Staying
Engaged

Neil van Wouw on his long and successful
tenure as CCCJ chair and governor

COVER PHOTO: JOHN DAUB

Neil van Wouw is a man who has been following trends in technology for his entire professional life. Initially based at a computer graphics company in Hiroshima when he first came to Japan in the mid-1980s, he recognized the rising popularity of the internet in the early 90s, and in 1995 parlayed it into a job at one of Japan’s few internet companies at the time. Three years later, he founded his own company, Vanten, which now operates in the digital signage space.

But there’s also a creative and spiritual side to van Wouw. He’s been practicing Zen meditation since before coming to Japan, and has been the singer, and sometimes leader, of the band, AKA Toe Jam, which has been performing for decades. He also founded Ganbatte 365, an NPO launched to share information about the rebuilding process that was taking place in Tohoku in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011. 

While chair of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan (CCCJ), from 2017 to 2021, he brought all these sides of his personality to bear on his work, helping to lead the chamber as it developed and grew. The Canadian caught up with van Wouw a few weeks ago.

How did you get involved in the chamber? 

I had been in Japan a long time already. And most of my customers, and a lot of my friends were Japanese. And my non-Japanese friends weren’t necessarily Canadian. So I wasn’t really tightly tied to Canadian groups. And I guess I was thinking about ways my company could sell more. And when I reached out to the executive director at the time about contacting Canadian companies through the chamber, he told me that I needed to become a member. I think a lot of people come to the chamber not really knowing how it works. At first, I wasn’t terribly engaged. I was like that for a year or two, and I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to continue being a member. That would have been around 2010. And in 2011, of course, we had the disasters. 

Wilf Wakely and Neil van Wouw at Maple Leaf Gala

It was around this time that Wilf Wakely became the chair, and he was focused on reaching out and getting people more engaged. At the time of the triple disasters, I started an NPO that was doing videos about the revitalization of Tohoku. We made about 400 videos, and we got them on big screens in Japan and Hong Kong and Vancouver and, eventually, even Times Square. I think I spent 90 per cent of my time on the NPO in 2011. Later that year, I saw that the chamber was going to do their Gala, and the theme was going to be recovery. So, I got in contact and said, “If you’re going to feature some NPOs you should feature my NPO. I’m a member and I’m Canadian.” I didn’t get a lot of replies, and I followed up with a sharply worded email to Wilf, who told me to come to his office and talk to him. 

I thought: “Good. Finally, I’m getting some response here.” But he recognized that I was someone he could get more involved with the chamber. And that was the process right there. I did get the NPO tied in with the chamber. And I became involved with starting the CSR Committee around that time. Then I started to meet everybody and become more engaged. And that made all the difference. Later, Wilf suggested that I run for governor. And even though I thought I wouldn’t get elected, through the NPO and CSR activity I had already raised my profile quite a bit. And I did get elected and it went from there.

At the Tohoku Youth Project dinner in March 2019

How did your predecessors influence you? 

My predecessor was Ron Haigh. I certainly went to him for advice because it was so different from just being a governor — suddenly, you’re kind of responsible for everything. More specifically, I think I was closer to Wilf in terms of chamber activity, and he was a strong mentor for me. But when I was a governor, I watched both Ron and Wilf, and saw two different styles. And I saw things that worked well, and things that didn’t work well. But I was also thinking about ways to get the membership and the governors more engaged, and just really get the chamber humming and feeling like a place that’s inclusive, and easy to step into. Of course, like any organization, when you join, you have to be willing to make the effort to get involved, but it’s also good for the chamber to reach out.

How did you tackle the biggest challenge?

At the time that I came in, the chamber was at a bit of a low engagement level. So that was when I came up with the idea of the hackathons. It has been a way to bring new members into a closer understanding of what the committees do. It has been an ongoing experiment, which has unfortunately been put in hiatus by the pandemic. Certainly, it was very inviting. Someone who’d never been to a chamber event, or who wasn’t even a member can show up at a hackathon, and get involved in what a committee does right away. And I think it was a chance for us to show-case that inclusiveness and openness, but also the flatness of the organization. 

You don’t need to work your way up through subcommittees into committees for years and, later, become a governor. And as far as I know, there’s no other chamber that offers that kind of experience. It’s insanely valuable if you take advantage of it because you can step right in suddenly, and next thing you know, you’re meeting missions, senior politicians and business executives through these activities.

“When you join, you have to be willing to make the effort to get involved, but it’s also good for the chamber to reach out.”

How has the chamber changed during your time as chair? 

I think one thing that really struck me when I first became a governor in 2012 was, “Where are the women?” Canada is in many ways at the forefront of gender equality and everybody on the board was supportive of the idea of having more women on the board. Right. 

But I think if you look at our membership, and the people that showed up at events, it was a relatively small percentage. And I think a lot of chambers were struggling with this. But rather than thinking about how to get more women members, what I thought about was getting more women governors. Because if you have more women governors, you’re going to have more women members. And so I made a concerted effort to get more nominees. And clearly the membership wanted that, because when we did have a choice of more women, they were elected. And I think it just changed everything. When a new governor comes in and they’re raring to go and get engaged, that means everyone has to step up their game. It gave us more variety of discourse.

