The recruiters and job-seekers gathered recently in a hall in central Tokyo looked serious but excited as they sat facing each other and talking across tables. But this wasn’t an event pitching young men in suits against corporate managers.

On this occasion the recruiters were fishermen from some 40 ports around Japan, come to meet people interested in joining their industry.

“The work starts early in the morning and holidays are not regular. Is that all right for you?” a suntanned and athletically built fisherman from the Ogasawara Islands 1,000 km south of Tokyo asked Shoichi Izumi, a 36-year-old truck driver.

“I think I can stand it,” Izumi replied. “Do you think I can learn the job in half a year?”

“It’s up to you. I have seen people who got seasick easily and gave up,” the fisherman said.

After they exchanged their contacts details and finished their interview, I asked Izumi — who had learned about the July 25 event at Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho from the Internet — why he wants to be a fisherman.

“I love the ocean and I am looking for a job related to the sea,” he said. “Even if the pay is low, it is OK as long as I can live by myself.”

Possibly because of the recession and rising unemplyment, the job fair attracted 250 people, around 50 more than usual at fishermen’s job fairs in Tokyo according to the organizers, Zenkoku Gyogyo Shugyosha Kakuho Ikusei Center (National Center for Recruiting People to Engage in Fishery).

Of those, most were men in their 20s, 30s or 40s and dressed in casual clothes, as well as a few women — including 26-year-old Megumi Nazato from Chiba City, who was there to gather information on fishery jobs for her husband, who couldn’t attend himself because of his work.

“My husband’s grandfather was a fisherman in Fukui Prefecture,” Nazato said, “and he wants to return there and harvest fish. But we don’t know what the job entails, so that’s why I came here.”

Out of 250 people who attended the job fair, 100 were later accepted as trainees by fishermen who interviewed them, according to the organizers. This is but a drop in the ocean, though, as the National Center reckons that every year around 10,000 fishermen retire, while only about 1,200 step in to take their places and the acute labor shortage increases.

Overall, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the number of fisherman nationwide fell from 278,000 in 1997 to 204,000 in 2007. Also, partly due to Japan’s rapidly graying population, 48 percent of the men working in fishery in 2007 were aged 60 or over.

In response to this, the National Center that organized the Yurakucho event has been staging similar job fairs around the country four or five times a year since 2002. A spokesman for the National Center also added that the government’s Fisheries Agency has been channeling financial support through it to fishermen’s cooperatives to pay part of the training costs of some 100 new fishermen a year.

However, as Vice President Hajime Nanke explained, “The number of fishermen in Japan has been decreasing by 9,000 every year recently, and we have to stop the decline.”

Pointing to one reason for the fall, Nanke said that children of fishermen nowadays tend not to want to engage in the hard labor of fishing or face the dangers of the sea.

Hideo Tabuse, a 58-year-old fisherman from Arida in Wakayama Prefecture, a port known for landing the nation’s largest catches of tachiuo (cutlass fish), said that neither of his two sons wanted to follow in his footsteps — with one now working in the automobile industry in Nagoya, and the other in real estate in Osaka. “The average age of fishermen in our port is in their 50s, and we want young people to join us,” said Tabuse, a smiling, sun-weathered old salt. “Our community, surrounded by sea and mountain, is an inconvenient place, but people there are all warmhearted.”

For his part, Nanke of the National Center said that another factor behind the plummeting numbers in the fishery industry was its typically low pay compared to that of company workers, with the average annual income of a fisherman who also farms being around ¥2.5 million.

Fishing’s miserly rewards are due to the low price of fish, industry sources said; while according to a report compiled by the Fisheries Agency, although fish prices normally rise when catches fall, despite declining catches in the past several years, prices have stayed low in part due to an increase in cheap imports.

However, Nanke noted that as fishermen can provide some of their own food, their living expenses may be lower than those of company workers. “Most people don’t know about a fisherman’s work or life, so we held this fair so people can learn how hard but how much fun it is to work in the fishing industry,” he said.

At the Yurakucho event, both the pains and the pleasures of fishery work were certainly well respresented in talks given by experienced fishermen and one fisherwoman.

Chikako Furuya, photographer and former fisherwoman, said that after she saw a fisherman in Okinawa diving in the sea without an oxygen tank to harpoon fish, she was moved to take up that occupation there.

“It’s simple job in a sense and great to do,” Furuya said, adding that she did it for a living from 1992 to 1995. But unless many more young people enter the industry, she said, the skills of the older generation will be lost because there will be no one for them to hand them on to before they pass away.

Hiroshi Hamano, a fisherman from Shimane Prefecture, said he had worked in a pharmaceutical company in Osaka for 12 years after graduating from university. But as he had loved fishing ever since his childhood, he changed his job and became a fisherman at the grand old age of 35.

“Though my wife objected, saying, ‘It’s not the kind of job that an amateur can do,’ I persuaded her and went to Shimane by myself to become a fisherman,” he said. Although he admitted the job is hard, as he often has to work on the boat fishing and sorting the catch from 3 a.m. to 5 p.m. without any rest, he explained that he enjoys “watching the world of the sea, such as swimming dolphins and spouting whales. And I hope one day to have my own boat.”

And last but far from least here in Japan — which itself sourced 57 percent of its consumed seafood in 2005, according to the Fisheries Agency — if large numbers of people don’t follow Hamano’s lead soon, a shortage of fishermen is sure to lead to a shortfall in the supply of its beloved seafood.

“People in Japan are getting 40 percent of the animal protein they need from seafood,” Nanke of the National Center said. “So fishing is a vital industry for the people — and fishermen can be justly proud of their jobs.”

But whether such pride — and the romance of the sea — will be enough to reverse the decline in one of Japan’s most traditional industries, only time will tell.

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