Tsunami-hit fishermen tap Net to regroup

Oystermen in Tohoku embrace online marketing in bid to rebuild

by Keisuke Iwata

Kyodo

Kazuki Suzuki, a 32-year-old oyster farmer from Ishinomaki, a city washed off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, has been marketing his produce through his Yahoo! page for about a year now.

He is just one of a rising number of local young fishermen who are turning to IT to thrive since the disaster disrupted traditional fishery operations.

Ishinomaki was well-known for its rich marine resources and shellfish farming, once hosting more than 200 food-processing firms.

In addition to taking sales orders, Suzuki uses the Facebook application on his iPad to chat with other oyster farmers in distant areas to discuss farming techniques and market trends. He frequently uploads videos and photos to share his experiences.

Throughout his 14-year career in the family-owned business, Suzuki, like many of his colleagues, had not touched a computer or ever felt the desire to use one until the 2011 disasters hit.

The tsunami washed away many of the local oyster farming facilities and destroyed the traditional distribution chain.

As of January 2014, about half of the local food-processing plants, which used to purchase the majority of the oysters, had yet to reopen, according to the city government.

Business ties with major retailers also remain severed, making it hard for local fishermen to find markets for their produce, the fishermen said.

Faced with a tougher business environment, Suzuki bought his first tablet computer in November 2012 and ventured onto the Internet for the first time in his life to start marketing his produce directly online.

“I somehow managed to resume farming two months after the tsunami but without any idea where to sell the oysters since many processing companies had disappeared,” Suzuki said.

“Seeking solutions, I consulted Yahoo Japan at its local satellite office for advice,” he said.

At the meeting, the Tokyo-based portal operator offered technical support on handling IT devices, prompting him to immediately get an iPad.

Online sales now account for up to 20 percent of his revenue.

Suzuki said the new business is also making him more consumer-oriented.

“Up to the earthquake, our farm was like a mass-production plant. Now we are seeking to grow more quality oysters to differentiate them from others,” the Ishinomaki native said.

Suzuki said his online business benefited greatly at first because people were willing to help disaster-hit fishermen. Now he feels that support is fading.

“To survive the real competition, full efforts are required from now on to make our produce more attractive,” he said.

Yahoo Japan Corp. opened a satellite office in Ishinomaki in July 2012, participating in efforts to help rebuild local industries with its IT expertise, including online marketing platforms.

Fishermen in Japan “have not been paying much attention to these business aspects for decades, as the fisheries industry has been protected by traditional business practices, preventing them from trying new things,” Takuya Hasegawa, head of the Ishinomaki office, said. “But it needs to follow social changes to stay up-to-date.

“The fishermen we are working with enjoy their new businesses, and the profit margin they take is much higher than that relying on the conventional distribution system, which must go through many middlemen before reaching consumers,” he said.

The local fisheries cooperative association, however, stresses the need to retain the traditional fish auction and distribution system to ensure the prosperity and stability of the local industry.

Shinetsu Kikuchi, chairman of JF Miyagi, a Miyagi prefectural fishery cooperative, said, “We acknowledge the importance of winning fans and repeat (customers) of our local produce . . . but a failure (of new types of distribution) would put local fishermen at risk.”

Kikuchi said direct marketing remains an unstable business.

“As an organizing body of 10,000 local fishermen, we cannot shift our focal points to any unstable scheme. A stable fishery industry is our ultimate goal.”

Under traditional practice, fishermen sell produce to distributors at auctions organized by a local fishery cooperative.

In the current oyster season, which began in October 2013 and ends in May 2014, 1,300 tons of peeled oysters are expected to be produced in Miyagi, according to data from JF Miyagi. That’s a significant recovery from the 318 tons in 2011 but is still less than a third of the pre-disaster level, when output surpassed 4,000 tons a season.

Oyster prices remain up to 30 percent lower than before the disasters, the local co-op said.

The number of oyster farmers has recovered to around 480, after bottoming out at 200 in 2011, but is only about half of the 900 who were present before March 11.