What is the role of business in community resilience, as environmental disasters increase in frequency and intensity around the world? Japan - the world's third largest economy - is among the countries most geographically vulnerable to environmental challenges. At the same time, its infrastructure, technology, and innovation position it as an important global example, as countries around the world pursue environmental adaptation and resilience strategies.
In May 2023, five Notre Dame students and four faculty members traveled to Tokyo and Fukushima, Japan, to learn from those directly impacted by the 2011 triple disaster of an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown - one of the costliest global disasters in history.
Read on for a snapshot of the project, including connections with Deloitte Tohmatsu and other companies assisting in the recovery. Learn insights from Mendoza College of Business Professor Alfonso Pedraza-Martinez, an expert in humanitarian operations and disaster management, who offers guidance for companies. For a first-hand dispatch, we offer a reflection from Colin Linnen, Finance and Global Affairs '25.
Resilience & Recovery
Defined as "a measure of the sustained ability of a community to utilize available resources to respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations" (RAND Corporation), community resilience is increasingly under scrutinty by citizens and across sectors. Environmental disasters are increasing in the United States and globally, costs are skyrocketing, and innovative solutions are required for managing these challenges to equitable well-being for people and planet.
The faculty-student research team from Notre Dame met with small business owners, with community activists, and with scholars and students.
A theme throughout the visit was the need for communities to balance preserving tradition while also ensuring a more resilient future - by embracing innovation, technical advancements, and multisector collaboration - an approach relevant around the world as we develop resilient communities.
In Namie Town, one of the most devastated by the disasters, leaders are embracing the future with interactive taxi systems designed by Nissan, pursuing renewable energy via the world's largest hydrogen production facility, and nurturing small business development through cooperatives and incubators. For lessons learned, leaders in the region studied U.S. cases including Hurricane Katrina recovery. Challenges remain from within and outside. For example, as the region continues to navigate perceptions of radiation contamination that their products face through no fault of their own, farmers and fishermen with generations of managing small and large enterprises, and tremendous passion for the region, are hard at work building relationships among community members and with markets abroad.
The team witnessed business innovation first-hand in some of the coastal communities - from shoes made from fishnet derived from plastic waste in the ocean, to starfish "farms" sourcing starfish from the nets and using them to fertilize the soil. Business incubators allow university students to work alongside small business owners to use the newest technology to improve efficiencies.
In addition to engaging with the small business community, the Notre Dame team was also welcomed by some of the world’s largest companies, who used their resources to participate in the recovery.
In Tokyo, the team met with Deloitte Tohmatsu’s Reconstruction Support Office, the Just Do It! Initiative, which is dedicated to supporting the affected region with efforts as diverse as front-line emergency response to management training and support through leadership development with local industries. In the months after the disaster, Deloitte employees traveled from Tokyo to Fukushima on weekends for hands-on engagement with communities.
“The business leaders we interviewed emphasized that multinationals - with their resources, networks, unique skills and potential for impact - have a responsibility to play a part,” faculty member Jessica McManus said. “In addition to our time with Deloitte, during a previous trip our team met with Notre Dame alumnus Tim Andree ’83, who led Dentsu, one of the largest marketing and advertising agency companies in the world. Dentsu provided in-kind and training help to affected communities and leveraged its expertise to assist with evacuation trainings and other hands-on support. It’s gratifying and inspiring to see the business community involved with community recovery and resilience. Their role is key.”
Global Lessons on Resilience
Greg and Patty Fox Collegiate Professor of IT, Analytics, and Operations at the Mendoza College of Business Alfonso Pedraza-Martinez is an expert on humanitarian operations and disaster management.
Professor Pedraza-Martinez notes:
The business community plays a crucial role in responding to environmental disasters, and in preparing communities to be more resilient. This respnsibility is clearly stated in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. When it comes to environmental disaster response—or disaster response in general—we can consider local and broader responses. Local communities are the first responders to disasters, and businesses are part of these communities.
