Amid the government’s fight with the issue of Japan’s aging society, and concerns over whether it can truly cope with the problems involved — including worker shortages in the nursing care sector — one young entrepreneur may have found the key.

Entrepreneur Kaai Akimoto, 24, runs a business that nurtures the young talent who may one day oversee the nursing care sector for decades to come.

Welfare ministry figures announced in June show that the worker shortage is fast approaching. According to that data, the number of elderly people needing care in fiscal 2025 is estimated to stand at 2.53 million, while the number of nursing care workers is expected to be 2.15 million, a shortfall of nearly 380,000 workers.

“I’d like to create a society in which each individual exercises leadership to address issues in the field of nursing care,” said Akimoto, founder of Join for Kaigo, which means “join nursing care.”

Launched in April 2013, her firm holds events targeting 20-somethings in hopes of boosting interest in the nursing care industry, and in turn the number of young people working in it.

Akimoto wants young talent to take the lead in the nursing industry for several reasons.

“One is that young people are able to come up with innovative ideas that are unhindered by rigid points of view, because they have less experience, for better or worse,” Akimoto said. “The other is that it can connect people of different generations and different industries, as they are free of constraints.”

Part of Join for Kaigo’s main business is called “Heisei Kaigo Leaders,” roughly translated as “nursing care sector leaders in the Heisei era (the current era in Japan).” Its goal is to spread awareness of the sector among young people and motivate them to pursue careers in it.

Even though Akimoto has now fully committed her time to the betterment of the industry, she was not a nursing care major and originally had no interest in the field when she began college.

Born in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture, she entered Senshu University’s faculty of commerce in Kawasaki in April 2010 after graduating from a local public high school.

Akimoto’s freshman year passed “all too soon,” she says, as she was busy with classes, part-time jobs and club activities.

“I really had fun going out with friends and also enjoyed playing sports and attending club parties,” she recalled.

With a carefree first year out of the way, Akimoto felt she needed to do something for her future as she began her second year. In April 2011 she joined an intercollegiate society of students aspiring to be entrepreneurs, which she found via social media.

The casual decision wound up changing the course of her life by turning her on to the nursing care industry.

As part of the group, students formed teams and worked on specific business plans through lectures and practice.

“I was on a team that happened to pursue something in the field of nursing care for the elderly,” Akimoto said.

The team was made up of four students, two of which had grandmothers suffering from dementia. One case was so extreme that the grandmother did not recognize her own grandchild, Akimoto said.

“The two shared an understanding of dementia through a common hardship,” she said. “They felt strongly that they wanted to do something about it.”

After learning that communication can help to prevent dementia, they decided to publish a free newspaper that could serve as a communication tool for those with the disease.

After considerable preparation that involved raising funds from nursing care firms and facilities and getting help from art school students with the design and contents, the team published the first issue in April 2012.

Dubbed Magokoro (grandchildren’s humanity), the bimonthly paper was distributed to nursing care facilities and the offices of care managers, Akimoto said. Initially around 3,000 copies were printed, with that number eventually rising to 5,000.

Even though Magokoro went on to win second place in a student free paper competition that year, Akimoto and her teammates decided to discontinue it following the fourth edition in October.

“To be honest, I was not sure how the paper was of help,” Akimoto recalled. “Gradually, publishing the paper once every two months itself became a purpose.”

Despite the end of the free paper, her involvement with the nursing care sector did not end there.

Rather, through a part-time job at a small elderly day care facility in Tokyo, she came to see firsthand the difficulties the industry faces.

“Some family members abandoned their duty to care for elderly relatives at home, while some elderly people expressed wishes to die, as they felt they had caused trouble for family members,” Akimoto said.

“Besides that, some staff members at the facility quit after suffering from depression and others left just a week after starting the job. After two years, I was the second-longest serving staff member at the facility.”

Akimoto wondered how she could address these issues and concluded there was no way she would be able to resolve them alone.

She knew more people needed to be involved to truly tackle the problems.

But as Akimoto entered her final years of college, she began to notice a lack of awareness about nursing care among young people, as well as a limited chance for them to become engaged in the sector.

She said just a handful of friends and acquaintances her age seemed to have interest in the nursing care sector, especially after the devastating March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region. Many, she said, were involved in social activities including international cooperation and reconstruction support for area.

“I developed a sense of awareness of how few young people really knew about the nursing care industry,” Akimoto recalled. “I gradually felt I should do something to draw their attention, to attract young talent to the sector.”

When she was a senior, she arranged drinking sessions with other students interested in the sector to discuss areas of concern. It was these events that helped form the base of the current Heisei Kaigo Leaders.

After the April 2013 launch of Join for Kaigo, she held monthly networking events and lectures by people from related industries, the including medical, funeral service and robotics sectors.

“I wanted participants to broaden their perspectives,” Akimoto said. “If you only look at the nursing care sector, you’ll end up with a fixed ideal.”

A commemorative event celebrating the launch of the Heisei Kaigo Leaders in March 2014 drew about 110 young people from multiple sectors. And although this appeared to be a success, Akimoto saw things differently.

“I was not satisfied with the event,” she recalled. “I felt something was not right.

“I realized I was just an organizer of events after one year of activities,” she said. “Those events might have offered opportunities for participants to learn and meet, but that is totally different from the question of whether people were prompted to take action.”

Akimoto decided to suspend the activities of the Heisei Kaigo Leaders to consider what she really wanted to achieve. She began asking herself questions such as “What does it mean to form a community of young people?” and “What is leadership?”

During a hiatus from the Heisei Kaigo Leaders, Akimoto happened upon an educational method called My Project, which was invented by the laboratory of Keio University’s Hideyuki Inoue.

The method encourages people to realize a goal based on sheets describing their personal history and ensuing discussions with other participants in the My Project program, Akimoto said.

Akimoto said she went through My Project by herself, which gave her confidence that she had been on the right track to her goal. This January, she introduced the program to her own company.

Dubbed Kaigo My Project, it is a three-month program offered to people who have struggled with what they do or what they wish to do in the nursing care industry.

Akimoto said 41 people took part in Kaigo My Project. Mostly in their 20s, their occupations varied from students and nursing care workers to nurses and doctors.

The program helped instill some participants with a better sense of direction, according to Akimoto, including one nursing care worker who had battled depression. That worker, she said, was able to gain a stronger sense of self-confidence and work more efficiently after the program.

Now, Akimoto has lofty goals for Kaigo My Program.

“Participants in the short-term workshops that introduce the program stand at 500 now,” she said. “I’d like to increase that number to 1,000 by the end of March.”

That would eventually expand the community of Heisei Kaigo Leaders, who she says could take the helm in a growing nursing care industry.

“I have to consider carefully how to utilize this network of people,” Akimoto said.

Key events in Akimoto’s life

  • April 2010 — Entered Senshu University
  • April 2012 — Published a free paper for people with dementia and distributed it to nursing care facilities
  • May 2012 — Started a part-time job at a small elderly day care service facility
  • April 2013 — Launched Join for Kaigo, including the Heisei Kaigo Leaders as one of its businesses
  • January 2015 — Introduced Kaigo My Project

“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 hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

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