Understanding Social Enterprises in Japan

Posted on September 28, 2017

Pictured: Bethel House and their packaged Kelp

In September 2017, Maggie McNicholas (Fountain House Social Enterprise Initiative Director) visited Japan with Elliott Madison (Fountain House Program Director) to explore various social enterprise programs. This trip was coordinated thanks to the assistance of Professor Jim Mandiberg from the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. 

Since I started working at Fountain House, I have heard about the excellent social enterprises in Japan. Having now seen them first hand, I can assure you that the stories are true! Throughout this article I will discuss many of my takeaways, but the biggest takeaway is best described by a quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” Now using this quote may sound a bit cheesy, but the success of the social enterprise programs, in Hokkaido, are a direct result of the small communities of people dedicated to the advancement of people living with mental illness. It was truly inspiring.

Our journey began in Obihiro, Hokkaido with an organization called the Obihiro Care Center. They started the social enterprise program back in the seventies, with a group of people leaving the hospital. From the very beginning, the founder thought that working was an essential part of recovery and wanted everyone to have the opportunity to work. In order to meet the employment placements necessary for program participants, they decided to start social enterprises.

We began our tour by looking at their farming business. The farm is quite large and yields approximately 800 pounds of produce each year. The various jobs range from harvesting produce, inspecting the produce for quality, and readying everything for sale.  Once the products are ready, people sell it at farmers markets throughout the city. As we walked through the large shed, you could see people chatting as they diligently worked.

The second largest business is a bakery. The bakery focuses on making cookies for businesses throughout the city. The cookies tasted sensational! Coincidently, they were decorated with dried flowers that looked very similar to designs from our Horticulture Unit. From there we saw the other businesses that the Care Center operates. This included a gift shop in the Mayor’s Office and municipal buildings, a café in the City Library, and a small restaurant. All of these businesses have personalized touches and offer quality products.

Mr. Kadoya san, the founder of the Obihiro Care Center was a wonderful host. He took the time to explain his thoughts and process in building the social enterprise program. His goal is to continue expanding social enterprises throughout the city.   

The next part of our trip took us to Urakawa, Hokkaido to learn about Bethel House's social enterprise program. Professor Mukaiyachi and a group of people released from the hospital started the social enterprises in the seventies. Bethel House launched their social enterprise program for many reasons, but the main reason was due to the lack of employment opportunities in the city. Urakawa is one of the poorest cities in Japan. Because of this the founders, knew if they were going to obtain community employment opportunities they would have to create them. The first social enterprise established was a seaweed packaging business. The type of seaweed cultivated in Urakawa is specifically used for miso soup and to flavor broths. Needless to say, the seaweed tasted delicious! Other products have also been introduced to their portfolio, including tea and woven items.

I was most impressed by Bethel House's restaurant in the heart of the city. The restaurant's modern/ industrial chic design was beautiful. Sitting in this restaurant you wouldn't be able to tell if you were in Urakawa or SoHo. The food was absolutely delicious and very inexpensive, even for Urakawa standards. I ordered a chirashi bowl and it only cost $5.00!

Obihiro Care Center and Bethel House’s social enterprise programs are quite different, but both with their own merits. Obihiro Care Center established multiple enterprises, while Bethel House focused their efforts on just a few businesses. I thought the diversity of work Obihiro offered was very beneficial to the community. Bethel House focused more on establishing a sense of community amongst the employees. If someone needed help, a fellow employee would be there to assist. It seemed as if both organizations hold many of the same core beliefs that Fountain House does.

I think this trip was worthwhile on many levels. We are now exploring a seaweed import business with Bethel House. The concept behind the business is for Bethel House to send us the seaweed and we would package and sell it to high end Japanese restaurants, throughout New York City. We could potentially make seaweed chips as a second revenue stream.

The trip also provided a great educational experience, complete with best practices and different successful processes utilized in their mental health social enterprises. Perhaps the best part about the trip was the partnerships we built with the two organizations. We now have friends to learn from and share our successes and hardships with. Surprisingly, very few social enterprises in the United States solely focus on serving the mental health community. Therefore I think this partnership is very valuable.

Both organizations successfully established group placements within their businesses. I would like to explore the feasibility of Fountain House’s Social Enterprise Initiative establishing similar types of placements.  I am hopeful we can do this with Rockdove Industrial Services and Clever Cheetah Catering. 

All in all, I thought this was a great experience in helping us think through ideas on both the macro and micro level of our Social Enterprise Initiative.

Maggie McNicholas 

Awards + Recognition

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