With the central government supporting regional vitalization as one of its key policies, general trading companies are putting effort into locally based enterprises.
They're utilizing their expertise in running large shopping centres, as well as their domestic and overseas sales networks, to power the rejuvenation of regional areas.
Since December 2014, Sojitz Corp. has been operating Pieri Moriyama, a giant commercial facility in Moriyama, Shiga Prefecture, through its subsidiary Sojitz Commerce Development Corp.
The facility closed down in February 2014 due to a decline in the number of customers and other factors, but it was brought back to life after inviting foreign-owned fashion brands popular among young people.
It's easy to see how busy the shopping centre becomes, as the 3,000-space parking lot is full on weekends and holidays.
Pieri Moriyama also aims to attract foreign tourists, whose number is expected to increase in regional areas, and a tax-free counter was established in September last year.
The facility now has 111 stores, up from just three at the time it was shuttered. It plans to add seven more stores by the end of March.
Sojitz is aggressively pursuing the operation of regional shopping centres. Since 2003, the company has opened its own Mallage commercial facility in cities including Saga and Kuki, Saitama Prefecture.
In October 2015, it began operating the commercial facility Kawaramachi Flag in Takamatsu, a municipality that two department stores decided to leave in the past.
"Development costs such as land prices are cheap in regional areas. If you can get a group of appealing stores, you can bring in customers from distant places," said Tetsuo Kondo, director of Sojitz Commerce Development.
Itochu Corp. is working to expand the market for Takata no Yume, a high-quality rice produced in Rikuzen-Takata, Iwate Prefecture. The city was devastated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
This new variety of rice was developed by Japan Tobacco Inc. and donated to the city, with JT saying it "wants it to be a symbol of agricultural recovery" following the disaster. Takata no Yume has a signature chewy texture, and is unlikely to lose its flavor even when eaten cold.
Full-fledged cultivation of the rice began in 2013 at 12 farms and about 30 tons were harvested. In 2015, 33 farms produced a total of 210 tons. Nowadays, the rice can be purchased not only in Iwate Prefecture but also at department and specialty stores in Tokyo.
"Locally based industry is necessary for true reconstruction. We want to provide thorough support from production to sales," said Akira Kurihara of Itochu's corporate communication division.
The company plans to consider the development of processed foods using the rice, such as pasta and sweets.
The Rikuzen-Takata municipal government set up the new Takata no Yume subsection within its agriculture and forestry section. "With the support of knowledgeable companies, farmers can head into production without worries," said subsection member Saori Murakami.
Mitsui & Co. will venture into the processing and sale of farmed fish in Ehime Prefecture, which is known for its cultivation of such fish as red sea bream and yellowtail.
Completing a new factory in Seiyo before summer, the firm plans to sell about 1,000 tons of fish through its group entities in 2019 in the nation and overseas to achieve sales of ¥2 billion or more.
Mitsui and two other businesses established in July 2015 a new company called Uwajima-kaido Co. in Uwajima in the prefecture. The cooperating companies were Dainichi Corp., a business based in the city that processes and sells farmed fish, and Onsui Co., a company with leading techniques for processing fresh seafood in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture.
Dainichi buys farmed fish from local cultivators and Onsui uses its special freezing technology. With these partners, Mitsui expects to quickly and significantly broaden its sales network.
"Through our partnership with Mitsui, we can expect to achieve overseas business expansion," said Eiji Tachibana, head of Dainichi's administration department.
Mitsui is planning to expand the new business to Europe, in addition to Asia and the United States, said a spokesperson at the corporate communication division.