Tohoku returnee taps biz expertise to revive tsunami-stunned Ishinomaki neighborhood


Staff Writer

Like many other coastal areas devastated by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, when entrepreneur Takashi Tachibana, 46, first stepped into the remote Ogatsu district to help Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, it was chaos.

Almost everything was lost in the tsunami-flattened town, and it was more than clear the community would experience depopulation if nothing was done, he said. When he considered the future, he felt it was crucial to bring children back.

“Everything was lost . . . there was nothing left for local children in Ogatsu,” Tachibana said. “When I mulled ways to bring them back to Ogatsu, I thought of reviving career-experience workshops such as fishing and (forestry) that the local schools used to have.”

The turning point came when the principal of a junior high school showed him a post-disaster pledge written by a student that forever changed his life.

“The student lost her mother to tsunami. But she said she wouldn’t spend every day crying about the loss. She said she would live strong, because she believed that is what would make her mother happy,” he said. “When I read that, tears started flowing . . . I don’t know what it was, but it urged me to do something.”

The experience prompted him to become a social entrepreneur and revive the tsunami-flattened town.

Tachibana’s two-pronged approach is focused on restoring the neighborhood’s battered fisheries industry and providing education and support for children.

First, he launched a company to offer work-experience programs focused on Ogatsu’s traditional industries, including agriculture. These were made available to local children both in Japan and abroad.

Last July, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, his company Sweet Treat 311 converted an abandoned elementary school into 44-bed dormitory for children enrolled in the programs. Tachibana believes the neighborhood’s abundant nature and seafood-rich bay have enough charm to attract the visitors needed to revive.

“Ogatsu could be a new model for reviving a region under depopulation,” Tachibana said. “By creating an environment where people want to work, and raise their children … I believe the town will eventually come alive.”

According to the latest census, Ogatsu’s population shrank to 1,017 in 2015 from 3,994 in 2010, a 74.5 percent plunge ranked as the biggest in Ishinomaki, which lost about 80 percent of its coastal infrastructure.

Since the facility, named Moriumius, opened last year, around 2,000 people from Japan, the United States, Singapore, China and France have come to stay, Tachibana said.

“I want to make Ogatsu a place where people gather from all over the world. A kind of place where children can have global experiences,” he said.

The former Tokyoite said he used to be more business-minded, relying on his head instead of his heart. But the experience of seeing so many corpses burned and his encounters with people in the disaster’s chaotic aftermath changed him.

“Rather than thinking too much, I felt the importance of taking action based on what I felt,” he said.

After graduating from Tohoku University, Tachibana joined major trading house Itochu Corp. in 1994. The plan was to quit in a few years after gaining the knowledge needed to launch a startup.

At Itochu, Tachibana’s work involved importing and exporting resin. He was later loaned to convenience store chain Family Mart Corp., where he learned about supply chains.

After six years at Itochu, in 2000, Tachibana founded Evervision Inc., an online food distribution company that catered to restaurants. The startup grew steadily and chalked up annual sales of nearly ¥2 billion, he said. But Tachibana said he had misgivings about distributing processed food containing additives.

It was during that period when Tachibana was asked, out of the blue, to step down from the presidency. He soon found the company he had founded a decade earlier was now in the hands of an investment firm that held 75 percent of its shares.

“It was a huge shock,” Tachibana recalled. “When I went there to deliver New Year’s greetings at a meeting, a board director asked me to resign. I declined, but they sacked me that day.

“But by the evening of that day, I kind of felt I was freed at last from something that I had been clinging to,” Tachibana said.

While the incident may have closed the door to the company he founded, it opened a new door to the opportunities that would arise from the Great East Japan Earthquake a year later.

After the quake spawned the killer tsunami, he drove from Tokyo to Sendai, where his mother and sister were living, to make sure they were safe. But seeing the chaotic state of the city, Tachibana began supplying Sendai’s shelters with food from Tokyo, making use of his food distribution expertise and business connections.

It didn’t take long for him to move to Ishinomaki.

There, apart from the educational project, Tachibana set up a company with young fishermen to sell their marine products online directly to consumers. It was meant to bypass the several middlemen used in the conventional distribution system to help revive the industry.

Named Ogatsu Sodate no Junin (which translates as Residents to Develop Ogatsu), the enterprise has a list of about 1,500 members who have purchased its products.

By using customer-oriented events, such as local fishing trips and nationwide tasting parties, the fishermen have become more consumer-minded and eager to promote their products — a dramatic change from five years ago, Tachibana said.

“Back then, they were unable to speak even when they were interviewed. But now, they talk passionately without my saying anything,” he said.

Tachibana’s ultimate goal is to turn fishing into a “cool” profession in the eyes of children so they might pursue the job as a career goal. That way, Ogatsu’s fishing industry will be sustained and possibly expand, he said.

“My image is of them handing out oysters they farmed at a hip oyster bar in New York, wearing tuxedos,” Tachibana said.

As a new challenge, the fishermen are now concentrating on farming small oysters, which he said are much sweeter, for export. He plans to launch sales in Hong Kong this month.

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews that appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

Key events in Tachibana’s life

1994 — Graduates from law department of Tohoku University.

1994 — Joins Itochu Corp.

2000 — Launches Evervision Inc.

2011 — Co-founds Sweet Treat 311

2013 — Starts Sodate no Junin

2015 — Opens Moriumius