Beyond Tomorrow – Shaping Great Leaders from Great Adversity

Written by Jacinta Plucinski, Be Movement issue 3 – JAPAN, published March 2014

Established 3 months after the earthquake, BEYOND Tomorrow cultivates the leadership potential within the students of Tohoku, enabling them to transform their hardship into opportunity.

The organisation provides leadership training programmes and scholarships to top universities in Japan, United States and Europe, giving students the chance to develop into socially conscious global citizens, lead others and pursue their dreams.

Voted by Nikkei WOMAN magazine as one of Japan’s Woman of the Year in 2013, executive director Minami Tsubouchi shares her insights on BEYOND Tomorrow’s first three years.

Can you describe your journey with BEYOND Tomorrow?
We started BEYOND Tomorrow in June 2011, 3 months after the disaster.

When the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami happened, I was actually not in Japan. I lived in Bahrain. I was working for the Bahrain Economic Development Board. So I learned about the tsunami and tragedy that followed on CNN and BBC just like everyone else.

To be very honest with you, at that time in Bahrain, there was the Arab Spring happening. There was shooting and an uprising going on right in front of my apartment building. People got killed.

So the tsunami and the earthquake that happened in Japan felt a little bit further than what was happening right in front of my eyes. The physical distance was so much closer in Bahrain.

These two historic events happened within the same month… and really made me think about what I should be doing in life.

As a foreigner living in Bahrain, there wasn’t much I could do to bring about change. There was so much complexity around it [the Arab Spring].

[But] when I thought about what was going on in Japan, I thought there might be something I might be able to do.

I had always been interested in the concept of dialogue and leadership development.

I started discussing with friends who were active in different fields in Japan. We reached consensus that we wanted to do something for Tohoku and for the younger generation.

I started thinking maybe I can combine my longstanding interest in leadership development with the need in Tohoku. Young students in Tohoku went through such unimaginable grief they should be able to stand up with a sense of compassion that this could happen anywhere.

These students might have strong potential.

So we might be able to take adversity as an opportunity – turn the adversity into [the ability] to take action and think about people in need around the world.

[So] I quit my job and came back to Japan.

3 years later, are the youth rising up to the challenge?

It was my first time engag[ing] with high school students. So I was actually intimidated – I was frightened when I was first meeting high school students from Tohoku.

What we learned first that was most striking, was that they had such little exposure, even before the disaster: growing up on coastal areas, having little information or access to opportunities. For example, if they were interested in medicine, they [only] think about becoming a doctor or nurse. But there are [other] opportunities, marketing for pharmaceutical companies [or] policy making in global health. There are so many things they could do based on their interest. Their environment is limited.

How are the youth on coastal areas different to those in cities such as Tokyo?
It’s more interesting and fun to talk to students in coastal areas. Students in cities are more sophisticated. They know what to say.

Students in, say Tokyo, might have more information… [a] more sophisticated understanding of social issues but it may not come from their own experience or their own need.

Tohoku kids are more genuine. Their sense [of] social issues comes from their own experience. Through the disaster they started recognising social issues inherent in their communities.

In Tohoku, they see people leaving communities and not coming back. They see temporary housing set up after the disaster still lingering there, old people living there with little support. So they feel the problem themselves. Their way of identifying social issues is more genuine. They feel a mission to act on these issues.

But they’re not the best communicators.

Is that where you help?
Yes. For our scholarship programme, we have close to thirty students all from Tohoku. Many of them had severe experiences, having lost their parents, their homes, their schools.

How do you fund these programmes?
We receive donations from companies and private foundations. We are 100% privately funded so we don’t receive any governmental money.

It just happened that way. We’re not rejecting government funding, we’d be happy to take any [laughs].

Is this model sustainable?
There are a lot of funding challenges. I definitely feel the situation around civil society [in Japan] is getting better. When I first joined a non-profit back in 2002, there was a perception that non-profits are all [run by] volunteers, it’s a charity, it doesn’t need to be professional. But a lot of great people have been doing great things in the non-profit sector. I feel people’s perception is changing [and] companies are more comfortable putting money into non-profit activities.

[But] even if this was not non-profit, I would still be interested in leadership development and dialogue. We could start charging students. The only reason we maintain non-profit status now is because our students just can’t afford it. I feel our society needs to invest in something like this if the beneficiaries themselves aren’t able to afford it.

If the students were able to afford it, I think that would be best. But the reality in Tohoku is that the students can’t. So should we just not do it? I think we should, with society supporting them.

What does the future hold for BEYOND Tomorrow?
When we look into the future, we’d love to replicate what we learned and what we achieved in Tohoku to other parts of the world.

There must be others who are suffering equally, just like our students did in Tohoku. If we could create a big voice bringing these youths together, we could turn this into a regional initiative.






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