Kenji Sekine might have ended up as a wine importer at a supermarket chain in Tokyo had it not been for a chance encounter with a Palestinian boy during a trip to the Middle East in early 1999.
Sekine, 39, is the founder and president of the Fukuoka-based film distribution company United People, which has introduced independent films that address social, political and environmental issues.
The Kanagawa Prefecture native says everything started during that solo trip to the strife-ridden region he took after studying in a U.S. college.
A wine lover with no particular interest in world affairs at the time, Sekine set off on a winery-hopping tour after graduating from Beloit College in Wisconsin and before starting work in the wine section of a Tokyo supermarket.
Through a bizarre chain of the events, he was invited to stay a few nights at the home of a Japanese woman who was a volunteer nurse at a hospital in the Gaza Strip. One day when he had a chance to play soccer with the children on the street, he asked a 13-year-old boy about his dreams.
“To develop bombs and kill as many enemies as possible,” Sekine recalled the boy saying in English.
The brief exchange — followed by his futile attempt to persuade the boy otherwise — made a huge impact on him, he says, eventually leading to his decision to set up a company to help “solve the world’s problems,” including poverty, starvation and pollution.
“After that incident, I could no longer continue the tour as planned,” Sekine, dressed in casual business attire, his long black hair tied into a ponytail, recalled in a recent interview in Tokyo. “I came back to Japan with a heavy weight on my chest.”
It took a few years, however, before he was really ready to start a social business.
After coming back from the Middle East, Sekine started working as planned at the supermarket in Tokyo, but quit in less than a year when he learned he was going to be trained as a meat merchandiser, not a wine importer.
Then, as the so-called Bit Valley IT boom of the early 2000s arrived, with a series of young IT entrepreneurs, including Livedoor’s Takafumi Horie, shooting to fame, the Web-savvy Sekine joined the wave. Working at an Internet startup in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, he was tasked with building a new website that awarded shoppers with points that could be traded for goods.
Soon after completing the project, he collapsed on the floor of his office from overwork. Finding himself in a hospital bed tied to an intravenous drip, he said he remembered his experience in Gaza and decided to focus on what he wanted to do: help create a world free of war and other social ills.
In 2002, Sekine quit the IT venture and set up his own company. The first thing he did was use his Web-marketing expertise for social good.
In May 2003, he developed a website where individuals could donate points collected from online shopping to NGOs and NPOs engaged in international aid work. He said he was desperate to do something after watching news reports about the U.S.-led coalition that invaded Iraq earlier that year and removed Saddam Hussein from power.
The website, which he named e-kokoro (e-heart), got off to a rough start, however.
“I thought I could raise something like ¥100 million easily through the website, but during the first six months through the end of 2003, the total amount of money donated was ¥20,000,” he said. “I thought I could just donate that amount, myself.”
But he never gave up. Little by little, the site became popular, and it raised ¥10 million in donations in 2007, and ¥20 million the following year. The business was structured so that his company received the amounts matching the donations from sponsor shopping sites.
Sekine attributes the dramatic turnaround of his business to growing public consciousness in the mid-2000s of such concepts as “social entrepreneurship” and CSR, or corporate social responsibility.
“The Grameen Bank set up by Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize (for his efforts to offer small, noncollateralized loans to the poor) in 2006,” he said. “And in Japan, with the fall of Livedoor founder Horie (convicted of securities and exchange law violations), people began to think it’s not just money that matters.”
In 2008, Sekine launched the online petition website ShomeiTV. Until he closed it in February 2014, the site allowed anyone to launch petitions and collect signatures. Past campaigns included one by patients of a rare disease seeking financial support from the government, and another by fans of a TV news program who were lobbying its network to keep it on the air.
In 2009, Sekine started the film distribution business. The first film he introduced in Japan was “The Whirlpool,” a Bangladeshi fiction film on street children made by a local NGO that was offering outdoor classes to them. The proceeds from the film’s screenings were donated to the group.
Sekine has distributed around 20 films since then. He always organizes talk sessions around screenings so people can discuss and exchange ideas after watching them.
“Films can have a great impact on society,” Sekine said of his move to enter the film business. “I think their power to appeal to people’s emotions and change the world is enormous.”
Then came the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, and the subsequent triple core meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
At that time, Sekine, married and with two children, was just about to move his office-cum-home to a town in Chiba Prefecture to shift to a more farming-oriented life. But as the sense of uncertainty and government distrust grew over the handling of the nuclear crisis, Sekine and his family decided to move to Fukuoka in May 2012.
“I feel bad when I think about people who were unable to move even if they wanted to,” he said. “But our minds were set then on avoiding health risks for our children (from radioactive fallout from the plant), even if the chances of them getting cancer went up by as little as 1 percent.”
The Fukushima disaster also led to Sekine’s interest in renewable energy, which led to his release in Japan later in 2011 of the documentary “The 4th Revolution — Energy Autonomy,” directed by German journalist Carl Fechner.
Recent political developments in Japan have made peace advocates like Sekine worried.
Last month, the Diet passed the government’s contentious security bills despite massive protests in front of the building and elsewhere, paving the way for Japanese troops to fight in defense of an ally under armed attack, even when Japan itself is not, and opening the legal door to its first use of armed force overseas since World War II.
Sekine said Japan is now at a critical juncture in history.
“Our democracy is being tested,” he said. “With the enactment of the bills, there is a higher risk of Japan being dragged into war. We should take the laws as a warning to start imagining what could happen to us.”
What’s most important, he said, is to pay more attention to what’s going on around the world. The film he is currently showing, “Return to Homs,” is a 2013 documentary about two youths living in the besieged city in western Syria.
“I’m worried something horrible might happen to Japanese before next year’s Upper House election, now that the Islamic State militants have said they will target Japanese abroad,” he said.
But it’s too early to despair, Sekine said, adding that the lowering of the voting age to 18 for the election offers a good chance for voters, nearly half of whom don’t usually go to the polls, to become more politically active.
“True, the reality is severe and can easily make us pessimistic,” he said. “But the potential for change is enormous. During the war, rakugo (comic storytellers) were banned from performing on stage, and people critical of the government were thrown into jail and left to die there.
“We haven’t gone that far yet, and letters remain uncensored. We still have a free and democratic society. I believe we can carve out a future for ourselves if we remain hopeful, speak our minds and propose ideas — creatively and positively.”
Key events in Kenji Sekine’s life
1998 — Graduates from Beloit College.
1999 — Visits Gaza Strip; joins Tokyo-based supermarket chain.
2000 — Joins IT venture Axiv.com (now Voyage Group).
2001 — Joins IT company CyberAgent; hospitalized for overwork.
2002 — Establishes Da Vinci Internet.
2003 — Launches donation website e-kokoro but only raises ¥21,713.
2007 — Company’s name changed from Da Vinci to United People; e-kokoro raises ¥10 million.
2008 — Launches petition website ShomeiTV.
2009 — Starts film distribution business, releases feature film on Bangladeshi street children.
2011 — Launches United for Peace Film Festival, solicits peace-themed videos of up to 5 minutes.
2015 — E-kokoro closes after raising ¥122 million.
“Generational Change” is a series of interviews that appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to email@example.com
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