National / Media | Japan Pulse

Crowdfunding campaigns offer hope to ailing firms facing COVID-19 insolvency

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing writer

To truly get an idea of how much the COVID-19 pandemic seems poised to change life in Japan over the next few months or so, just take a few minutes to check out the hundreds of online crowdfunding drives currently in operation nationwide.

Campfire, Japan’s largest crowdfunding website, has created a devoted section featuring campaigns that help stores, artists and other institutions in need of financial assistance in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak. And even as many parts of the country begin to ease state of emergency restrictions, new campaigns are being launched on this site on a daily basis.

Many campaigns are proving to be successful — raising capital to save such institutions as an iconic horse meat restaurant, a prominent nightclub in Shibuya’s Dogenzka neighborhood and a creative workspace in Osaka, among others — and it’s both inspirational and comforting to see so many people work to save what’s important to them.

Yet, this crowdfunding push also reminds us of how much won’t be around in the coming months. While Japan has garnered an image of managing to avoid the worst of the pandemic — having done so without introducing any of the strict lockdown measures implemented in other countries — the reality is that COVID-19 is expected to change the way we behave for the foreseeable future.

As soon as the number of coronavirus cases started to grow in Japan in late March, businesses nationwide began devising ways to make money in the face of extended closures. While some outlets in the service sector offered customers the opportunity to redeem tickets for items such as apparel, vouchers for meals or drink tickets at some point in the future, the bulk of establishments facing financial ruin turned to Campfire as a way of keeping the lights on (aided by the site itself, which ditched its service charge for coronavirus-related projects). Campfire reported a 415 percent increase in use in April.

Understandably, a number of smaller ventures have turned to crowdfunding in a bid to protect themselves from insolvency. Many, like Club Asia in Shibuya, are eligible to receive subsidies from the government, and yet such financial assistance still isn’t enough to cover monthly rent payments during a global crisis with no end in sight.

As the situation has dragged on, though, it has been revealing to see just how many big name stores have arrived on Campfire. Harajuku fashion institution 6% Doki Doki launched a “Save Our Mother Ship” campaign in May aimed at making sure it can keep trading. Given the pop-cultural prominence of owner Sebastian Masuda and the influence his fashion has had overseas, this came as a bit of a surprise.

Still, many entities in Japan’s entertainment and hospitality industries need assistance. Professional wrestling organizations, basketball teams and the national aviation museum are among dozens that have launched crowdfunding campaigns in recent times. Many of the more prominent projects have already been successfully funded or look like they’ll get there well before their deadlines.

The problem is, though, that there are already hundreds of campaigns on Campfire alone and, for every successful drive, there are many others not approaching their goal. Individuals can only help so many of these entities survive the next couple of months, meaning a lot of places are going to vanish.

One of the best ways forward is collective action. “Save Koenji” reads the catch copy for one campaign, organized by two dozen businesses in the western Tokyo neighborhood.

This collaborative approach — working together to make sure entire neighborhoods are able to hold on to their charm in the future — has been catching on. Fukuoka food stalls launched a “Save The Yatai” drive that passed its goal without too much difficulty, while a coalition of shops in Tokyo’s Sangenjaya neighborhood has banded together to help raise funds as well. These campaigns have spread to other cities as well, with every success story offering a glimmer of hope to many more that may be struggling.

The pandemic has shown that businesses in Japan can turn to the internet in order to get by during uneasy times, but it is more of a Band-aid than an actual solution. As this has gone on, though, more groups of establishments are teaming up to find ways to make sure everyone can get through this in one piece — together.

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