National

Chiba biwa grower vows to continue despite post-Typhoon Faxai damage

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

In May this year, loquat grower Kenzo Takeba showed The Japan Times around his farm in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, explaining how he cultivates the soft, juicy fruit that contributes so much to the local economy.

Last week, Takeba was contemplating the damage done by Typhoon Faxai, which ripped through the area on Sept. 9, devastating the loquat-growing industry, damaging homes and businesses and leaving residents without electricity for over two weeks.

“I originally had about 30 trees, and about 27 of those were blown over,” said Takeba. “If I start planting young trees now, it will be about five to seven years before they start to bear fruit. I will have no harvest until then.”

Typhoon Faxai, one of the strongest typhoons ever on record to hit the Kanto region, made landfall in Chiba Prefecture in the early hours of Sept. 9, slamming into the area with wind speeds in excess of 200 kph. Municipalities around the prefecture were severely affected, with as many as 935,000 homes hit by power blackouts and around 12,000 houses damaged. Three people were killed and another 40 suffered injuries.

Minamiboso, a coastal municipality with a population of almost 38,000, was among the hardest-hit areas. According to estimates — which are still being calculated — by the Minamiboso Municipal Government, around 8,500 houses in the area sustained damage, and more than half of the households were without electricity for at least 10 days.

Business has also been badly affected, not least among local loquat growers.

The fruit, known as biwa in Japanese, has been cultivated in the area for around 270 years, and a selection of the region’s produce has been presented to the imperial family every year since 1909.

Blue plastic sheets covering damaged roofs are seen on Wednesday in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture. | CHISATO TANAKA
Blue plastic sheets covering damaged roofs are seen on Wednesday in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture. | CHISATO TANAKA

Chiba Prefecture is Japan’s second-biggest grower of loquats behind Nagasaki Prefecture, and the region produced 534 tons of the fruit in 2017, bringing ¥800 million into the local economy. Damage to farms in the wake of the typhoon is still being assessed, but local growers estimate that around 70 percent of biwa trees growing on Minamiboso farms were destroyed.

“I expected some trees to have been blown over, but when I drove to my farm in the morning, my equipment was lying about 20 meters away from where it should have been,” said Takeba, whose trees produced between 12,000 to 13,000 biwa a year on two plots. “Then I saw that the wind had blown all the trees over, and I thought that was the end for me.

“In the best-case scenario now, I can start producing fruit in five years’ time,” he said. “I used to get about 800 biwa from my best trees, but five years after planting a new tree I would probably get less than 100. I was producing about 13,000 fruit a year, but to get back to that level will probably take about 10 to 15 years.”

Loquat production has been steadily declining in Minamiboso in recent years, with a shortage of young people willing to take over from the older generation of growers. Efforts have been made to revitalize the industry, including subsidies from local authorities and greater emphasis on attracting tourists, but some fear it may not recover from this latest blow.

“A lot of the growers are in their 60s and 70s. It’s going to cost a lot to get up and running again, and it will be difficult to recoup that money,” said Terumi Shirafuji, a grower who also owns a shop selling biwa products for tourists. “A lot of people feel they want to give up. There are young people but they are few and far between. I’m trying to motivate them to keep going.

“I would quit if it was just me on my own, but I have people who I will pass it on to so I have to keep going,” he said. “I’ll try my best.”

Repair workers fix roof tiles on a house in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, on Sept. 25. The tiles were blown off by strong winds from Typhoon Faxai when the storm passed over the area earlier this month. | CHISATO TANAKA
Repair workers fix roof tiles on a house in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, on Sept. 25. The tiles were blown off by strong winds from Typhoon Faxai when the storm passed over the area earlier this month. | CHISATO TANAKA

Shirafuji’s shop suffered damage to its roof and walls, and was closed for 10 days due to a power blackout. As workmen cleared up the last remaining slates from the roof last week, he surveyed the empty aisles and remarked that customers seemed unaware that the shop had reopened, despite signs being prominently displayed near the entrance.

