Food producer breathes life into shattered Rikuzentakata

by Akane Sujino

Kyodo

Akie Hoshi never imagined she would be able to find work in her hometown of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, just a year after the tsunami spawned by the Great East Japan Earthquake smashed into the coastal city, erasing entire districts.

Yet Hoshi has been working for Yagisawa Shoten, an established maker and seller of soy sauce and miso paste in Rikuzentakata, since April 2012. Her current job involves placing orders and serving customers.

Like many other businesses in Tohoku that were shattered by the March 11, 2011, catastrophe, Yagisawa Shoten’s factory and storehouse in the city were swept away by the 10- to 15-meter tsunami, killing its sales manager.

In that single stroke, the survival of the more than 200-year-old soy sauce maker appeared in jeopardy. But the company’s president, Michihiro Kono, 39, hired new graduates the very next month, and then again the following April, with the hope of offering young residents the opportunity to stay and help reconstruct their hometown.

Just 21 days after the 9.0-magnitude quake struck deep off Tohoku’s coast, Kono gathered his employees at a local driving school that he had rented as temporary office space.

The firm’s funds would dry up in eight months unless it resumed operations and began to turn a profit again, he told them.

To demonstrate his determination to get back to business as soon as possible, he paid the workers a salary for March.

Yagisawa Shoten, founded in 1807, resumed operations in May 2011 and started manufacturing some of its products that autumn at a plant run by another firm in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture. Yagisawa Shoten completed its own factory in Rikuzentakata last December.

“If I had dismissed our workers and canceled our offers to graduates, people would have started leaving Rikuzentakata in droves. It was time for us to repay the debt of gratitude to the people here,” Kono recalled.

“We had to take on the challenge and bring a breath of fresh air to the city during those dark days,” he added.

Among those present at the gathering that day was Aki Murakami, 20, who had received an offer of employment from Yagisawa Shoten before the quake and tsunami wiped much of the northeastern coast off the map.

“Many of my classmates had their job offers canceled after the disaster and I was afraid that I may not be able to join the company either,” Murakami said, adding her fears proved unfounded.

As for Hoshi, she was a freshman attending a two-year college in the inland city of Ichinoseki, around 50 km southwest of Rikuzentakata, at the time of the March 11 calamities.

She was unable to return to her home in central Rikuzentakata for about a week, and then learned that the waves had killed her grandparents and carried away her house. Everything that used to be there was gone.

“It felt like I was dreaming,” Hoshi said. “Even now, I still can’t believe it.”

Hoshi had been ready to start looking for a postgraduation job, but at that point, finding one in Rikuzentakata appeared an impossibility — until she heard that Yagisawa Shoten was hiring.

She wrote a letter to Kono, saying, “I will overcome my shy nature so that I can return to the city and its people the favors I have received from them.”

Kono was impressed by Hoshi’s passion and decided to recruit her and one additional worker, even though many had told him that one employee would be sufficient for a company whose total workforce stood at around 40.

Hoshi, who is still living in temporary housing with her parents, has since managed to overcome her shyness in dealing with other people and said she now enjoys talking to customers, who regularly offer encouragement for Tohoku’s swift and full recovery.

She is going to start work at the company’s factory this spring, and hopes to help make products that are beneficial for people’s health by capitalizing on her certification as a nutritionist.

“There should be something I can do for people” in Rikuzentakata, she said, adding that, at this stage, she is planning to spend the rest of her life in her hometown.