After closures, caviar producers breathe new life into old schools

by Genki Ito

Kyodo

When Naoki Itasaka, owner of an interior finishing company, heard his alma mater was likely to be demolished after being closed down, he came up with an idea for a new business that would, instead, make good use of the existing campus — sturgeon farming to produce caviar.

So in January, the 45-year-old owner of Takamatsu-based Daikyo Kenko purchased the land and buildings of the former junior high school in Higashikagawa, Kagawa Prefecture, for ¥10 million. With the help of a company with expertise and technology in sturgeon aquaculture, the new business was launched in May.

Four cylindrical water tanks, each approximately 3 meters in diameter, sit inside what used to be the school gymnasium. Despite the tanks’ gigantic size, the sturgeons, ranging from 10 cm to 50 cm long, still looked a bit cramped swimming inside them.

If successful, eggs for making caviar can be harvested in about seven to eight years, according to Itasaka’s company.

Similar businesses turning abandoned school campuses into sturgeon farming facilities have also sprung up in Hokkaido and Fukushima prefectures.

One of the key advantages of using old school campuses is they typically have a gymnasium and a pool, which can be used accordingly depending on the size and growth of the sturgeons, farming experts said. Another merit is that the already existing buildings and infrastructure help minimize expenditures for equipment and plant investment, they said.

In the case of the Kagawa school, the gymnasium is used for nurturing sturgeon fry, with the roof providing protection from birds and other predators. In about 18 to 24 months, they will be moved to the outdoor swimming pool once they become bigger than 50 cm in length.

After being sorted into male and female, the sturgeons will be nurtured until they become about 1 meter long, which is when the eggs can be harvested.

School swimming pools are typically smaller than commercial water tanks for aquaculture, so only a limited number of sturgeon can be farmed at the same time. However, given the high price tag for caviar, those in the business believe it will be profitable.

Utilization of existing facilities at such schools helps hold down investment costs. Shinji Adachi, a professor at Hokkaido University’s Faculty of Fisheries who is involved in sturgeon farming in the town of Bifuka, Hokkaido, said, “Given the fact that it takes quite a while before the actual product can be put on the market, it’s important to be able to minimize the initial investment.”

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, which is promoting the use of schools that have closed down, welcomes the sturgeon farming business as a model case.

“We hope that with (such) cases, the number of abolished schools left unutilized will gradually decrease,” a ministry official said.

In the face of Japan’s shrinking population as well as depopulation in rural areas, a total of 4,709 public schools have been closed down in the 10 years through 2011, according to the ministry.

In 2010, the Board of Audit of Japan called on the ministry to encourage the utilization of closed school campuses that meet quake resistance and other safety standards.

Even though it is ultimately the local authorities’ decision whether to demolish or make good use of such facilities, ministry officials said they do hope the schools can be utilized as much as possible, given that construction of public elementary and junior high schools are subsidized by the national coffers.

Currently, less than 10 percent of all former public schools are being put to use by the private sector, despite the government having exempted under certain requirements the need to pay back subsidies when schools are sold or converted for other purposes.