Immigration: the missing piece in the Tohoku recovery puzzle?


If you stand on high ground overlooking the ocean at Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture, you will see an almost perfectly sheltered harbor, its northern and southern sides enclosed by hills and the small island of Dejima near its mouth. In that topography lies the secret of the power of the tsunami that overwhelmed the town on March 11, 2011. Its strength concentrated and channeled by the harbor, it reached a height of 20 meters and, with a velocity of over 6 meters per second, it swept in to engulf, crush or drive everything in its path.

Seventy percent of the town’s buildings were destroyed, including several constructed with reinforced concrete; many civil engineers had thought such structures were impervious to tsunami. The far-more-fragile human beings caught in the tsunami’s path had little chance to escape. A total of 827 people died, and there was hardship and grief for those who survived. Nanami Kanda, a student whose testimony was published in a book titled “The Haiku of Onagawa First Junior High School Students: From that Day On” summed up what bereaved survivors endured in the following months:

Spring. The shorefront was covered in debris, and flies were everywhere. Whenever I saw that dirty shorefront, I thought of my grandfather’s last moments, and I was filled with bitterness. My grandfather, who I lived with my whole life, was a local ward chief. After the earthquake, he had gone out to warn everyone to evacuate when the tsunami swallowed him up.

In the years after 3/11, I sometimes worked in Onagawa as a volunteer, but I was only vaguely aware of the bold town renewal plans being hatched by its citizens and its new mayor, Yoshiaki Suda. When I visited Onagawa in January with Canadian photojournalist Michel Huneault (also a former volunteer), it became clearer to me what its citizens had achieved since 3/11 — and what challenges they still face.

The shorefront is now clean and lined with rebuilt and new fisheries facilities. Meanwhile, the renewed town center is attracting the most attention. Christian Dimmer, an urban studies scholar and assistant professor for urban design at the University of Tokyo, spoke highly of it to me, saying that it “reflects the best current urban planning Japan has to offer: a compact urban form, walkable public spaces and iconic architecture.”

Its elegant centerpiece is the rebuilt train station designed by Shigeru Ban, an architect known globally for his postdisaster building design. Beyond the station stands the new shopping village, featuring a small supermarket, a grocery, clothing stores, an art studio, a diving shop, bars and cafes. A nonfranchise cafe selling decent Italian-style espresso is quite rare even in bigger Japanese cities, yet Onagawa can now boast of one with the Mother Port Cafe. I wondered whether Onagawa could reinvent itself as a fashionable, internationalized seaside town.

The owner of the High Bridge diving shop, Masayoshi Takahashi, reinforced this impression when I spoke to him. Onagawa, he said, was quite “local” before the tsunami, and was not well known for tourism. Only after 3/11 did people begin to consider wider possibilities for the town. While leading a volunteer group to clean the shorefronts along Miyagi Prefecture’s coast, he realized that Onagawa, with its rich marine life, had potential for diving tourism. He told me a group of Swedes had recently taken their diving licenses with him, and some divers from Hawaii had also visited.

Other shop owners spoke of Onagawa’s potential for young entrepreneurs. Choko Chiba came from Iwate Prefecture over four years ago to volunteer in Ishinomaki with my NPO, It’s Not Just Mud, before setting up the Sugar Shack bar in Onagawa with her partner, Onagawa native Shuhei Sakimura.

Sakimura, who lost his grandmother and younger brother on 3/11, explained to me why he decided to give up his former factory job in neighboring Ishinomaki and set up this business.

“After the tsunami, I realized the importance of life — that we never know when something might happen to us,” he said. “I didn’t want to end up regretting how I’d lived my life, so I decided to do something that I’d always wanted to do”.

Chiba said that for young businesspeople like herself and Sakimura, Onagawa is a place that provides “an opportunity for a challenge.”

“This is a town with a strong spirit of mutual support,” she explained. “Its attraction really is its can-do attitude, so young people are coming here and acquiring the confidence to succeed.”

Yet while young entrepreneurs are being attracted to Onagawa, it is also depopulating, fast. As in other regional areas of Japan, the immigration of its citizens to better opportunities in the cities has been going on for decades. In 1964, Onagawa’s population was 18,000; by 2010 it had fallen to around 10,000. It is also aging. Retirees made up 15 percent of the population in 1990, but by 2010 they had increased to 33.6 percent.

