Business

Sharing economy conference explores global phenomenon from Japan perspective

by Masumi Koizumi

Staff Writer

From transportation to holiday homes, the “sharing economy” is gaining traction worldwide, and in typhoon- and earthquake-prone Japan the concept is increasingly seen as instrumental to disaster management.

On Monday this year’s Share Summit, one of the largest public-private conferences in Japan on the burgeoning sector, featured 11 panel discussions on hot topics including the role of sharing services in disaster in the nation, which has been struck by multiple powerful typhoons this year alone.

Takuya Hirai, former minister in charge of information technology policies and currently chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s special committee on advancing digital society, said during the discussion that the potential of the sharing economy when coping with disasters is “tremendous.”

For example, bicycle-sharing offers one avenue for evacuations because the public transit system would be knocked out, Hirai said during the event, which was hosted by the Sharing Economy Association at the Toranomon Hills complex in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. The Japan Times was a media partner of the event.

For disaster victims, there are battery-sharing and medical consultation services such as Leber — an app developed by startup Agree Inc., Hirai said, adding that crowdfunding and crowdsourcing can also be tapped for post-disaster reconstruction.

Airbnb Inc.’s Japan unit also launched a service that connected hosts willing to provide free accommodations to evacuees after the major earthquakes in 2016 in Kumamoto Prefecture. Asked what issues need to be addressed to make these sharing services part of social infrastructure, Mika Yamamoto, Airbnb Japan’s public policy manager, said that people should be familiar with the services before disasters happen.

“It is very important for hosts and guests to use the service (before disaster ever happens),” Yamamoto said.

Although services such as shared bicycles and flea markets have been more visible in Japan in recent years, some polls show that they may not have deeply penetrated consumers’ lives. A May survey conducted by a PwC Consulting joint venture on 10,029 people age 16 to 70-something found that 84.6 percent said they “have never used sharing economy services,” while 15.4 percent said they had. The corresponding figures for 2018 were 86.7 percent and 13.3 percent, respectively.

Subscription services were another hot topic of the discussion. The scope of such services has recently been expanded to include unlimited access to digital content provided through distribution platforms, rental clothing and all-you-can-drink plans at restaurants for a monthly fee.

During a panel discussion under the theme of “a move from owner to user,” Satoshi Amanuma, president and CEO of clothing rental company airCloset Inc., said that subscription services in general are “in a transition period.”

“It’s not a matter of whether everything is being (shared) or the ownership concept in this capitalist society is completely disappearing,” Amanuma contended. He said that when e-commerce first appeared, many thought it would replace brick-and-mortar businesses. But we still have both, he noted, and it would be the same for subscription and ownership — at least for the foreseeable future.

Amanuma said that the important thing when designing a subscription service model was to determine what “the essential value of the service is for customers.” Wearing brand-name clothes can be one such value, he said.

Fellow panelist Shoji Kodama, CEO of high-end handbag rental company Laxus Technologies Inc., also has a similar view.

“Until five years ago, people believed luxury handbags should be owned,” Kodama said, adding that he thinks this notion is mistaken.

The value lies in “using” a handbag, Kodama said, not owning it.