YAKUMO, HOKKAIDO – In a small fishing village in Hokkaido, Shiho Tateoka rises at 6 a.m. and sends her three children off to school before starting a day of handling fish sales.
When that’s done, she’s back on social media searching for more clients.
The 43-year-old used to live in Tokyo, where she worked both as a nurse and as a saleswoman for a home medical care service. Fish, you might say, couldn’t have been further from her mind.
But that changed with a visit from her cousin, a fisherman based at Otoshibe port in the Hokkaido town of Yakumo, six years ago. Yuki, 37, who later became her husband, described to her his worries as a fisherman on what he considered a “sinking ship.”
“When I listened to his story, I thought there may still be room for the fishing industry to grow,” Shiho explained during a recent interview. “I thought I may be able to commit to a new sales job, and dedicate myself to a new life.”
Yuki had been concerned about whether he would be able to continue his career. The fishing industry faces numerous challenges, including a depleted fish population caused by years of overfishing and rising ocean temperatures linked to climate change.
But when Shiho took him to a Tokyo department store, he was surprised to see the high prices people pay for the fish. He said he had been unaware of what happened to his hauls after they were handed over to the local fishery cooperative.
Yuki hoped to increase the value of his catches and cultivate a customer base to boost earnings, but he found himself short of ideas until Shiho decided to move to the struggling seaside town of Yakumo and work with him, drawing on her sales experience.
In April 2014, she helped Yuki launch a company, Funkawan Sengyo Oroshi Ryujinmaru, that delivered fresh seafood such as flounder, shrimp and crab caught in nearby waters directly to wholesalers, restaurants and consumers nationwide, and became its sales manager.
The company now supplies about 30 clients a month and earns ¥5 million a year.
Since then, Shiho’s life has become even busier as she makes pitches to restaurants and fish markets nationwide via social media, telephone and direct visits.
She also encouraged Yuki to process fish damaged in fishing nets, which were previously disposed of. She uses platforms such as Facebook to promote the processed products, which include salted dried fish and flathead flounder pickled with cherry leaves. The couple also document on social media their daily fishing activities as well as cooking methods and prices.
When a potential customer shows interest in a particular post, Shiho contacts them directly and offers a trial purchase.
Thanks to her efforts, Ryujinmaru’s fish are widely used in izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) and French restaurants across the country. Processed items are also available via mail order and as gift sets at department stores in Hakodate on the southern tip of Hokkaido.
Kazuto Konishi, who runs a fish shop in Hakodate, said, “Thanks to the Tateokas, I can buy fresher fish of higher quality.” He noted the contrast with market auctions, where most fish lack the same freshness because the technique used to preserve their flavor is difficult to implement.
Takuya Shimotori, a chef at an izakaya with 75 seats in Tokyo operated by Fun Function Corp., said he receives fish from the Tateokas three times a week, and that some are a rarity in the capital.
“They are gaining popularity with customers,” he said.
However, it wasn’t smooth sailing at the start. Many in the male-dominated fishing industry resisted Shiho’s new approach. The backlash came mainly from local fishery cooperatives to which fishermen deliver their catches for sale.
“At first, I was asked ‘Why does a woman, a fisherman’s wife, do such things?'” Shiho said. Traditionally, the role of a fisherman’s wife has been to support her husband on the fishing boat, or wait for him at home while preparing meals, she said.
But Shiho felt women could stand out and draw attention precisely because they are rare in the fishing industry, have a knack for sales and networking, and have a keen eye for seeing angles typically overlooked by fishermen in the business, she said.
“I feel women’s viewpoints and ideas are really great,” Yuki said. “I previously just grilled or simmered fish, and never thought about making dishes that are easy for children to eat or those that could help shorten cooking times.”
The couple believe more women should work in the fishing industry. Shiho has become a member of a government initiative set up in November 2018 to help open the industry to women. As of December, 51 women had joined the project.
Although it took time, even the old guard local fishery cooperative has embraced Shiho’s new business and her efforts to change the industry after seeing many fishermen boost their earnings with her help.
“I think (what Shiho is doing) will spread from now on,” said Kazuhiro Kamada, a senior director of the Otoshibe fishery cooperative. “It is important for fishermen to circulate this information by themselves.”
Last April, to continue bringing fresh fish to consumers despite recent changes in the sea environment and declining fish bounties, the Tateokas and some local young fishermen set up Ezo Shinsen Gumi, an organization that encourages fishermen to get more involved in promoting their products and to start new businesses.
Yosuke Kakemura, a fisherman in Otoshibe, said he was inspired by such activities as Shiho using social media to depict the fishermen’s lives.
Yuta Hirai, who is engaged in sea urchin cultivation near Otoshibe, said he had thought about quitting amid slumping earnings before meeting Shiho, who advertised his sea urchins through Facebook.
“At first, I was embarrassed to use Facebook as people always put out a good image of themselves, but I was delighted to see comments from an izakaya about the reactions of consumers who ate my products,” Hirai said. “I felt for the first time in years that it’s fun to be a fisherman.”
In the future, Shiho hopes to work together with locals to develop fishing tourism businesses, allowing visitors to eat fresh seafood on boats and see fishermen unload their hauls, to attract even more people, including visitors from abroad.
As a mother, Shiho said it is hard to imagine her children wanting to earn a living in the current fishing industry. But she is hopeful that they, as well as other young people, will take up the mantle and see it thrive once again.
Holding her youngest son, a 3-year-old, in her arms, Shiho said, “I hope to establish a new form of business, and show children that we are enjoying fishing and are able to earn money through it, so that they want to inherit the business in the future.”