He goes on to note, "Local business are potential suppliers of relief items and services that can immediately assist victims. In addition, relief organizations and governmental organizations sign contracts with local businesses in areas that are prone to disasters. These contracts allow local businesses to reserve capacity for relief organizations to use it in case of emergency. Local businesses also provide donations and volunteers to help with evacuation and last mile distribution of aid. When it comes to disaster preparedness, businesses also play an important role. For example, local retailers can preposition inventory of basic commodities and relief items to facilitate a fast response. Moreover, they can commit to fight the price inflation that typically follows a disaster. When it comes to the mitigation of future disasters, businesses can help the economic recovery by staying in business and hiring local residents, which is central building block of community resilience. When it comes to the environment, local and businesses may improve their supply chain management to reduce their carbon footprint and help mitigate climate change. Better supply chain management not only reduces costs, but also carbon emissions."
Professor Pedraza-Martinez reminds us of the complexity of disasters:
"Disasters are large-scale events that can break entire communities. The response to such events needs the participation of multiple stakeholders including local, national, and in some cases international actors. An effective response begins with careful preparedness. In such complex environments like disaster response operations, many actors get together under stressful circumstances (they may have been affected by the disaster) with different objectives (e.g., profit vs nonprofit or military vs churches), with huge uncertainty about the demand for relief (how many people need aid or how many are unaccounted for), and with uncertainty about the remaining response capacity (how much inventory survived, what shelter areas are safe or what roads are blocked). Coordination is critical for all these actors to work together in ways that favor effectiveness and reduce duplication."
But it is very hard to coordinate actors that meet for the first time under disaster conditions, which is why coordination should start with preparedness.
"Fortunately, many countries and even local communities have disaster response plans in place. Those plans include the organizations (and businesses) that will interact in case of disaster. Some communities are even more proactive and exercise their plans to improve the coordination between stakeholders.
On the flip side, while most businesses are run by people with good hearts and willingness to help, unfortunately uncoordinated relief efforts may worsen the crisis. For example, if a local business decides to independently deliver aid to a neighborhood, they may overlap with another relief effort and end up giving twice to the same community. Why is this bad if this neighborhood still needs help? Well, there will be another neighborhood nearby that won’t receive help and this situation, which is not exceptional in uncoordinated response operations, may increase the feeling of inequity and result in public frustration or the perception of corruption in the system."
We also know that there are phases of disaster management:
The role of business changes depending on the phase of the disaster management cycle (preparedness, response, recovery, mitigation). Local business leaders would benefit from knowing the official disaster management plans of their communities and thinking about how they can participate in those plans at different phases. This is while keeping in mind the objectives of each phase. Disaster preparedness is about getting ready to face the scenario of a disaster. Disaster response is about alleviating human suffering in the aftermath of a disaster. Disaster recovery is about bringing the community back to the quality of life they enjoyed before the disaster. Disaster mitigation is about building back better to reduce the expected impact of future disasters.
As countries around the world manage increasing and more impactful disasters, collaboration and connections are key to more resilient communities.
Colin Linnen (ND '25, Finance & Global Affairs) offers reflections from his time in Japan as a member of the research team:
Many Sunday nights during high school my father and I would sit on the couch to watch “60 Minutes” stories of sadness, joy, and hope in order to satisfy our thirst for learning through the discovery of distant places, people, and events. In my classes at Notre Dame, we read case studies from around the world. But there is a difference between watching or reading about a place versus actually being immersed in the culture. Through a class on campus, I researched and learned about Fukushima prior to my arrival in the region. Yet my two weeks in Japan allowed me to experience the places, people, and events first hand - and these experiences, visuals, and conversations were an education like no other.
At the end of this journey, I was flooded with emotion at the hardships endured by the people of Fukushima after experiencing the 2011 triple disaster, yet the resiliency, hope, and optimism of the human spirit were apparent throughout the visit.
In March 2011, the Tōhoku region of Japan experienced an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. In our class Energy, Justice, & Fukushima, we sought to understand the disaster and the region through in-depth study. Our team consisted of a small group of faculty members and undergraduate students, each with a specialized focus. My interests, as a student studying Finance (Mendoza College of Business) and Global Affairs (Keough School of Global Affairs), were on the business community’s leadership in recovery. Our learning was wide-ranging. We were taught about nuclear fission and reactors at a very basic level. We discussed the strengths and shortcomings of business leaders and the media in Japan surrounding the disaster. We were introduced to Japanese culture through basic language and etiquette lessons. We read about the forced evacuation of hundreds of thousands along with the ensuing resilience and heroism of small communities and business leaders in the region.
