MINAMISANRIKU, MIYAGI PREF. – Akio Sato runs a factory making leather bags in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, hoping to create a new industry and help speed recovery in the coastal fishing and farming town that was hit hard by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
“People might laugh when they hear me saying I’d like to make this town a major manufacturing foothold for fashion,” the 63-year-old Sato says. “I believe this way we can return the favors we received from people who have supported us.”
Sato, who was born and grew up in Minamisanriku, previously owned an electronics parts production factory. It was flooded by the tsunami.
He and his family survived the disasters, and he managed to rent a factory and resume production operations in a neighboring town just a month later.
“While staying in an evacuation center, we only felt depressed,” he says. “I decided that if there was a place to work, it would help my employees become a bit more positive about their future.”
Three months after the earthquake he learned the president of an apparel store in the Minamiaoyama fashion district in Tokyo was looking for a factory in Minamisanriku to help the town.
Sato had no experience in fashion, but he quickly decided to jump in.
“I thought it would be a blessing if new jobs are created and if even one or two people would be able to find work,” he said.
Sato began manufacturing bags in spring 2012 and brought the operation to Minamisanriku last fall.
“When children currently in elementary school or junior high have grown up, they might choose to stay in the town if there’s a job they’re interested in,” he said. “I want them to stay until they see this town recover.”
At his factory, 13 workers cut leather into strips about 2 cm wide and 30 cm long and weave them by hand.
He said the theme of the bags is a star, based on something he heard from local children.
They told him that as they waited for their parents to pick them up on the night of the earthquake, they watched the stars shining in the sky.