In remembrance of the 10 year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, we sat down with Oi Futoshi (sales and marketing) from Senrei, a local fishery and seafood company located in Onagawa Town in Miyagi Prefecture, to see how their company and their community have rebuilt and recovered, and to hear about their visions for the future.
Kokoro: Many foreigners from overseas don't have the opportunity to visit Tohoku. What makes Tohoku unique?
Senrei's Oi-san: Sendai, the center and gateway to Tohoku, is only an hour and a half away from Tokyo by bullet train, and Matsushima, one of the three most scenic spots in Japan, is just 30 minutes away from Sendai. The six prefectures in the Tohoku region are surrounded by the sea, while the inland areas are rich in nature with mountains and forests. Thanks to this nature, the region has a culinary appeal that rivals that of the world-famous Hokkaido, with seafood caught off the coast of Kinkasan, one of the world's three largest fishing grounds, wagyu beef such as Yonezawa beef and Maesawa beef, delicious rice and vegetables, and delicious sake made from good rice and good water.
It is also a region where you can enjoy historical buildings and festivals such as Chuson-ji Konjikido in Iwaizumi in Iwate Prefecture and the Nebuta Festival in Aomori, along with nature in every season. The people of Tohoku have a reserved nature and are not good at promoting their own charms, which unfortunately means these charms are not communicated to the world.
Oysters from Onagawa
Onagawa is known for its fisheries
Kokoro: How are you and your company involved in the local community? What role does food play in this?
Senrei's Oi-san: The company I work for, Senrei, has the motto: "Bringing the goodness of Onagawa to the world". We have been exporting our main product, frozen scallops, to more than 10 countries. When we first started exporting frozen scallops, Hokkaido had a near monopoly on the market, and we were often asked "Why not Hokkaido? Where is Tohoku? Where is Miyagi?". However, we have been able to gradually deepen the understanding and appeal of Tohoku by doing such things as sharing showing videos, and now we have reached a point where people want Miyagi scallops. As for myself, I went to various countries as a marketing and sales person, and have been on the front lines of conveying the appeal of Tohoku.
Senrei community event
Kokoro: What were the effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake on your company, the region and the community? How has the reconstruction progressed in the past 10 years?
Senrei's Oi-san: I have been involved with the town of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, where I currently live, through support activities since after the earthquake in 2012, and moved there in 2016 when I joined my current company. I have been observing the reconstruction process from one year after the earthquake to the present, and I have seen that Onagawa Town has made the most of its compact administrative structure. It is known as the "top runner in reconstruction" and reconstruction has progressed much faster than in other areas. The town of Onagawa was almost completely destroyed by the earthquake, so the current state of the town is drastically different from what it was before the disaster. But I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that we have succeeded in building a town that is now visited by many people. However, I feel that other areas with large administrative bodies, such as neighboring Ishinomaki, have yet to fully recover.
Kokoro: How are external influences such as the government budget, the Olympics, and pandemic effecting the recovery?
Senrei's Oi-san: In terms of the reconstruction budget, it is said that the town of Onagawa decided early on not to build a seawall and used the budget for other projects, which helped speed up the recovery process. For businesses like ours, the reconstruction budget allowed us to make dramatic investments, and by "turning a pinch into an opportunity," we have been able to take on new challenges in the global market. In fact, there are only a few businesses like ours that have revitalized and reconstructed their businesses with a new vision that is different from the one they had before the earthquake. Many others only worked on "revitalizing" their pre-earthquake businesses which means they weren't able to regain the sales channels they lost and many of them have been forced to close their businesses.
As for the Olympics, before the pandemic, I was thinking about how to attract overseas visitors to Tohoku. But under these circumstances, I don't even know if spectators will be able to come to Japan. In any case, I honestly feel that the "Olympics for Reconstruction" has become nothing more than a slogan.
The pandemic has been particularly devastating to the agricultural, fishery, and food manufacturing industries, which are the main industries in Tohoku. In particular, manufacturers of foodstuffs for restaurants and souvenirs have seen their sales plummet, and like the restaurants, they have been forced into a difficult situation. Our company was also hit hard in the last fiscal year due to a sharp decline in sales and exports of food products for business use, but we were able to respond to domestic demand by developing products for general consumers early on and bringing them to the market in the current fiscal year. Thanks to this our business is expanding.
Interviewee Oi-san and Musubimaru, rice ball samurai, from Miyagi prefecture
Kokoro: What is your vision for the future of Tohoku?
Senrei's Oi-san: It is said that if nothing is done about the current state, Sendai will be the only city left by 2050. However, I believe that the Tohoku region has great potential and will have a bright future if we work on the following:
- Continuing to promote Tohoku's food and food culture to the world through exports. As mentioned above, we must continue to promote Tohoku's world-class food and food culture to make people aware of the appeal of Tohoku.
- Integrating outbound (exports of food and food culture) and inbound (people from overseas coming to eat delicious food) by: (1) Increasing the number of people from overseas who want to visit Tohoku. (2) Closely integrating and increasing outbound and inbound tourism. Japan has a successful example in Hokkaido, so we need to catch up and overtake it. Tohoku has the most popular snack in Japan, "Hagi no Tsuki", but "Shiroi Koibito" is better known overseas, which is probably due to the difference in "inbound" sales.
- Turning primary businesses in agriculture, forestry, and fisheries into a sought after profession. Globally, we can strongly feel that Japan's agricultural and marine products have the highest reputation in the world. Unfortunately many domestic producers are unable to feel this. If they could become aware of this and focus on the global market with high motivation, I think the future is bright. To be honest, there are a lot of problems that need to be solved domestically such as the difficulty in domestic regulations for succession in businesses to replace the aging population.
- Working to create an environment where Tohoku University's talented people will want to start their own businesses in Tohoku. Currently, Tohoku University's excellent human resources are graduating and leaving for the Tokyo metropolitan area and the world. I think the major issue is how to keep these talented people in Tohoku. In order to do so, not only in agriculture and fisheries, but in all industries, we need to work on making it attractive to start a business in Tohoku. If we can get valuable young people to work in Tohoku, I think the future of Tohoku will be brighter. In fact, the engineering department at Tohoku University has a curriculum for this purpose, and I myself am involved in it.
Learn more in our PRODUCER SPOTLIGHT: Senrei - Small Town Fishery With a Global Impact andat https://www.onagawa-senrei.co.jp/
Photo credit ©Onagawa Future Creation