These trends have accelerated since 3/11. According to a Mainichi Shimbun study, 1,867 residents left Onagawa between March 2011 and December 2014, with just over half moving to Ishinomaki. Some rendered homeless by the tsunami could no longer endure living in temporary accommodation as they waited for new residential areas to be developed; others could no longer face daily reminders of lost family members in the town. Onagawa’s population now stands at 6,800.

This inexorable depopulation raises questions about Onagawa’s long-term resilience. Less working-age adults means fewer employees for key industries such as fisheries, and lower municipal tax revenues to maintain essential local services. Less children means school closures.

The proportionate increase in retirees requires more expenditure on facilities and services to cater to their welfare needs, just when local tax revenue is falling. Future tax revenue from the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant may offset some of these shortfalls — if it goes back online. Somehow, a better demographic balance needs to be established to manage, if not arrest, this depopulation and its effects.

So I was mulling over some questions when I went to interview Onagawa’s mayor. Suda is an easygoing, approachable man his early 40s, equally at home in the busy nerve center of Onagawa’s reconstruction at the city office or jamming on guitar with friends in the shopping village. He comfortably fielded my questions about international and civil-society contributions to Onagawa’s reconstruction, and about the state of Onagawa’s fisheries. But I had another question for him: about whether a national immigration policy targeting high-demand employment sectors in towns like Onagawa could contribute to their long-term sustainability.

I knew that Chinese and other East Asians were being employed through Japan’s Technical Internship Training Program in Onagawa’s seafood processing plants, reaching a high of 239 out of a total of 1,200 employees in 2009. I told the mayor I knew about Mitsuru Sato, the senior manager of an Onagawa seafood company who died after saving its 20 Chinese trainees on 3/11. Out of gratitude, four of them later returned from China to finish their internships. Such loyal foreign residents could be exactly what Onagawa needs, I said.

But what I had in mind was (as I told him) a completely hypothetical policy idea that goes beyond the trainee and internship scheme. It could target foreign workers for industries like fisheries or aged care and, in return for working for, say, five years as regular employees in those industries in towns like Onagawa and acquiring some Japanese proficiency, they could apply for Japanese citizenship. What did Suda think of this idea?

He chose his words carefully in reply.

“Naturally the national and local government roles (regarding immigration policy) are separate, and there’s not much I can say about the national government’s role,” he said. “But we’ve been receiving a lot of Chinese trainees to work in fisheries plants, both before and after 3/11.

“Putting to one side industry’s demand for more trainees, potential problems include first of all Japan’s unique language, its lifestyle habits, culture, of how to prevent cultural clashes as much as possible. … Unless we have an atmosphere in which both sides accept culture differences, there will be a lot of issues.” So, he concluded, “Before we discuss whether or not to accept more foreign workers, the important thing to consider is how we and our systems can deal with all of this.”

Mayor Suda is right; there is a need for such reflection and discussions. But they have hardly begun. And nor will they any time soon, because open dialogue on immigration is constrained by rigid, emotive preoccupations with protecting national and cultural identity — a way of thinking hardly unique to Japan.

Towns like Onagawa will have to struggle for their post-3/11 future as best they can, against powerful demographic headwinds, as long-term trends of regional depopulation assert themselves with redoubled force.

Shaun O’Dwyer is a co-director in the emergency relief NPO It’s Not Just Mud. Michel Huneault is a documentary photographer based in Montreal. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about issues related to life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

How all 162 of Onagawa’s foreign trainees were saved

China affairs journalist Konatsu Himeda called it a miracle: How did all 162 foreign trainees working in Onagawa survive the tsunami when so many others there perished?

The answer to this question lies in the actions of the Onagawa citizens who helped them, including their company bosses. One of them, Mitsuru Sato, senior manager of the Sato Suisan fisheries plant, was hailed as a hero in the Japanese and Chinese press after 3/11.

Immediately after the earthquake, the plant’s 20 Chinese trainees ran out of their dormitory, unsure what to do. Sato found them, said that a tsunami was coming and led them to a shrine on high ground near the factory before returning to look for his wife and daughter. When the tsunami arrived the trainees looked on, helpless, as Sato climbed onto the roof of a building and was then swept away.

In an interview with the Japanese media, one trainee said, “If Mr. Sato hadn’t been there, the 20 of us wouldn’t have survived.” Sato’s brother Hitoshi, the company owner, spent most of the next day finding shelter for the trainees.

This story was widely publicized in China, at a time when Japan-China relations had deteriorated over the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute. Himeda translated some Chinese social media comments: “Esteemed Mr. Sato, we will never forget you. We pray for your wife and child’s happiness in the next life”; “I’m really moved by this. Of course there are many good people in Japan.” On a visit to Tohoku in May 2011, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao personally paid tribute to Sato.

