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Ex-bureaucrat on mission to trigger technological revolution

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Staff Writer

Almost a decade before the March 2011 quake and tsunami triggered the triple core meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Ko Fujii knew the government could not effectively communicate the risks of nuclear technology.

He should know — back then, Fujii was a government bureaucrat in the then-Science and Technology Agency whose job was to design nuclear technology policy. This included liability legislation for the fatal 1999 criticality accident at a uranium-processing plant in the village of Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture — the site of Japan’s first nuclear accident resulting in deaths by radiation exposure.

Even before Tokai, the government was up to its neck in nuclear technology issues: It was under attack for lack of transparency and an attempted cover-up after a sodium leak caused a fire at the Monju fast-breeder prototype reactor in Fukui Prefecture, and having a rough time persuading Aomori residents to host an experimental fuel-reprocessing plant in the village of Rokkasho.

While these issues were brewing, the fatal chain reaction debacle at Tokai struck, escalating public distrust of Japan’s atomic safety mantra.

While bureaucrats are primarily tasked with managing budgets and drafting legislation, Fujii learned from his government experience that better communication among regulators, providers and the public is indispensable to adopting any type of disruptive or new technology, atomic energy included.

“Transparency and accountability are needed to build public consensus about controversial technologies, Fujii, 44, said. “In order to do so, strategic communication, such as public relations, stakeholder engagement and social marketing, are necessary.”

Whether better communication would have changed the fate of Fukushima No. 1 is debatable, but 15 years after the Tokai accident, Fujii found himself launching his own company, a strategic communications firm called Makaira, to promote new technologies.

Unlike other communications firms, many of which are based on traditional business models, Fujii’s company focuses on what he calls “innovation advocacy.”

According to Fujii, the idea is to analyze the social impact of advancing technologies and connect the innovating businesses with the policymakers and government officials who are in position to facilitate their use, while waging effective public relations campaigns to promote community acceptance of the inventions.

“Our job is to help new ideas and technology gain public support, and to form policies to accommodate such changes,” said Fujii. “But it is very hard to do this in Japan,” he said, noting the shortage of people capable of communicating such ideas.

He said he hopes to solve social issues by cheerleading social innovation and finding “soft-landing solutions” for cutting-edge technology firms and entrepreneurs often viewed with hostility by legacy businesses, many of which are protected by government regulations.

Fujii launched his business at a time when the world is taking advantage of the tremendous benefits of advanced technology while feeling threatened by their disruptive nature at the same time.

For example, the emerging sector of financial technology, or “fintech,” is expected to streamline financial services by making them more efficient while simultaneously eliminating jobs in the industry.

In the “sharing economy,” online transportation startup Uber is unnerving many in the taxicab industry, where it is gaining market share by taking away Internet-savvy customers and testing dynamic pricing techniques.

Lodging service Airbnb is meanwhile competing head to head with traditional hotels and claims to have attracted more than 60 million customers worldwide. Investors had poured $15 billion into the firm as of the end of last year.

A technological revolution is exactly what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government needs to revive the economy, which was once king of the hill after developing such innovative products as the Sony Walkman music player.

But the widely panned “third arrow” of his Abenomics program, which promised structural reform, remains a failure because Japanese lobbyists have successful protected special interests and existing businesses who are concerned that Abe’s policies will take away their profits.

This leaves the status quo intact. Blue chip companies have long had the funds to create favorable business environments for themselves, while Keidanren (the Japan Business Federation) and Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA)have been the guardians of many special interests. And Japanese media outlets end up promoting their policies because they are owned by the same big corporations and swayed by their interests.

Yet Fujii said the advent of the Internet has empowered the public, spawning new enterprises that can thrive outside traditional business circles. It also has created a need for specialized advocacy groups who can get the word out on their behalf.

The recent formation of the new business lobby called the Japan Association of New Economy, led by Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani, is a good example of the change taking place in Japan’s lobbying industry. That is because its members scoff at the idea of joining the old boys’ club.

Fujii is a firm believer in science, technology and innovation. He started his career at the Science and Technology Agency because he wanted to develop policies that connect society with science.

After witnessing the government’s lack of risk communication ability, Fujii decided to take a leave of absence to earn an MBA at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He chose the Kellogg school because he was impressed by the concept of “social marketing,” which Kellogg professor Phillip Kotler wrote a book on.

At Kellogg, he focused on marketing and public nonprofit organization management because he thought he could use the disciplines to help citizens’ groups mobilize society.

After returning to Tokyo in 2005, the agency put Fujii in charge of negotiating with the United States on digital content rights. From this experience, Fujii learned that American lobbying groups were much more effective than their Japanese counterparts at strategic PR and marketing.

“In order to launch a new industry in Japan, especially in the ITC (information and communication technology) sector, I thought the private sector had to have people with know-how in formulating international rules,” he said.

Fujii later found himself working for public relations firm Fleishman Hilliard, and then Google, where he became head of government policy issues.

For Fujii, Google was the optimal place for promoting civic innovation through technology, especially after the 3/11 calamity. It was there where he got involved in projects to help disaster victims via e-commerce, linking various parties with those capable of providing technological assistance.

After almost four years at Google, Fujii again did something most Japanese would not — he left the world’s most innovative and lucrative company to start his own firm.

“As a former public servant, I have the desire to change Japan for the better,” he said. “I am not a protectionist, nor am I trying to eliminate foreign businesses; I simply want to root for Japanese companies, (which) have much potential to offer globally.”

Even though his innovation advocacy business might sound similar to a traditional lobbying firm, Fujii said there is a big difference.

Unlike Keidanren, Fujii says he doesn’t engage in “rent-seeking,” or the process of helping existing businesses expand their wealth without generating new wealth elsewhere. He thus rejects projects that are not in line with his philosophy.

“I think simple lobbying activities make money, but I am not trying to make money by creating a public affairs industry,” he said. “I want to be part of a movement whereby, through new technology, social entrepreneurs and NGOs change the world.”


Key events in Fujii’s life

1981-1986 — Moves to Chicago, attends elementary school and junior high school in Illinois.
1996 — Graduates from University of Tokyo.
1999 — Entes Science and Technology Agency.
2005 — Graduates from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
2007 — Hired by Fleishman-Hillard Japan.
2010 — Hired by Google Japan, becomes head of public policy and government relations.
2014 — Founds communications firm Makaira.
2016 — Appointed outside director at Cookpad.

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews that appears 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