Kumiko Kinjo (right) and her team of data analysts work on purchasing data collected from supermarkets across the nation at Magee’s office in Tomigusuku, Okinawa.

Ever since Okinawa was returned to Japan after the end of U.S. occupation 50 years ago, the prefecture’s economy has grown significantly, but it still lags behind the rest of the nation with low per-capita income and high child poverty rates.

Some companies based in Okinawa Prefecture, meanwhile, are working to turn around the situation by raising productivity through human resource development and improvements to management efficiency.

Magee, a big data analysis firm based in Tomigusuku, is one such company that aims to raise the “earning power” of workers in Okinawa and ultimately eradicate child poverty in the prefecture.

Last November, President Choken Yamakawa, 64, spoke at a briefing session held in Naha for the company’s data analyst training course for single mothers. “Your educational background doesn’t matter. We want to create jobs, improve incomes and reduce the number of poor families,” he said at the briefing organized by the prefecture’s welfare association.

Visualizing consumer behavior

Yamakawa has modeled his business on India’s Mu Sigma, one of the world’s top big data analysis firms, which hires local high school graduates and fully trains them into skilled analysts.

At Magee’s headquarters, the shopping data of 5 million people from about 5,000 stores across Japan is collected daily.

The firm has developed an original data analysis system called “i-code” that can identify demand trends in perishable items at stores across the nation.

Since the product codes for perishable items differ from store to store, it has been difficult to grasp nationwide sales trends. Yamakawa spent three years developing the unified code and succeeded in centralizing the data.

The vast amount of data is examined by analysts at IDS, a subsidiary of Magee. The company then makes marketing proposals for each store based on the season, events and local characteristics.

Kumiko Kinjo, 55, who leads a team of five women at IDS, says, “Our work covers the whole nation. I find it very rewarding.” Before joining IDS, Kinjo had changed jobs four times but has been with the company for 13 years now.

The amount of data Magee handles is expected to grow even further. President Yamakawa has also developed the “ID-POS” system that links consumers’ point card information with purchasing data, which makes consumption patterns more “visible.”

Shuji Suzuki (right), president of Yuimarlu Okinawa, and Sachiyo Kotani, manager of Yuimarlu’s flagship location, pose at the store in Haebaru, Okinawa.

This has made it possible to recommend products matching the needs of each individual customer. Such personalized marketing is already a common practice for Amazon and other giant internet firms, but Magee has realized the service in brick-and-mortar stores.

Kinjo is serious about expanding the personalized, in-person marketing services even when online shopping is flourishing. “We’ll beat Amazon,” she says with a straight face.

The ID-POS system, which is attracting inquiries from retailers across the country, is expected to be installed at 1,000 stores nationwide by the end of March.

Yamakawa says the company aims to achieve annual sales of ¥11.1 billion in five years, calling the personalized marketing tools it offers “the only business model of its kind in Japan.”

What Yamakawa has in mind is a prosperous Okinawa with higher wages for workers and reduced child poverty. As a management philosophy, Yamakawa says he learned the importance of having a perspective of “altruism” from Kazuo Inamori, chairman of Kyocera Corp., whom he met when he was 35 years old.

Over the years, Magee aims to enroll 400 women in its data analyst training course. “We will properly develop human resources and give them the ability to earn,” Yamakawa says. “To achieve this, we must become a price leader in the industry.”

Self-standing Okinawa

Yuimarlu Okinawa, based in Haebaru, develops and distributes Okinawan crafts and food products. After catering product development to customer demand and cost-cutting measures, the company’s profitability has improved in recent years.

With an ambitious goal of realizing the economic independence of Okinawa, the company was founded in 1988 by the late Mikio Tamaki, who moved to Tokyo after graduating from high school but later returned to Okinawa to start his own business.

Tamaki’s move to Tokyo came at a time when discrimination against people from Okinawa was still prevalent, with some restaurants even refusing entry to the islanders.

Determined to change the reputation of Okinawa, Tamaki got together with a group of people from the prefecture and learned about its economy and the U.S. bases there. He eventually decided to start his own business back home.

Tamaki started off as a food wholesaler for Ryukyuan cuisine and later expanded his business to an arts and crafts wholesale operation, but in 2007, he died at the age of 51. Shuji Suzuki, 45, who was 31 and was a director at the time, succeeded Tamaki as president.

Suzuki still cherishes the founder’s aspirations for Okinawa’s economic independence, but he recalls, “Earnings back then were not good. The Okinawan boom was over, sales were sluggish and expenses were rising due to the expansion of stores outside the prefecture.”

“We couldn’t raise the salaries of our employees. The craftspeople who make our products were also suffering,” he said. “We had to do something about that situation.”

Suzuki began sharing monthly earnings results in meetings with his 17 employees. Employees became more cost-conscious over the years, and the gross profit margin ratio eventually improved from about 30% to about 45%. At the same time, Suzuki revised the company’s salary structure.

He also focused on improving the added value of the company’s craft products, as they had been sold as low-priced souvenirs. The company has embraced the prefecture’s program to support producers by offering a wide range of advice from workshop management to new product development.

Not only Suzuki but also his employees take time out of their normal work schedules to visit craft producers and offer advice.

Sachiyo Kotani, 38, manager of Yuimarlu’s flagship store, says, “We can tell customers about the producers, and we can also tell producers about the customers’ preferences. We’re busy, but our efforts pay off.”

Since joining the company two and a half years ago, Kotani has actively learned about Okinawa’s history and culture. The company also sets aside June 23, the anniversary of the end of Battle of Okinawa, as an official non-working day.

Yuimarlu has fostered an environment where employees can confront and reflect on issues facing Okinawan society. New employee training includes visits to the U.S. base relocation site in the Henoko area of Nago. By having new recruits learn more about Okinawa, the company aims to raise awareness about conserving traditional craft-making.

As a result of steady efforts to connect producers and consumers, including the development of products for everyday use, the demand for gifts from Okinawa has expanded in recent years. Although sales to tourists at airports and hotels have declined due to COVID-19, Yuimarlu has managed to stay in the black.

Suzuki says he is still halfway through solving issues such as improving producers’ management skills and fostering successors. “We would like to further refine the value of Okinawa’s culture and enliven the industry,” he said.

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This section features topics and issues from Okinawa covered by The Okinawa Times, a major newspaper in the prefecture. The original articles were published Jan. 27 and Feb.3