Young consultant Miai Kobayashi is striving to breathe new life into struggling communities.
The 29-year-old quit a job pushing paper in an elite stream of the civil service and joined a think tank, where she took on the task of rejuvenating areas saddled with aging and shrinking populations. This is a problem Japan has, in spades.
Now in her second year as a consultant, Kobayashi administers a range of projects and in particular is working to boost visitors to the Unazuki hot springs spa area of Kurobe, Toyama Prefecture.
Economically on hard times, the town is nevertheless in a spectacular location, at the foot of some of Japan’s loftiest mountains.
She advises a group of young local shopkeepers and inn managers who aim to set the region on a course of revival in the run-up to its 100th anniversary as a spa resort in 2023.
Unazuki’s fortunes grew in tandem with the development of the Kurobe River valley, epitomized by the construction upstream of the massive Kuro-yon dam. Under construction for the best part of a decade, the dam’s completion in 1963 was hailed as a symbol of Japan’s postwar economic revival.
Today, the streets of the resort are lined with aged buildings and shuttered shops.
The number of visitors to the Unazuki spa plummeted from 640,000 in 1990 to 290,000 in 2014. There was an uptick in 2015 thanks to the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line, but prospects for the 100th jubilee remain uncertain.
The region has many tourist attractions, including magnificent views of the Northern Alps. There is also a nostalgic train ride that climbs through the Kurobe valley.
Kobayashi found that the attractions are not being fully exploited to draw visitors. Ideas for enlivening the resort have been floated but went nowhere.
“What’s necessary,” Kobayashi thought, “is action.”
She assembled a team of women in their 20s from outside the region to focus on Unazuki. The objective was to identify ways the town could be energized again by appealing to one potential and influential customer base, young women.
Much research has shown that young women exert strong influence on certain types of spending in Japan, especially in travel, fashion and lifestyle. They do this by spotting “cool” new things and setting a trend.
Akihiko Nakashima, who heads the local group working with Kobayashi, said he has been encouraged by the ideas produced by the team of amateur advisers.
Experts in regional revitalization say what stagnant communities need to turn themselves around is enthusiastic out-of-towners who can break through stiff and often conflicted local interests that result in inertia.
Kobayashi finds her role is to motivate local people from the outside and to enable them to resolve problems on their own.
Bitter experience as a novice consultant from the world of officialdom has influenced her approach.
In her very first job the previous year, she attempted to sell — to an association of sake brewers in northern Japan — her ideas for boosting sake’s allure among young adults.
“My proposal document was like a smart promotional brochure assuring successful sales of sake,” Kobayashi said. But her clever logic and neat document met with “a blank stare” from the client.
What she learned from the experience was that it is important to understand the client by bonding with them through face-to-face contact.
After graduating from university, the Tokyo native obtained a job in the administrative office of the House of Representatives, and she worked for the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on assignment.
While at METI, she was involved in work related to legislation to revive Japanese industries.
After several years she became eager to “get out in the field and help people,” so she joined the Japan Research Institute, a major think tank and consulting agency.
Kobayashi now spends more than three weeks a month on the road as she shuttles between clients scattered across several regions, taking care of about 10 projects.
Her hope is to become a consultant who is more than just someone to consult with about making money.
“I want to be a person who thinks about communities, shares their concerns and is trusted by them.”