What story are you most likely to remember from your time as chair? 

I think what happened with the Rugby World Cup was extremely special. And I think it’s a story about diversity because I wasn’t a rugby fan. I’d never been to a rugby game. But we had some members who had been involved with rugby all their lives, and the other chambers started the Rugby Alliance, which we joined. We had people like Christian Howes, Paddy Watson and Tad Furuta, who knew a lot about rugby, and Paddy was friends with a lot of the Canadian players. And Christian, who is also chair of the CSR Committee, said that Canada will be one of the few teams that will be playing in Kamaishi, in Iwate Prefecture, and we needed to let the players know the meaning of that. 

This was six months before the tournament, and I wouldn’t have thought of that. But there was this CSR perspective and rugby perspective — people in the chamber were thinking about it and doing it. And because of those connections, our rugby and CSR committees communicated that idea to the players and setting up a situation that would support Canada, Japan and Kamaishi. [The Canada–Namibia match that was scheduled in Kamaishi was cancelled when Typhoon Hagibis blew through the area. But the Canada rugby team and members of the CCCJ who had come for the match helped in the cleanup efforts in Kamaishi after the storm had passed.] And how that all played out, ultimately, is that Canada received so much acknowledgment. In some ways, it was one of the biggest things to happen to Canada–Japan relations in decades, and we were part of making that happen.

And through the whole experience, I grew to like rugby and understand it more. The rugby community is an amazing one that’s so supportive of each other — when rugby players meet, they automatically have a bond. It’s not something I would have expected being involved in when I joined the CCCJ. And it gave me a deeper understanding of why companies sponsor sports: you’re supporting that spirit. Seeing it in action at that level, and being involved in it myself really made me a believer. It was incredible.

Members of Canada’s rugby team and CCCJ members in Kamaishi. PHOTO: CCCJ

How will you spend your time as chair emeritus? 

After 10 consecutive years of serious engagement, I’ll tone things down a little. I don’t plan to be unengaged, but I want to step back and let the new board be what it is. I’m very close to [new chair] David Anderson, and we talk frequently. He was hugely supportive as vice chair. And we’ve been friends for a long, long time. I will still be involved with a couple of committees, including what is likely to be rebranded as the Technology Innovation Committee. That will be one thing, but I’m also extremely interested in our new Sustainability Committee that Justin Conley started up. I’m very excited about that one and, of course, I’ll continue with the CSR Committee.

What does the future hold for Vanten? 

We’ve been doing digital signage since 2003, and were the first company in Japan to create a software as a service cloud platform for signage back before the concept of the cloud was popular. And so we tend to always be on the kind of leading edge of new things coming along. I like getting involved in very new technology, but we also have to sell to customers. I’ve been watching blockchain for several years and considered getting into it as early as 2014, but each time I looked, it didn’t seem quite ready for mass adoption yet. I think that things chan-ged recently — last year and through the spring, there was a boom in the US around NFTs — non fungible tokens [unique digital files stored on a blockchain]. So it’s really now at a point where regular people and companies are getting involved with it. I saw that crossover among people who knew nothing about block-chain technology. People who aren’t geeks or programmers are saying: “I want some of this.” And this is similar to what I experienced back in the 90s when the commercial internet started.

So we decided, this is the time. And I have an entire pathway for tying this into my product. To start with, we launched our NFT marketplace, Scramble, on July 7. And on August 4, we’re launching an auction with one of the world’s top makeup artists, Amazing Jiro. He’s put together a haunted house in a truck which was at Tokyo Tower, and is now touring Japan. Anybody can go there, pay ¥1,000 yen and get the bejesus scared out of them. It’s really, really well done. We’re selling that truck on the blockchain as an NFT. We will ship it anywhere in the world and run an event for a week for anyone who wants an amazing haunted house delivered to their doorstep. That’s what we’re doing at the moment, but it’s part of a whole roadmap. The next step is to launch our signage player as an NFT viewer. This will be the beginning of a decentralized community media ecosystem that we hope will influence how our offline and online worlds converge in the future. I wrote a white paper about this plan at www.deooh.org.

Vanten’s NFT marketplace, Scramble, launched in July.

Do you have a message you’d like to share with David Anderson and the chamber? 

We were joking after the annual general meeting, and I said, David, just don’t mess it up [laughs]. But no, David’s uniquely qualified to be the chair because he’s the only person with his combination of experience. He has worked for JETRO, so he’s familiar with the Japanese side of the Canada–Japan relationship. Then he was the executive director of the chamber after which he worked for the Alberta Japan Office, so he saw that side, before becoming a governor and vice chair. He’s incredibly qualified and a great person. I think the chamber is poised to do great things and the new board is awesome. So what I’d say is to keep on going, because things are looking good. 

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