March 6, 2014 12:00 am JST

Industry rises from devastation

MASAFUMI UEMATSU, Nikkei staff writer

Professional Chef Koichi Ogawa, right, shows hows the proper technique for beautiful carving a cod to members of fisheries cooperatives in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture.

OTSUCHI, Iwate -- Tsunami-hit, graying and losing its young, the Tohoku region of northeast Japan is trying to rebuild. Professionals from other areas are teaching their skills and building infrastructure to give the area a shot at revitalization.

     Trial and error, information technology and big-city expertise are all a part of the blueprint for a revived Tohoku. Three years after the earthquake, people from across Japan are pitching in with tips to help a new generation of business leaders move forward.

     Sometimes it is a simple as showing the locals techniques from the country's kitchens. At a community hall in the quake-hit town of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, Koichi Ogawa, 57, skillfully slices seafood for the skillet. "Slide the blade along the bone gently," says Ogawa, who operates a restaurant in Tokyo's Tsukiji seafood district. "It's like tracing."

     His technique impresses local resident Yoko Sawatate, 71, who runs a kelp farm. "The way professionals cut is different to how we do it," she says. "We are self-taught."

     Ogawa aims to help get Otsuchi back on its feet by teaching local residents the techniques needed for higher quality cuts of fish that appeal to urban restaurants. "Direct sales of ready-to-cook fish cuts are far more profitable than whole fish," he says.

More on the menu

A third-generation fish wholesaler, Ogawa was born and raised in Tsukiji. He is an expert on the seafood distribution system. A support team from the University of Tokyo brought him to Otsuchi.

     The team proposes a "menu for revitalization" for Tohoku. It includes serving up fresh marketing strategies and products that the region was not known for before the disaster, such as smoked salmon. These new approaches have value in the northeast, where small fisheries have for generations been at the mercy of the climate and sea.

     "I want to help the community rise again in a new form," says University of Tokyo professor Yoichi Shintani. "The community should not return to the way it was before the earthquake."

     Women in the fisheries cooperatives of Otsuchi and other areas of Tohoku often help their seafaring husbands process their catches back on land. "It never occurred to me that fish cut with extra care could sell for more money," Yuko Shirogane, 36, says. Her co-op plans to start direct sales of fish around April.

Fruits of production

Hiroki Iwasa, 36, an IT business owner from Tokyo, works with people in the Miyagi Prefecture town of Yamamoto on next-generation strawberries. He helps experienced local farmers, shuttling between Tokyo and the north. After the quake, Iwasa was quick to volunteer. In Jan, 2012, he helped set up the General Reconstruction Association, which aims to start a revolution in strawberry farming, with experienced tiller Tadatsugu Hashimoto.

     The Tokyo resident consulted with specialists and formulated a new strawberry production method that uses IT to control dhydroponic systems. Hashimoto was skeptical. "Strawberry farming is just not that easy," he said.

     Iwasa is passionate about building "a unique Yamamoto industry from sweet strawberries that anyone can grow." His dedication eventually won over Hashimoto and other experienced local farmers. The results are quality strawberries with high sugar content. The town's flagship Migaki-Ichigo line of strawberries sells for 1,000 yen ($9.79) per berry in Tokyo department stores.

     Yamamoto's farmers, inspired by their success, began training others their new techniques across the quake-hit region in April 2014. They have even tried growing strawberries in India. Iwasa and his associates say they want to build a new model for farming from Yamamoto.

Hand in hand

What is the secret to forming successful partnerships with the people of Tohoku?

     "It is not about driving the community from outside, but putting local people in the lead," says Fumihiko Inagaki. "A period of preparation to build trust is important." Inagaki is a director of the Revival Design Center, part of the Chuetsu Organization of Safe and Secure Society in Niigata Prefecture. He experienced the 6.8 magnitude 2004 earthquake in Niigata that was deemed to have a maximum seismic intensity on the Japanese scale.

     Building vital infrastructure is another challenge. Keiichi Sugiura, 27, sweats with his associates, hammering down nails at a construction project in the Minami district of Miyagi Prefecture's city of Kesennuma. Sugiura and fellow volunteers are remodeling a quake-damaged restaurant. They plan to make it into an incubator office for venture businesses.