Charting a Course for Peace

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2005

Peace Boat succeeds as a business sustaining an agenda traditionally at odds with capitalism.

by Bhuvana Radhakrishnan

It is not every day that you hear the political opinions of a so-called rogue leader such as Colonel Qaddafi, let alone face to face. But this is what I experienced while sailing with the "Peace Boat" in October 2001, a month after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Under the hot Libyan sun the Colonel spoke to passengers about the US presence in the Middle East, and what he thought would be the ramifications of Al Qaeda's attacks. As mainstream media often do not relay the full picture of world politics, it was all the more worthwhile to hear what he had to say; whether you agreed or not, at least you saw the other side of the coin. This is the core tenet of the Peace Boat -- to broaden horizons and help people learn about creating peace.

Anywhere in Japan, you see posters advertising the Peace Boat global voyage. These posters, of smiling faces and sun -- drenched scenes, are put up by volunteers in exchange for cruise discounts. Founded in 1983, Peace Boat was started by a group of students who were angered by government censorship of aggression during World War II. By whitewashing history textbooks, they felt Japan was giving generations of children the wrong outlook on its neighbors. Wanting to discover Japan's military past, they chartered a ship to Japan's former empire, working to stimulate grass-roots reconciliation.

Their activities gained momentum in the late 1990s, leading to yearly cruises around Asia and the world. Today approximately two hundred committed activists run the organization. Peace Boat serves as a model promoter of inter-linked social equity and peace issues, such as sustainable development, human rights and ecological preservation, but more importantly, it does this while also being viable as a business. The only difference is that profits, instead of going to employees or shareholders, are redirected to its core activity -- promoting peace.

The Luck of Demographics
Arguably more than any other industry, tourism thrives in stable, peaceful times. However, it is when the world is at war that tourism, and the cross-cultural exchange it enables, are more important than ever. Underlying Peace Boat's growing success are changes in Japan's consumer market, its demographics, and Peace Boat's operational structure.

The Japanese, buoyed by affluence brought by high economic growth, began traveling abroad in numbers from the 1980s. Affluent youths made use of the working holiday system and more families ventured overseas for vacation. But with increasing wealth came increasing demands on time. The strong Japanese work ethic made it virtually impossible for anyone to consider a three-month vacation. With the economy poised for collapse by the mid-1990s, terms like karoshi (death by overwork) entered the vocabulary, and travel became a luxury.

The post-bubble recessions have forced the country to deal with seemingly endless bad loans and bankruptcies. Also, the Japanese GDP announced on February 16 this year showed the economy to be in recession and consumer demand to be low. But though the average consumer is tightening their purse strings after years of reckless spending, they are also increasingly realizing the value of services over goods. Moving beyond the focus on material wealth of the past, they are more willing than ever to spend on enriching activities. For example, despite the overall strain on private spending over the decade from 1992 to 2002, spending on leisure activities as a percentage of GDP as a whole only decreased roughly 1 percent, from 17.9 to 16.6 percent, over the same ten-year period. The cruise industry has benefited from this shift in spending to enriching activities.

Meanwhile, the Japanese population is rapidly aging. This is the result of a postwar baby boom, followed by a decrease in births as the country developed over the last fifty years. As in most other developed countries, there is an increasing tendency for women to remain in the workplace or have fewer children overall, and Japan now also has the highest life expectancy in the world. Such changes in the demographic structure have created a large stratum of older citizens. This is the age group that has ridden the crest of the wave of Japanese industrial development. The majority of this group was not involved in the reckless over-investment of the pre-bubble era, and now has their life savings, and a lot of time, to spend as they see fit.

Japanese youth, though shouldering the future burden of this aging population, have money and security. Disillusioned with the shushin koyo (lifelong employment) of their parent's generation, they are keen to try new places and forms of employment. This has led to a growing population of furiita, people who earn a living through part-time or casual work alone. Thus they have the mobility to explore various jobs or life experiences, while also having the basic short-term financial security. Peace Boat's promotion strategy has evolved to target and empower this group of retirees and floating population of youth.

Finally, with recent wars, globalization and increasing media coverage of human suffering across the globe, the average citizen is becoming more eager to contribute to society. Both Peace Boat's promotion strategy and operational structure answer to this trend.

A Business Model for NGOs
The cold hard reality of an NGO (non-government organization), like any company, is that it must be financially self-sufficient to survive. The terms NGO and NPO (non-profit organization) are not mutually exclusive, in fact, Peace Boat is both an NGO and an NPO. They do not receive support from government, and all profit they make is redirected into expanding Peace Boat's campaigns and activities. The business model hinges on three parties -- Peace Boat, Japan Grace Co, Ltd. and Global English Training Co, Ltd. (GET). Such organizations have been springing up in Japan since the 1980s, and an NPO law was passed in 1998 to give them legal status.

Peace Boat, the NGO, has approximately fifty Japanese staff. They have a voice in all decision-making processes, from internal allocation of funds to deciding cruise routes. However, they have also committed as stakeholders to bear responsibility for financial success or failure. For example, when the Kobe earthquake hit in 1995, staff of Peace Boat collectively took on the financial burden incurred through cancelled cruise fares, either taking on personal loans or devoting more time to work on sales.

Originally an independent travel agency, Japan Grace geared its operations to facilitate Peace Boat's expansion. This relationship was born from the similar philosophies of the heads of both organizations -- a desire to foster global peace. Now with a staff of over a hundred, Japan Grace takes responsibility for executing the logistics of the cruise, and the finances of Peace Boat's charter contract with the TSS Topaz. Under Japanese law, such logistical activities need to be carried out by a registered travel agency.

