanese society views freelance work so it is considered a fourth option to permanent, contract and temporary employment.
“Just as people overcame their resistance to smartphones once they became more familiar with them, we hope that as people become more familiar with crowdsourcing they will see the doors it opens and how it can become an invaluable part of business in Japan.”