While I had begun learning about the disaster in a classroom, my true educational experience began when I boarded a packed regional train in Sendai with standing room only. After an hour of passing through verdant rice paddies and watching the sun set behind hazy mountains in the distance, we disembarked in the town of Odaka. We had arrived in Fukushima.
Over the course of the next four days, certain experiences would be etched in my memory forever.
I peered through the window of a deserted home in a radiation exposure zone with plates scattered across a table and chairs pushed back abruptly as its residents fled mid-meal in 2011. I walked through Ukedo Elementary School in Namie Town which had its entire first floor destroyed by the force of water from the tsunami.
Perhaps the most enduring image from Fukushima is gazing across massive fields filled with trash bags of radioactive soil as far as the eye could see. These fields would pop up every few minutes as we drove across the region in a van. The Japanese government is pursuing soil decontamination throughout the region. Their ultimate goal is to safely reopen towns for residents to return to the region.
All photos Barbara Johnston / University of Notre Dame
Since 2011, numerous towns and areas have been reopened for returnees while others still remain uninhabitable. Soil decontamination provides hope for family farms within a region that has historically been an agrarian economy. The Sato family are seventh-generation family farmers who returned to their home in Namie Town in April 2022. According to the Satos, agriculture is no longer profitable in the region. These farmers were compelled to return home. They described missing their homeland and wanting to continue their family’s 250-year history in the region. According to the Satos, “a third of rice patties are used for bioplastics or animals as it is much more profitable.” While products grown in the newly placed, decontaminated soil are described as safe for consumption, the farmers stated that “Fukushima produce is not bought willingly [by consumers] due to reputational damage.” The region needed to pivot, resulting in the outpouring of entrepreneurial spirit following the disaster.
In another nearby town, a different family with generations-long ties to the area is the Yokota family. After producing fruits for years, their farm now features beautiful flowers for sale and shipment as they rethink their business model and retain their commitment to their land.
The Odaka Worker’s Base was founded in order to create a space for entrepreneurs to thrive and return to the region. Their building is hip and cleverly designed with its main attractions being coworking spaces, computers, books, lofts, bean bag chairs, a small stadium-seat community hall, bedrooms for entrepreneurs, and a glass making studio for a local business. Tomoyuki Wada, the CEO, said that the Worker’s Base exists to help the people of Fukushima “make their life secure with their own hands.” Their mission is to create 100 businesses based on 100 local issues through grassroots entrepreneurship. So far, they have helped create 22 businesses including the founding of a restaurant and a grocery store in Odaka. These businesses have received financial support from TEPCO, the company which operated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, and from the Japanese government, which is incentivizing development. According to these community leaders, most returnees are over the age of sixty as many younger residents have restarted their lives in areas which they believe have more opportunities for them. The Odaka Worker’s Base hopes to increase the number of community members participating in the local economy and to create jobs to draw young people back to their home in the Fukushima prefecture.
While many new small businesses are being created in the region, other small businesses have reopened in recent years. Innkeeper Tomoko Kobayashi reopened her small business, the lovely Futabaya Ryokan, which sits just steps away from the one-room Odaka train station. Upon entering the inn, we removed our shoes and were met with huge smiles, warm hospitality, delicious food, and cozy sleeping quarters in tatami-floored rooms with shoji, sliding doors. After serving us simmering mouthwatering sukiyaki for dinner, Kobayashi-san served us tea and sat down to discuss her experiences. Kobayashi-san was an expert in Google Translate and recruited a businessman from Tokyo who regularly volunteers in the region to help translate. Kobayashi-san was born in Odaka and has managed the inn since 2005. In 2011, the inn was flooded with 50 centimeters of water from the tsunami and the radiation was 1.3 μSv, an unsafe level for residency. She and her husband evacuated to Nagoya and lived in the Hamachi area for four years. Even while living away, Kobayashi-san returned often during the day to clean, as she was determined to reopen one day. She describes “becoming obsessed” with learning about radiation and joined an NGO devoted to the study of radiation to understand it better. She and her husband traveled to Chernobyl three times to learn about radiation and the disaster response in Ukraine. Their inn is filled with pictures from their trip and engagement with leaders in Ukraine as they learned from one another.
