Interview
2020.09.09

There is a Great Need for Online Counseling, in Our Drastically Changing Environment.
What does Cotree Aim to Achieve through a “Society Connected with Kindness”?

There is a Great Need for Online Counseling, in Our Drastically Changing Environment.
What does Cotree Aim to Achieve through a “Society Connected with Kindness”?

Cotree Co., Inc. provides online counseling available anywhere at any time, with the aim of “making counseling more accessible”. They support people who are struggling and help solve their problems through counseling based on a philosophy of “making a society connected with kindness”. What is the ideal society that Cotree aims to create? What is the relationship between the community and mental health? We spoke with Ms. Mari Sakuramoto, CEO of Cotree, about how we should live in the midst of drastic changes in the social environment caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Offering easily accessible online counseling to support people in need.

-Could you start by telling us the nature of Cotree’s business?

We provide online counseling for individuals. Our clients can get counseling anytime, anywhere, by the means they prefer (telephone, video calls, messaging apps). We also provide “Cotree Assessment Coaching”, a coaching service for individuals in which we get an objective understanding of the characteristics of each client to aid in specific goal setting and action plans, as well as “Cotree for Students”, an online counseling service aimed at students.

-Can you tell us the history of how Cotree was established?

I used to work for a securities company, but I suffered from a sleep disorder due to overwork and the negative atmosphere of the company caused by the 2008 financial crisis. I went to a mental health clinic, and I was prescribed medicine in just a few minutes… I was shocked at this treatment. Medication may treat the symptoms of my sleep disorder, but would do not solve the underlying problem I had. Counseling could offer a solution to the root of my problems, but counseling was not commonly available in Japan at that time, and I didn't know where to go. If more people had easier access to counseling, they would be able to face the difficulties in their lives. That was my thinking when I launched Cotree to provide online counseling, so that people can receive counseling anywhere, anytime they want.

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Ms. Sakuramoto founded cotree when she realized the importance of counseling from her own experience

-What kind of meaning and ideas did you put into the company name “Cotree”?

“Cotree” is an electrical circuits term meaning “complement tree”. The cotree is the final line for electricity to pass through a circuit, so I wanted include the idea that like a cotree, we use the strength of people to provide the support necessary to help people shine. I always wanted to just use the prefix “co”, which means “together”, in the company name. This prefix is used in both the words counselor and coach. I also wanted to include the meaning of “raising a tree with heart (kokoro in Japanese)”, in combining “co” and “tree, and “cotree” just sounded cute, so I decided to use it for the name of the company.

-Your service is designed to be provided online. What are the benefits of providing counseling online?

Online counseling has several advantages, with no geographical or time constraints, low costs, and ease of trying different counselors. It is important to continue counseling, so that your thoughts and behaviors change over time. In that sense, online counseling has a great advantage because it's easy to start and easy to continue if you so desire.

-What makes Cotree stand out in the online counseling industry and what are the secrets to its growth?

Online counseling as a service has been available since 2001. I think there were already 5 or 6 companies when we launched Cotree in 2014. However, because it is hard to reach the general public, making marketing very difficult, the reality is that online counseling companies will collapse without growing their profits. In these circumstances, I am proud to say that Cotree has already been established as a business for 6 years. In the beginning, I cherished the idea of “creating a society connected with kindness” and continued even before until we became profitable.

The main reason for our growth is the timing of changes in society, but I think a more direct reason is our use of social media. We focused on social media in order to reach more people, and a big turning point was our shift from Facebook to Twitter and Note. The topic we handle is mental health, which can be very delicate, making it hard for people to share our Facebook page. I think Twitter made a good match because it is easy to share things anonymously. In addition, we take care to “make the faces of employees visible” when sharing information. We try to create an open atmosphere by posting photos of employee's faces on our website and sending message with each employee's own name. This cumulative process gives customers peace of mind, and we have seen a growing number of people share our service using their real name. Everyone has problems to deal with, and it is by no means something to be embarrassed about it. If you are in trouble, there are services available to help you. We will continue to actively share information so that our service will be widely known.

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In addition to telephone and video calls, we also provide counseling through messaging with counselors once a day (Image provided by Cotree)

-Has the coronavirus pandemic caused changes to the use of online counseling?

We have gotten more users and our sales are also growing. Many people have complained of mental health problems due to the novel coronavirus, but I think that another factor of increased use of our service is that people have gotten used to online dialogue. In the past, some experts said “online counseling will never work” because the mood and non-verbal information of face-to-face communication are crucial to counseling. However, I think that in these circumstances where we are forced to function online, people have tried going online and found that they can communicate their emotions, relieving their apprehensions. Up until now, I've had a sense of inferiority (laughs), but the status of online counseling has really been solidified due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Solving problems with two approaches: counseling and coaching.

-You established CoachEd Inc. as a group company in January 2020. What kind of business are you engaged in?

We offer the coaching program “CoachEd”, which coaches leaders capable of cultivating teams, and “Escort” executive coaching aimed at top management. After six years of online counseling, it became clear that most people’s suffering and joy comes from their relationships with those around them. We believe that in order to reduce the number of people suffering from problems, it is necessary to make more people who can interact with others kindly and courteously, and make a good impact on those around them. As such, we decided to develop coaching to help leaders and executives acquire the ability to nurture people.

-Please tell us a more about the reasons and background for providing coaching specialized for executives and leaders.

