Reviving lost businesses in tsunami-hit Japan

Reviving lost businesses in tsunami-hit Japan
PHOTO: Rachel Ng/ SRC

When the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami hit the country's northeastern coast in March 2011, it caused massive devastation to Japan's economy. In fact, the US$360 billion (S$506 billion) in economic losses makes this disaster the most expensive in history.

Among the hardest hit were the small, family-run businesses and fishing-related industries that form the heart of the Tohoku region's economic activity.

As the fifth anniversary of the disaster looms, Republic Polytechnic's Nicole Kam and Yogaraj Panditurai - commissioned by the Singapore Red Cross - find out what it's like for business owners to start all over again, with no assurance that things will get back to their original state.

Photo: Rachel Ng/ SRC

March 11, 2011 was the last day of the final stage of sake brewing at Suisen Shuzo, a renowned brewery in Rikuzentakata City in Japan's Iwate Prefecture. About $1 billion yen (S$12 million) worth of inventory was waiting in the warehouse, ready to be shipped out.

When the Tohoku quake and tsunami hit, everything was washed away, including seven Suisen employees.

Mr Tsurane Konno, who was then the company's senior managing director, spent the next two months visiting morgues and evacuation centres to look for his staff.

Several of his 50 remaining workers left the company as he could not pay them, and Suisen was mired in debts that had snowballed due to the tsunami.

Photo: Azmi Athni/ SRC

"I thought I was finished," said Mr Konno, who is now the company's president and CEO.

Thankfully, Mr Konno's worst fears did not materialise. In 2014, he was back in business in Rikuzentakata, producing sake that was distributed as far as the United States. To an outsider, life had seemingly returned to normal. But Mr Konno admitted things have not fully gone back to what they were.

He has rehired 37 of his former workers, but as of June 2015, the company was producing sake at half its original capacity.

Photo: Rachel Ng/ SRC

The 2011 disaster damaged 80 per cent of the sake breweries in Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. It felt like the final nail in the coffin for the industry, which had been in decline for many years.

Sake, despite its revered place in Japanese culture, had fallen out of favour with locals who had developed a taste for imported wine and beer.

However, the unthinkable happened - within a year of the disaster, sake sales showed a revival as the nation rallied to support Tohoku's sake makers. The latter was the catalyst for this by restarting operations quickly and producing more premium strains.

In Suisen's case, work resumed in July 2011 at a temporary facility in another city.

'We wanted to promote sake to pick up people feeling depressed and down," Mr Konno explained.

Photo: Marcus Tan Junhao/ SRC

Getting the business back on its feet quickly was also the priority at Kawaki Foods, which owns one of Japan's largest seaweed and salmon roe processing plants.

Owner Kenjyu Kawamura, who lost his three firms and 25 facilities in the region in one fell swoop, rebuilt his factory within six months of the disaster. He wanted to jumpstart the local industry and to create jobs.

See also: Singapore Red Cross completes fourth tsunami rebuilding project in Japan

"A person cannot choose how to die but he can choose how to live," he said.

The tsunami had a massive impact on Japan's fishing industry. The cost of the country's damaged fish markets, processing plants and marine culture farms was estimated at S$4 billion. Mr Kawamura remembered fretting over the huge bank loan he had to take to revive his business, but he plunged ahead.

Photo: Azmi Athni/ SRC

"The future was unclear and I wasn't sure if I could pay off my debts. Even now, I'm still not sure. I wanted to secure my employees' lives, and I didn't want to have any regrets in the way I lived."

His single-mindedness enabled him to catch the salmon season in October 2011, and by mid-2015, his business was 70 per cent recovered. But he was under no illusion that things will go back to their heyday.

Photo: Marcus Tan Junhao/ SRC

Photo: Marcus Tan Junhao/ SRC

"The surroundings and people have changed," said Mr Kawamura "We can't get back to the old days." To survive, he added, Kawaki would have to innovate.

Suisen's Mr Konno felt the same way.

He himself had to change certain ways the company was run so it could survive, and hoped the younger generation would take a leaf out his book should a similar calamity occur again.

He said: "In times of crisis, we must make a decision and go for it. We need to have a strong stand and believe in our plans for the future."

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