Japan’s Technical Intern Training Program has been justly criticized for its labor rights violations. The assistance Onagawa’s citizens gave to their foreign trainees on 3/11 may offer a glimmer of hope for a better future for foreign workers in Japan. (Shaun O’Dwyer)

  • solodoctor

    What a heartening story of recovery. The demographic challenge, however, is a very sobering issue. Will this Mayor have the determination and political moxy to try to get the central government to allow more immigrant settlement there? If anything, Onagawa could be used as a test case to see how far this can go in Japan. I hope the JT will follow up on this story in future months to come.

  • Mark Flanigan

    This is a very well-researched and nuanced look at many issues facing Japan since 3/11. Sooner or later, though, Japan won’t really have a choice. Without some sort of new, comprehensive immigration policy (for long-term immigrants, not temporary workers), I don’t see how Japan will be able to maintain its comfortable standard of living, education/health care/pension systems. When I went back to visit Hirado (my JET placement city in Nagasaki) after about 10 years, I was shocked at how fewer people there were, how many business and schools had been shuttered, and so on. They can fret over possibly losing their unique way of life to increased immigration, but they will certainly lose it entirely to depopulation if nothing is done.

    • Edlyn Pell

      Mass immigration will solve none of Japan’s problems. Look at what it’s done to Europe and that’s with free healthcare. The real solution is simple: stop Keynesian economics. It is a failed system.

  • Manami Okazaki

    Excellent article by Shaun O Dwyer. Well written and thoroughly
    researched. I was positively surprised (more like gobsmacked) at the excellent urban planning of Onagawa, it has totally transformed from a largely forgotten about fishing village which was in a woeful state of obliteration, to a well thought out town, where the train station is well-positioned (and an attraction in itself) and straight path leads you to the ocean, flanked by (what will be) shops on either side — compare that to other dreadfully planned out places along the coast in Kanagawa (beaches under freeways, etc. ) One side of my family is from there, so I’ve been many times, but never seen it with such a fresh, vibrant vibe, (of course the Shigeru Ban station helps) and there was a Tohoku Jam party there recently as well. If Onagawa could be a showcase of recovery done right, it could well be a showcase of immigrant settlement done right as well. Agree with solodoctor, would be nice to see a follow up to see what happens to this beautiful little town.

  • A.J. Sutter

    I live in Iwate-ken. I don’t understand why commentators writing in this paper are always recommending international immigration as the solution for Japan’s woes. Speaking as an immigrant who’s been luckier than most, the cultural obstacles are nonetheless gigantic. That isn’t necessarily due to xenophobia, nor is it only due to the language barrier, it’s also due to the extraordinary social glue that makes this a much safer place with more mutual trust than, say China. Most important, if immigrants can’t develop a political and emotional allegiance to their destination country, then they’re a major problem waiting to happen. Obviously, the Japanese government is clueless on how to encourage that.

    Wouldn’t it make much more sense to encourage *internal* immigration, from Tokyo and other metropolitan areas back to Tohoku and other regions? The obstacles to this are also huge, because they require much more integrated thinking than notions like plunking down Chinese on the Sanriku coast, or sending the reconstruction Minister to Kamaishi for 3-minute visits (as residents recently told my wife’s group when they visited with another dignitary, who visits often, last weekend). For example, making it easier for Japanese men and women to raise a family, dispersing central government functionality to Tohoku and elsewhere as a hedge against the Kanto mega-quake that will surely come, cutting back on the resource suck of the Olympics which has made both construction labor and construction materials scarce, etc. Still, this would be much better for the future of Japan than opening the gates to overseas economic migrants (as distinguished from people who come here because they really see their future as part of Japan).

    BTW, Onagawa really is an exceptional case. I drove with my family along the Sanriku during O-Bon season last year. We always visit Onagawa because we drove there by mistake a few weeks after the tsunami, when it was still a hell on earth. Traffic came to a crawl there, because they were having a special memorial ceremony that was attracting former residents from all over Tohoku. Signs of community mobilization were everywhere. We didn’t encounter anything else like that anywhere else. There is some special and terrific chemistry in that community. To consider them a test case for the rest of Tohoku, though, makes no more sense than looking at Google or Apple and concluding that anyone can be a billionaire.

    • TV Monitor

      A.J. Sutter

      They come from countries that are OK with immigration and doesn’t have the xenophobia of Japan’s scale.

