Kenji Hayashi
Ashoka 2017年からアショカフェロー   |   Japan

Kenji Hayashi

Founding Base
Kenji Hayashi is rejuvenating rural areas suffering from depopulation. By creating a new pathway for emerging urban professionals to build their careers as change agents in rural municipalities, Kenji…
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This description of Kenji Hayashi's work was prepared when Kenji Hayashi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017.


Kenji Hayashi is rejuvenating rural areas suffering from depopulation. By creating a new pathway for emerging urban professionals to build their careers as change agents in rural municipalities, Kenji is creating a system that enables the sustainable development of struggling rural communities.


Kenji Hayashi is rejuvenating rural areas suffering from depopulation. By creating a new pathway for emerging urban professionals to build their careers as change agents in rural municipalities, Kenji is creating a system that enables the sustainable development of struggling rural communities.


Traditionally in Japan, a ‘successful and happy life’ consists of scoring high on exams, getting into a famous university, and climbing the corporate ladder in a big city. Ten percent of the Japanese population is concentrated in Tokyo and another ten percent is located in the next three biggest cities.

Companies have traditionally operated with a seniority-based system where younger people are only required to execute on the directives from their superiors. Through this practice, Japan achieved unparalleled economic prosperity between 1984 and 1991. It was believed that the factors for guaranteed success were hard work, discipline, and obedience. This also resulted in an education system that values uniformity and discipline, as opposed to diversity, creativity or critical thinking.

The situation has changed greatly over the past 30 years. With technological advancements and globalization, just following orders from the top of the hierarchy is not relevant anymore. Because life is more complex and uncertain, no longer can one be guaranteed a successful life just by obeying rules and hard work. While older generations are said to be holding on to the old system, some millennials are seeing the need for change.

As society shifts from this one ‘golden path’, there is a societal strain on young people as they struggle to identify new professional and personal pathways for success. Three concrete indicators are the high suicide rate (the highest cause of death amongst men under 40 in Japan), the prevalence of hikikomori (people choosing to live as shut-ins), and the emergence of bullying as a profound social problem in schools.

At the same time, rural areas are depopulating in an unprecedented rate. Research shows that 49.8% of Japan’s 896 cities and towns are expected to disappear by 2040. This is due to several factors: the extremely low birth rate, the eagerness of young people to move to urban centers, and a lack of social innovators working in a rural context.


Kenji is creating two mindset shifts. The first is upending the traditional idea that working in rural areas is not for the urban ‘elites’ but rather a place for them to thrive. The second is that rural municipalities should look for new sources of innovation and inspiration to conquer their current challenges.

In Japan, there is the conventional idea that successful people reside in urban cities, and that one must move to an urban environment to succeed. FoundingBase works on changing the mindset of young professionals to embrace rural living as an opportunity while providing them a new pathway to personal and professional success.

Core to this work is the ability of Kenji’s organization to attract young professionals out of urban centers and into roles within rural communities affected by depopulation. There are three differentiating factors to who and how he recruits:

(1) While other programs target people who are tired of city life or people lower down on the “ladder of success” (either by status or performance), FoundingBase takes an opposite approach. Inspired by aspects of the Teach for America model, FoundingBase targets, and has successfully attracted, top students and graduates from the best universities in Japan.

(2) Kenji stresses that this is not just a community volunteer program. FoundingBase provides mentoring of each placement to ensure that they can handle the tension between “fitting in” to a community and providing innovative disruption.

(3) He attracts talent based on the opportunity they will have to have social impact and innovate freely, something harder to experience in traditional career paths. Dozens of graduates from top universities, who would otherwise have joined the ‘golden path’ in large corporations, have already joined Kenji’s activities in the rural areas. Kenji plans to grow this work by developing new core partnerships, engaging a more diverse group of students, and also by gaining more publicity for this work.

Kenji is also challenging local leaders to access and absorb new ideas and sources of innovation. FoundingBase works to rejuvenate rural local communities where there are (1) committed and passionate local authorities, specifically a town mayor with staff on the ground, and (2) an engaged local school for nurturing future talent.

Kenji requires municipalities to fully commit to partnering with FoundingBase, including taking on shared risk. These components then enable FoundingBase to explore a larger vision and disruptive ideas, to find new solutions and to utilize cutting-edge technologies. Kenji’s aim is not to just revive the rural towns back to their original state but to build a new vision for each community. Currently, FoundingBase is working across Japan with at least seven different municipalities.

In addition to the two mindset shifts, FoundingBase emphasizes holistic community development which enables everyone to become change agents and contributors towards the development of their community. Core to this work is engagement with local schools in order to nurture the enthusiasm, community pride, and innovation of students.

The schools Kenji works with have experienced significant improvements in the dynamics and the culture of the schools themselves. As an example, a graduate from a top private university joined this effort and moved to Tsuwano where the high school was on the verge of closing. Through their effort, the school has been transformed into a fully-functional, cutting-edge high school focused on project-based learning. Dropouts have returned to school and 15 new students have enrolled from Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, and Kyoto. Through these efforts, FoundingBase has the potential to put students as a central force in community transformation.

Kenji grew up in Tokyo, Japan where both of his parents worked in the medical industry, his mother a nurse and his father a technician for medical equipment. It was his mother, a devout Christian, who taught him the power of service.

From an early age, Kenji was interested in the phenomenon of work. As a college student, he was intrigued by the number of craftsman in Aizu Wakamatsu, a small town in Fukushima Prefecture. Kenji then started bringing students to the area, to bear witness to the rich history and culture the craftsmen and their families brought to Hakuba City and the region.

During senior year of university, while other students were busy job-hunting at prestigious corporations, Kenji was busy working with the town of Hakuba to revive tourism and market the bed & breakfast farms. It was this early exposure to the challenges of rural depopulation that would track throughout his career.

After some political disputes with local people, Kenji moved on to support the revitalization of Tsuwano, a town with a population of approximately 7500. It was during this period that he started to understand the limitations of municipal efforts to revitalize their towns. By only focusing on bringing young people into the town to live, these efforts missed creating fundamental and innovative changes owned and activated by the new residents.

Kenji’s early insights and instincts resulted in Kenji having a rough approach to this work at the age of 19. It was these subsequent experiences – of success and failure – that polished the theory of change as well as his ability to convert the ideas into impact.

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