National

Motivated women in tsunami-hit Ishinomaki launch new businesses

by Mai Iida

Kyodo

Starting up a business never occurred to Sachiko Setsuda, a 50-year-old housewife, until her community in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, was devastated by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

But Setsuda is now busy preparing to open a cake shop in a temporary shopping area run by survivors of the calamity, motivated by a seven-month entrepreneurship seminar offered for free by Nihon L’Oreal K.K, the Japan unit of French cosmetics giant L’Oreal S.A.

The seminar is designed to help women in the city start up businesses, and includes lessons on basic marketing, advice from local business operators and lectures by prominent female business leaders.

Setsuda, who has lived in temporary housing since her home was washed away by the tsunami, joined the seminar out of mere curiosity. She said it “helped me to get the courage to stand on my own feet,” and she became motivated to turn her hobby of baking cookies and cakes into a career.

Three-quarters of Ishinomaki’s housing was destroyed or damaged by the giant waves, which reached as high as 8.6 meters in some areas. Around 3,600 people died or went missing in the city, whose population was about 163,000 before the disaster. The number of evacuees there peaked at more than 50,000 in the wake of the disaster.

Nihon L’Oreal has provided some support services in the disaster-ravaged areas, such as operating a bus that offers onboard hairdressing services and opening a cafe/house where locals could get together and chat. That helped the company figure out what other types of assistance the community was in need of, according to Vice President Maki Imura.

In 2013, the company launched a free five-month human resource development seminar, including lessons on computers, makeup and communications skills for 25 women in the city.

The seminar received favorable reviews, and the company decided to launch an advanced course this year to help women in Ishinomaki start businesses and become economically independent.

“We thought it was time to take (support) to the next stage,” Imura said.

The entrepreneurship seminar, called “Eyes for Future by Lancome,” was offered from March to September in cooperation with a local nonprofit organization and the Ishinomaki Municipal Government. It was funded mainly by revenue from mascara sold for charity, and attracted 11 women, including Setsuda.

She said she was initially hesitant to take the risk of starting up a business, thinking that finding a part-time job would be a much better way to help out with household expenses.

But after learning about break-even points and advertising methods at the seminar, she decided to open a sweet shop and a cooking school named Chez Setta this fall.

“My family was safe, but everyone (in Ishinomaki) lost someone they care about and treasure,” she said. “I came to believe strongly that we, the people who survived, have to live life to the fullest.”

Women in Ishinomaki tend to get married at a young age and many want to work to supplement the family income. But it’s hard to find a decent job while raising a child, said Yoshie Kaneko, the 43-year-old president of the local NPO that helped put on the seminar. Opportunities to learn new skills and to network are helpful for women in such a situation, she added.

Shiho Abe, a 22-year-old hairdresser and mother of a 2-year-old girl, said there are few opportunities to learn nail care and makeup skills in Ishinomaki, unlike in big cities such as Sendai and Tokyo.

Given the opportunity to learn about such beauty services in the seminar, Abe now aims to open a one-stop salon that offers hairdressing, nail care and eyelash extension services, as Ishinomaki has few such shops.

Michiyo Kasuga, 40, was also eager to make the best of the opportunity, joining the seminar while pregnant and giving birth to her third baby while taking the course.

Kasuga, whose house collapsed in the tsunami, bought the first floor of a private house in the city and opened a bakery shop named Ranran Ficicant in March, using her savings and subsidies for entrepreneurs.

She now racks up sales of around ¥200,000 to ¥250,000 per month by selling bagels made from local “okara” soy pulp and operating an adjacent cafe, which is still hovering around the break-even point.

Kasuga treasures the bond between mothers who helped each other in raising children after the disaster, and opened the cafe to create a place where mothers can get together with their children and relax.

She has hired two mothers part-time and allows them to bring their children to work.

“After the quake disaster, the link between mothers was very strong and they provided emotional support for me,” Kasuga said. “Now my dream is to maintain this shop as a workplace where child-rearing mothers can bring their children.”