By analyzing usage data of business owners and entrepreneurs when providing coaching, I realized something. Their length of use was longer and the unit price was higher than other users. In other words, it showed that business owners and entrepreneurs need support from third parties who could accompany them long term. From their position it is difficult to consult with others. They have very specialized concerns that typical coaching cannot support, so I felt that it was necessary to provide coaching specialized for executives and leaders. The leaders of companies really determine whether or not their subordinates can work in good health. However, there are many leaders who do care for their subordinates but do not know how to show it, and cannot control themselves. A leader’s belief that “I just don’t know how” or “I just can’t do it” can cause serious problems, and the leader’s problems cause problems for their subordinates. For that reason, I hope that leaders will learn proper communication and management from us, and help them to solve fundamental problems.

-So you are trying to solve problems by counseling / coaching offered by Cotree and leader training offered by CoachEd?

That's right. At Cotree, we match users with counselors or coaches that suit them, when they need it. At CoachEd, we aim to create a society where more people can make the most of their individuality and live with hope, by increasing the number of leaders who can offer counseling and coaching, which is to say have a greater influence on their subordinates. We take different approaches at Cotree and CoachEd, but they are the same in the sense that they both aim for a society where everyone can overcome difficulties, supported by mutual connections. It's like climbing the same mountain by two different routes.

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The company logo designed to incorporate the concepts of “trees raised together”, “complementary trees”, and the c in “cotree” (Image provided by Cotree)

Communities where people can see each other face to face offer a “third space”.

-Can you tell us why Cotree opened an office in Nihonbashi?

Originally, our office was in Tamachi. When we relocated, it wasn’t necessary to go somewhere major like Shibuya, but I thought it would be good if we could go somewhere familiar. Actually, I'm a big fan of the novel “Newcomer: A Mystery” by Mr. Keigo Higashino (laughs), and I love the Ningyocho / Nihonbashi area, which is the setting of the novel. Nihonbashi offers a great mixture of old and new, and while it has a lively atmosphere, it is not too crowded with people and is easily accessible. I found just the right space for rent, so I settled on Nihonbashi.

-How do you see Nihonbashi as a town and a community?

It has a very friendly atmosphere. At the stores I frequent, they remember everyone’s face. I think we have somewhat of a connection because I visit every day. As I get to know more faces in the area and really see those people’s faces properly, it builds my attachment to the area. Also, our office is in a small building, and I’m glad that I get to greet and talk to people as we cross paths. I don't think people have that experience around skyscrapers in the city center.

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Scenery near the Cotree office. It’s in the center of Tokyo, but there is still a relaxing atmosphere

-Does the atmosphere of a city or community affect your mental health?

I think so. Being able to see people’s faces is important for improving mental health. People with mental health issues lose sight of other people's faces, and don’t see people around them clearly, so they start to see issues in terms of “everyone”. When they can see each other’s faces and connect through specific issues, they can process information soundly. A face-to-face connection gives a sense of security, and that connection gives people energy. To put it another way, a face-to-face community has a positive effect on people’s mental health. This kind of community can act as a third place for people to exist comfortably, outside of work and home.

-What role does Cotree play in modern society, where that kind of local community is disappearing?

In the past, communities were tied to the land they lived on, but now geographic constraints have disappeared and communities are gradually shifting online. With such drastic changes to society, mental disorders tend to occur when people cannot adapt well to new environments. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is also a major change in the environment. Cotree’s role is to support people who are unable to adapt to these changes and succumb to their troubles. We provide various viewpoints and perspectives through counseling, showing problems in three dimensions, and supporting decision making. People can also rely on us because we are a third party with no vested interests.

However, I think that locally-based, face-to-face communities will not disappear in the future, and people should go back and forth between the Internet and the community while enjoying the benefits that both have to offer. If the position of each community is clear within each person, and they can find utilize the optimal balance properly, it will be easier to improve upon issues they deal with.

To “create a society that connects with kindness”.

-What ideas did you include in “creating a society connected with kindness”?

A “society connected with kindness” is a society in which no one is isolated, where someone supports you in times of difficulty or trouble, and people step forward to help others. I believe that creating this kind of society is the fastest and most efficient way to make more people happy. “Kindness” is not a finite resource like money and time, but something we can create infinitely. It is possible to make the most of people’s personality and enrich them and it just feel better to be kind. CoachEd exists to make more kind people, and Cotree exists to make more kind connections.

-Please tell us about your future aspirations and goals to “create a society connected with kindness”.

My goal is to maximize our social impact rather than our profits. To that end, I will consider how to reach places that we have not been able to reach so far. For example, I would like to expand our system so that people who could not access counseling can access it, such as with our “Novel Coronavirus Mental Support Program,” with which we provide counseling to medical professionals, companies, and individuals free of charge. We do this with support from companies and individuals, and not only the people who receive support are happy. In fact, the side that provides support is happy to contribute to helping people in need. I want to create relationships in which people support each other in that way. I want Cotree to be a microcosm of such a society connected by kindness. I would like to create a “society that connected with kindness” together with people and companies that share this vision.

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The “Novel Coronavirus Mental Support Program” is a form of joint support provided by companies, individuals, and Cotree. It provides free online counseling (by telephone, video calls, messaging apps, etc.) to people in need, including company’s employees, customers of their services, and medical professionals (Image provided by Cotree)

-Finally, do you have a message for “Bridgine” readers?

It is only natural that people find these rapidly changing times to be distressing. Even now it is important to decide what you want to do while imagining this new environment will be like. With presuppositions constantly changing, the old way of doing things is not always right. Look inwards and think about what you really want, what you’re wishing for, and how you will live in our new society. When things are this difficult, try taking on new challenges, even if you start with something small. Doing this will help you to think more positively, little by little.

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Ms. Sakuramoto tells us, “Because these are times of great change, you should try new things now, without being confined to conventional values”

Interview and Text: Makiko Kojima, Photography: Daisuke Okamura

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