Tomoko Kobayashi prepares traditional meals for guests at the Futabaya Ryokan in Fukushima prefecture, the inn she and her family have owned and managed for generations
When Kobayashi-san reopened the inn in 2016, she did not expect a lot of visitors and did not anticipate any success — she notes that most business owners had “given up.” Her determination paid off as many people came to stay in her inn including volunteers wanting to help the recovery of the region, journalists recording the stories of locals, and researchers studying the disaster and its aftermath. The inn is still afloat today with many guests in the dining room each night for her delicious meals, fellowship, and knowledge. Kobayashi-san also serves as a connector for small business owners, volunteers, journalists and researchers through her breadth of knowledge on the local community and extensive network. She is a powerful manifestation of resiliency, determination, and strength as a business leader in the face of incredible adversity.
While many small business leaders such as Kobayashi-san serve as powerful forces in the revitalization of the region, many large companies are also fostering recovery efforts. In the Marunouchi district of Tokyo, we met with executives at Deloitte Tohmatsu to hear about the role of large companies in disaster response and in fostering community resilience. In the summer of 2011 following the disaster, Deloitte immediately began a project to support recovery. Numerous Deloitte employees would work all week and then travel to the region each weekend to offer pro bono services to local businesses and groups. In Sendai, firms including Deloitte, McKinsey, and others have started a center to support local governments and damaged companies, providing them with leadership training and resources. Fifty to a hundred team members worked in the Tōhoku region following the disaster to provide direct assistance. This engagement model through founding a center has been replicated in other communities after 2011. Many companies relied on Deloitte’s assistance to survive after the disaster. For example, Deloitte facilitated a merger of four Fukushima shipbuilding companies into one. These companies were unable to rebuild alone yet as a team they were able to survive.
For a select few employees at these major consulting firms, the Fukushima disaster even caused them to reshape their career in order to be full-time community leaders supporting regional revitalization.
Daiju Takahashi is one of these leaders. After earning his master’s degree in international policy from Stanford University and working as a diplomat for the Japanese government for eight years, he began his business career in Tokyo with McKinsey. Takahashi-san left his management position at McKinsey as he felt the need to apply his skills to revitalize local businesses and create a tangible positive impact. He established EEE (“Eat, and Energize the East”), a non-profit organization dedicated to revitalizing the agricultural, fishing, and food industries of Tōhoku. He notes that the people of Fukushima never sell their products in a way that attempts to capitalize on the disaster, and that they are not interested in framing themselves as victims. EEE food products have won prestigious awards at culinary events from Tokyo to Paris as Takahashi-san seeks to destigmatize Fukushima produce. He notes that the goal is self-sufficiency for the region.
Takahashi-san moved to Namie Town full-time in 2011 with hopes to reinvigorate the community using the combination of his business and diplomatic expertise. While the population of Namie was once 21,000, it is now only 2,000. Approximately 80% of the town is still off-limits; it is the town with the most contaminated land remaining out of all the towns in the fallout area. He notes a fear that much of the community's memory and tradition have been lost; however, he wants to preserve the local culture through cultivating business and attracting returnees. Takahashi-san has helped create a growing economy in Namie. He has attracted large Japanese companies in the virtual reality and automotive industries to the region for business incubation. Currently in Namie Town, Nissan is experimenting with its on-demand taxi system for the first time.
Takahashi-san clearly walks his talk. After his interview, he took the time to show us examples of his work. We were brought to a local community center where people of all ages took part in a traditional regional dance, and then we visited a presentation done by university students studying architecture, engineering, and business to redesign the town center. Following these wonderful glimpses into Namie Town’s revitalization, Takahashi-san had to leave us to go to his post as a volunteer fireman. He is a person who fits 100 hours of work into a 24-hour day.
The Japanese government has struggled to get young people to stay in rural areas such as Fukushima as they continue to flock to bigger cities. These trends have only accelerated after the disaster. Takahasi-san’s core belief is that “stimulating the local economy allows for liberty and freedom.” He feels that young people have stayed in Tokyo rather than returning to the region because they may not have an interest in the traditions of multigenerational rice farming and fishing in Fukushima. He hopes to create a flourishing local community that is reliant on itself for innovative and fun business ideas, ultimately giving young people no reason to leave the region of their ancestors.