    • Hans Gruber

      International Immigration is one way to fix stagnating economic growth and declining birth rate, but it’s by no means the only way.

      And while immigration has worked very well in countries like the US, how realistic is it in an ethnically homogeneous country like Japan?

      The government needs to fix the structural problems which causes the stagnation in the first place, or immigrants would suffer from the same problems that Japanese citizens already do.

      I agree with A.J. Sutter: Fix the structural problems which are causing the stagnation in the first place. He listed most of them. I’d add shake up the economy so there are opportunities for new businesses to form.

  • soudeska

    What I don’t understand is that it’s ok for the foreign workers to live there for five years, but then they have to leave after that? Wouldn’t the vast majority of cultural and language issues occur during the first few years? One would think that after five years, they would have picked up the Japanese language and become accustomed to the way of life. If not, they would probably prefer to move back to their home country anyway.

    • Shaun O’Dwyer

      I stated 5 years residency as a minimal period for satisfying the citizenship criterion mentioned in the hypothetical proposal. People would then be free to continue living in the same place or to move on as they like, just as any other citizen can.

      • soudeska

        I’m sorry my comment was unclear. Your idea makes sense to me–I meant to question the mayor’s logic. He seems to approve of using temporary foreign labor but expresses concerns about letting them continue to live in Japan after the time limit ends. In response to your proposal (“in return for working for, say, five years as regular employees in those industries in towns like Onagawa and acquiring some Japanese proficiency, they could apply for Japanese citizenship”) he brings up cultural and language issues. But presumably the candidates for citizenship you are referring to have already picked up the language and become accustomed to the culture.

    • Steve Jackman

      When it comes to immigration, the Japanese actually prefer to have a revolving door policy where foreigners are allowed to live in Japan for only a short period before they are shipped out and replaced by a new set of foreigners who are just “off the boat”.

      It seems counterintuitive for the reasons you mention, but I have repeatedly noticed this living in Japan. As best as I can tell, the reason for this is that the Japanese are extremely paranoid of non-Japanese getting too comfortable living here, since that would lead them to establish roots in Japan, demand to be treated equally, ask for equal wages and expect to be treated as members of Japanese society over time. The Japanese want none of this, so they want to limit the time non-Japanese live in Japan, so as to keep their expectations of becoming members of society very low. They want foreigners to be perpetual outsiders. This is why immigration can never work in Japan.


    VISA -FREE REGIME should introduced all over the globe so that skilled workers can travel from one country to another without any legal technical hassles. Local Laws and rules should be followed by all immigrants. There is shortage of teachers nurses gardeners cooks drivers and highly-skilled doctors engineers journalists. Some nations have surplus population which can be encouraged to migrate to say JAPAN U.S.A. Canada Australia New Zealand Singapore South Korea and several nations. Work Visas/ Tourists’ Visas say for 2-3 years can be issued it will benefit hast nations also. U.N.O. should shift to VISA-FREE REGIME as soon as possible.

    • Jeffrey

      And just which common language will all this free-range labor be using?

      Further, Japan, the U.S., Singapore (!), S. Korea and even “several nations” are all over-populated.

    • Hmmm, so taking doctors, from say Kenya based on higher wages, is going to help Kenya? Also, it is professional bankers, politicians and so forth that are causing a huge amount of problems…. how about teaching the disadvantaged in America, the United Kingdom and so on to learn new skills…..wait, no, forget about that…..we all need more migrants to solve the problem….. even if it doesn’t solve the problem……

    • Hmmm, so taking doctors, from say Kenya based on higher wages, is going to help Kenya? Also, it is professional bankers, politicians and so forth that are causing a huge amount of problems…. how about teaching the disadvantaged in America, the United Kingdom and so on to learn new skills…..wait, no, forget about that…..we all need more migrants to solve the problem….. even if it doesn’t solve the problem……

  • Jeffrey

    Tohoku has been in economic decline for a couple decades now. Most of the towns destroyed to one degree or another by the event of 3/11 will never recover, regardless of how many people move there, Japanese or otherwise, because there are no employment opportunities.

  • Nothing new and just the usual immigration mantra. I guess indigenous culture really thrived in what became America, Australia, Brazil, Canada…. and so forth! Yes, inner city London, Manchester, Paris and so on are really lovely…..and it must be so cool that these major cities will have small minority indigenous populations in the future…..just like Merkel and Cologne …. how lovely….damn, what happened to Tibet?