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Mie pearl farmer looks to Vietnam for new opportunities, fresh workforce

Chunichi Shimbun

Ago Bay in Shima, Mie Prefecture, is one of the leading places in Japan where pearls can be cultured. The number of pearl farmers has declined in recent years, however, and they are an aging workforce.

Shima has been in the spotlight recently, as it will host the Ise-Shima Group of Seven summit scheduled for May.

Tomokazu Tanabe, a 57-year-old pearl farmer from Shima, intends to use the opportunity to revitalize his industry by expanding his business overseas through the introduction of pearl farming to Vietnam.

Tanabe is the third-generation owner of Tanabe Pearl Farm Co. Ltd., located in Daiocho. He has been working to improve farming technology ever since he inherited the family business at the age of 21.

“The pearls from Shima have the highest luster in the world,” Tanabe said as he stood on a raft cleaning pearl oysters.

Talks to expand his business to Vietnam began in earnest this summer, when he was approached by the Ministry of Planning and Investment of Vietnam via the international division of Tsu-based Hyakugo Bank.

They informed him that “investors are looking for Japanese pearl farmers” to work in Phu Quoc, a Vietnamese island off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand, an area that supports the cultivation of pearls.

According to the Japan External Trade Organization, there is an increase in demand for pearls among Vietnamese consumers thanks to the country’s recent economic growth. Pearl farming is not well-established in Vietnam, however, with most cheap pearls on the market coming instead from China. Japanese farmers are particularly rare.

Hyakugo Bank approached Tanabe, who was their client, asking him to inspect Phu Quoc for its potential.

Tanabe discovered on his visit a river running to the sea that contained the minerals essential to the growth of cultured pearls. It was mostly untouched. “This location is perfect for farming pearls,” Tanabe said.

As he walked around the island, the idea of expansion began to take root in his mind.

Tanabe plans to begin operating in Vietnam in 2016 — a decision largely influenced by the situation in his home country.

According to a survey conducted by Mie Prefecture’s department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries’ marine resources division, there were 315 pearl farmers in the prefecture in 2013, roughly 10 percent of the number during its peak in the mid-1960s.

As typhoons and red tides can have a huge impact on the harvest — and consequently the farmer’s income — many young farmers have left, resulting in a graying workforce.

Tanabe plans to bring young Vietnamese farmers to Japan so he can train them. After working in his farm in Japan, they will be sent back to Vietnam to help run the farm there.

Not only will this exchange of workers revitalize Shima, it may also inspire others to expand overseas, it is hoped.

When introducing interested parties from the two countries, Hyakugo Bank will inform the Vietnamese side that Ise-Shima is going to host the next G-7 summit, which always leads to a better response.

“This is a good chance for us to show the value of Shima pearls,” Tanabe said.

“I hope this will give an impetus to local business to expand to Vietnam as well.”

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Dec. 7.