While he states that his career at McKinsey helped him to learn steps to revitalize local businesses, he describes his days in Washington, D.C., as a diplomat as most influential. He notes these experiences allowed him to hear both sides of challenging situations, and to recognize that solutions are never “black and white.”
These are just a few examples of the leadership of businesspeople in Fukushima that has helped to rebuild a community which has gone through the unimaginable. Their acts—both big and small—are an inspiring example of the resiliency of the human spirit.
Fukushima serves as an important reminder that businesses have the capacity to impact communities in both negative and positive ways. The principles of business can contribute tremendous good to the world. Businesses, at their core, are simply reflections of people and their decisions. Positive impact starts with every day actions as a business leader through making ethical decisions which seek to benefit larger society. As a business student, I know that my educational experience in Fukushima has been one of the most important of my time in college, exemplifying outstanding leaders who used their desire for positive impact, their innovative spirit, and their strong moral compass to create positive change in their communities.
The multidisciplinary student research team includes Colin Linnen (Finance & Global Affairs ‘25), Bianca Feix (Neuroscience and Behavior & Asian Studies ‘25), Maya Malackowski (Finance & Industrial Design ‘25), Daniel Miranda-Pereyra (Accountancy & Economics ‘24) and Carter Powers (Environmental Engineering & Asian Studies ‘26). The student team is seen above with students from Reitaku University in Chiba, Japan.
Alumnus and water resources engineer Robert Wachter ('21) joined the team as a research associate of the ND Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values.
The faculty team consists of professors Anna Geltzer (Reilly Center for Science, Technology, & Values), Amy Hixon (Civil and Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences, College of Engineering), Sisi Meng (Economics & Technology for Development, Keough School of Global Affairs), included contributions from Kevin Walsh (Civil and Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences, College of Engineering), and was coordinated by Jessica McManus Warnell (Management & Organization, Mendoza College of Business) and Noriko Hanabusa (East Asian Languages and Cultures, College of Arts & Letters). Joining the team on site was Christine Cox, Assistant Director of the Liu Institute for Asia & Asian Studies. Josephine Emanuelli (MBA '24) and Lydia Knoll (MBA/MGA '25) assist with ongoing research.
The team is grateful to the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies for supporting this research through the Justice and Asia initiative. Additional research findings are forthcoming.
- Natural disasters continue to increase in frequency and intensity. Business leaders must proactively plan ahead, working alongside the government and community sectors that collaborate to coordinate responses.
- Economic and community recovery involves a multi-pronged approach, building on the strengths of the business sector - from large multinationals to small businesses and entrepreneurs.
- Innovation and insights from the communities that are most affected - embracing both new ideas, and learning from cultural tradition - can shape efforts toward more resilient societies in the future. These insights require harnessing macro-level resources alongside engagement at the local level.
Resurrection of Fukushima (福島再生の会) - Community Recovery
Learning from Japan's Remarkable Disaster Recovery - Harvard Business School
Why Japanese Businesses are So Good at Surviving Crises - Harvard Business School
For more on Notre Dame Justice and Fukushima Research
Discovering Business in Japan (Mendoza Magazine)
"Sustainable Humanitarian Operations: An Integrated Perspective," (Alfonso Pedraza-Martinez, with Charles Corbett, Luk Van Wassenhove), Production and Operations Management
"Perspectives on business ethics in the Japanese tradition: Implications for global understanding of the role of business in society," (Jessica McManus Warnell, with Toru Umeda), Asian Journal of Business Ethics
"Local Venturing as Compassion Organizing in the Aftermath of a Natural Disaster: The Role of Localnews and Community in Reducing Suffering," (Dean Shepherd, with Trenton Williams), Journal of Management Studies
"Relationship between coastal hazard countermeasures and community resilience in the Tohoku region of Japan following the 2011 Tsunami," (Robert F. Wachter III, Davide Forcellini, Jessica McManus Warnell, & Kevin Q. Walsh), Natural Hazards Review