Lastly, with its global expansion, Peace Boat needed to hire foreign staff, and also develop an onboard language program to help participants communicate better in port. Setting up Global English Training Co, Ltd., Peace Boat now offers English and Spanish classes on every world cruise. GET is also the formal employer of most of Peace Boat's foreign staff -- coming from countries as varied as India and Colombia.

The teamwork between Peace Boat, Japan Grace and GET are what lie at the heart of the venture's success. Today Peace Boat conducts three global voyages per year aboard the TSS Topaz (31,500 tons), with approximately 850 passengers per cruise. With steady progress, the day when Peace Boat can buy its own ship and gain further freedom in its geographical and political agenda, spreading the message of peace, is hopefully not far off.

Charting a Course for Peace
If Peace Boat were no more than a successful business, then it would perhaps not merit attention outside of the journals of the cruise industry. But Peace Boat succeeds as a business that sustains an agenda traditionally at odds with capitalism. More than financial gain, or even profit within the parameters of responsible business, its first and foremost goal is to foster peace in the form of long-lasting social equity.

Peace Boat promotes peace through encouraging avenues of social responsibility accessible to the individual -- namely, issues of ecological preservation, sustainable development, and human rights, which are linked in numerous ways.

From disaster scenarios in movies to scientific reports, we are all familiar with the host of environmental problems brought on by the abuse of nature. Two of the largest concerns are global warming and the depletion of natural resources. Peace Boat breaks these issues down to an everyday level, with, for example, guests teaching its passengers how to recycle and reduce waste. Passengers also learn from ways of life in developing countries how to conserve energy in the home. For example, on Easter Island electricity is cut for a few hours in the late afternoon to conserve the island's limited energy resources. Accordingly, locals have become accustomed to doing household chores before or after the blackout. Guest speakers also come on board to speak about the larger effects of environmental degradation and possible solutions. But seeing the harsh living conditions in the global south, the passengers also feel the desire of locals to foster development. It is natural to ask oneself how to find the balance.

Sustainable development is the key to that balance. The UN defines it as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." With growing populations and industrial economies, the Second and Third worlds are increasingly aware of the mistakes and irrevocable damage to nature and bio-diversity done by their First World neighbors. Brunei and Costa Rica, for example, have created various government programs to ensure the preservation of large tracts of natural forest, and monitor the effects of industrialization on the environment and small communities. But mass globalization brings with it pollution, deforestation, dam construction and other forms of environmental damage. This in turn abuses the right to safe and environmentally sound living, one of many abuses of human rights.

Human rights are being abused through not only environmental destruction and unfair trade, but also violence and conflict. Still matters of debate are which rights to define as fundamental, the question of the equality of rights, and to whom falls responsibility for upholding rights. Peace Boat starts at the basics, focusing on conflict resolution as a top priority, especially violent conflict. For example, in visiting the former Yugoslavian countries and Palestine, passengers get an opportunity to hear first hand the emotional and physical damage war has visited upon these peoples. Together, they foster dialogue on what it means to create peace -- not just the absence of war. Peace Boat aims to raise awareness of issues not in the mainstream media, such as the Separation Wall being built by Israel to isolate Arab communities in Palestine. By doing so, they are sowing the seeds for cultural understanding, and passengers return motivated to share their knowledge.

Belief in a Peace-Business Partnership
Disasters and wars are news. A healthy environment, sustainable livelihoods and human rights are not news. They can't be news, because they are as things should be. This is ultimately something that we in developed nations take for granted -- a fact that the majority of Peace Boat passengers come away learning after a cruise.

Understanding the human tragedy in the news, and the complex intricacy of various global problems, is the key to taking conscious and informed action to alleviate the situation. Peace Boat facilitates this understanding in a hands-on and grass-roots manner. With counter-partners all over the world, and special consultative status with the UN, Peace Boat engineers its on-board and in port programs such that passengers get a well-rounded picture of problems faced by the Global South, and how they can help.

The Global South may become increasingly unstable due to long-term exploitation or neglect. Peace Boat works to increase Japanese awareness of the Global South. In order to devote its full attention to this cause, it has created a business model that is socially responsible and financially sound. The structure, based on shared philosophies and strong co-operation, is the fruit of a common belief that peace and business can go hand in hand.

Peace Boat believes that by raising awareness and appreciation of our world, it can help prevent conflict, environmental degradation, and a host of other problems. With the original goal of teaching Japanese children about their country's military past in Asia still far from fulfilled, Peace Boat has as much vitality and momentum as when they first set out to change the world. Twenty-one years later, they are reaching thousands of people every year and building lasting networks and knowledge amongst those people.

Taking advantage of the Japanese consumer market and demographic trends, they have created a partnership with other legal entities to carry out their agenda, while also maintaining a healthy business model that supports their commitment to ecological preservation, sustainable development and human rights. The profits of their activities are channeled into various projects and donations to groups in the Global South, and also into expanding the reach of their journeys to new countries and more people. All this would not be possible were it not for the success of Peace Boat as a business.

Does all of this make a positive difference in the world? I leave you with a quote from Brazilian Bosa Nova legend Gilberto Gil. When asked at the World Social Forum (aka the Anti-Davos) whether the WSF meetings involving different civil society groups really change anything, he said: "I answer your question with a question. Do you think that change happens?" @

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