Information has been a precious commodity in Minamiboso since the typhoon struck.

Phone networks were down for a few days in the immediate aftermath, and power outages meant local residents were unable to find out what was going on from TV, radio or via the internet.

Powerful typhoons are relatively rare in Minamiboso, and many local residents say they were unprepared for the extent of the destruction. Some were also critical of the Minamiboso city government’s response, saying it should have been more proactive in keeping them informed.

“This was something that had never happened before, so I think there must have been chaos at city hall,” said Michio Ishii, who lives in Minamiboso. “Everyone was feeling uneasy so they weren’t quick to respond. I suppose that can’t be helped, but we had no way to communicate. We had no way to communicate and no information from city hall, and that was the biggest problem. If we had at least had some information, even though everything was chaotic, it would have softened the blow.”

Loquat trees, felled by Typhoon Faxai when it hit Chiba Prefecture earlier this month, are seen in Kenzo Takeba's orchard in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, on Wednesday. | CHISATO TANAKA
Loquat trees, felled by Typhoon Faxai when it hit Chiba Prefecture earlier this month, are seen in Kenzo Takeba’s orchard in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, on Wednesday. | CHISATO TANAKA

The municipal government has an emergency broadcast system that it can use to provide information even when electricity is not available, but houses in some areas were not able to access these bulletins in the days after the typhoon hit.

Minamiboso Municipal Government spokesman Shuichi Sugita admitted the authority was caught off guard by the scale of the damage, and did not expect the area to be without electricity for so long.

“Partly, it was something beyond what we expected, especially with the electricity situation,” he said.

The municipality should have been able to provide daily supplies and relevant information in the first 72 hours of the disaster despite the blackout, Sugita said.

“We need to make sure we don’t let this experience go to waste,” he said. “As the city government, we have a better idea of what needs to be done, and the local people will also know how best to prepare in the event something like this happens again.”

Last Wednesday, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. announced that 127 households around Chiba Prefecture were expected to remain without electricity until at least the weekend.

The blackouts in the days following Faxai were exacerbated by temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius, with residents unable to use fans and air conditioning units to keep cool.

A 93-year-old woman in the Wada area of Minamiboso was found unconscious at her home and was later confirmed to have died of heatstroke.

Local residents this week expressed anxiety at how vulnerable the situation had made them feel.

“There was no phone signal, and my neighbor wanted to call an ambulance but couldn’t,” said Ishii.

The neighbor ended up going to a neighboring city, Tateyama, to call an ambulance — only to be told that it would take about an hour to arrive. In the end, one of the dispatched ambulances came back during the call and arrived at the neighbor’s house about 30 minutes later.

“You’re in big trouble if you don’t have a phone and you need to call an ambulance,” Ishii said. “Everyone started wondering what they would do if they needed to call one, and that made everyone uneasy.”

Cleanup operations are still underway throughout Minamiboso, and the view of the town from the nearby hills is dotted with blue plastic sheeting covering damaged roofs on almost every building.

Takeba runs a guest house as well as a biwa farm, and he estimates that the damage to the traditional thatched roof of the building will cost around ¥5 million to repair. The tatami mats and sliding doors inside the house were also damaged by rain, and the heavy wooden gate leading into the garden was blown away, taking the overall repair bill to around ¥7 million to ¥8 million.

Takeba used to run a business making rings, but he is not tempted to go back to his former profession. Inspecting the wreckage of the farm where he was bringing in this year’s harvest just four months earlier, he vowed not to let the typhoon beat him.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve seen a typhoon as powerful as this,” said the 50-year-old. “The old people in my neighborhood — people who are in their 80s and 90s — said it was the first time they had seen this much damage from a typhoon. I think it was the kind of thing that only happens once every 100 years.

“I’m not thinking of quitting,” he said. “I’m going to plant some new trees and come back from this. I love loquats and I’m not going to give up. I can only do what is possible. Some people will stop growing biwa because of this, but I’m going to keep going.”

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