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Nippon Paper Industries Co. — touted for its high-quality “Kushiro brand” paper used for newspapers and magazines — ended 100 years of production at its paper mill in Kushiro, Hokkaido, in September, shifting its primary business to thermal power generation.

In the aftermath of the decision, out of the roughly 500 workers at the plant, 160 left the company and chose to seek other employment in Kushiro — but most haven’t been able to find a new job. Those who decided to stay on will be transferred to other offices and mills in and out of Hokkaido, uprooting them from their hometown.

While they take pride in having worked at the mill and sustained the production of paper with their skills, they are feeling uneasy about their new lives.

One of them is a man in his 40s, who worked at the Kushiro plant.

“I can’t help looking up at the chimney even though there is no more smoke coming out of it,” he said, gazing at the mill’s towering chimney in late September, just before the facility closed.

His father and grandfather also worked at the Kushiro Mill.

“Ever since I was a child, I believed I would eventually work at the mill as well,” he said.

And he did, joining Nippon Paper Industries after graduating from high school. He rose to be in charge of boiler management at the Kushiro plant in 2000 after working at a number of mills outside Hokkaido. The smoke from the chimney fluttering in the wind would give him peace of mind — a sign that the boiler was operating normally.

When the company decided to close the plant and told him he would need to transfer out of the town, he was hesitant at first. But in the end, he accepted the offer to move to a branch in the Kanto region, leaving his wife and children behind.

A former employee looks up at the chimney of Nippon Paper Industries' factory in Kushiro, Hokkaido, after its closure. | HOKKAIDO SHIMBUN
A former employee looks up at the chimney of Nippon Paper Industries’ factory in Kushiro, Hokkaido, after its closure. | HOKKAIDO SHIMBUN

He requested to work in a department not involved in paper production this time, though, given that he had been through a factory shutdown in Osaka in the past.

“I do want to work at a factory, but I don’t want to experience a third shutdown,” he said.

Most of the employees at the Kushiro plant, including those from affiliated companies, are Kushiro natives.

“Everyone has been running the machinery taking pride in working at the plant that supported Kushiro,” said another man in his 40s, who has worked at the plant for about three decades since graduating from high school.

When the firm’s Iwanuma Mill in Miyagi Prefecture halted its production following an earthquake in February, the Kushiro plant beefed up production to make up for production in Miyagi.

The employees had mixed feelings since the Kushiro Mill had already decided to close down and was in the process of transferring machinery to another mill. But in the end, they decided to take up the job, saying, “Let’s show the pride of Kushiro, known for its top quality.”

Clients praised the high quality of the papers produced from the make-up production.

The Kushiro workers inherited skills over the years that no other mill could match, becoming an asset for the plant. Veteran employees, for instance, could tell which newspaper or magazine the paper was for by just touching the paper with their eyes closed.

The Kushiro Mill was renamed Nippon Paper Kushiro Energy Co. on Oct. 1, a company mainly engaged in coal-fired power generation.

The number of employees left in Kushiro, including those at affiliated companies, has shrunk from about 500 to about 90. About half of the remaining 400-plus employees have been transferred to other plants and offices in and outside of Hokkaido, according to sources at the plant.

Others left the company to stay in Kushiro. According to the Kushiro Public Employment Security Office, 161 people had registered as job-seekers by Sept. 28. With only a limited number of jobs that can make use of the experience gained at the Kushiro plant, many worry that it may take more time to find a job.

“We have no choice but to look ahead, but none of us, whether we are staying or leaving Kushiro, are satisfied with our choices,” another man who quit the company said.

This section features topics and issues from Hokkaido covered by the Hokkaido Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published Oct. 3.

Kushiro’s abundant nature may inspire revitalization of its local economy

How could local government and businesses minimize the effect of Nippon Paper Industries Co.’s Kushiro plant in Hokkaido shutting down, and keep the economy going?

The Hokkaido Shimbun interviewed Shuji Koiso, 73, a visiting professor specializing in local development at Hokkaido University’s Public Policy School, who served as dean at Kushiro Public University of Economics for four years to 2012.

How do you see the shutdown of Nippon Paper’s Kushiro Mill?

It’s a given that a major company’s plant would (shut down) someday. It showed that there is a limit to the traditional way, of attracting factories (to boost the local economy). The shutdown is expected to deal a blow to the local economy, with jobs lost.

But what the Kushiro government, local businesses and the public need to consider is not just about what to do with its vacant lot. They also need to think about it in tandem with how to deal with depopulation and the graying society.

Paper manufacturing has been a core industry for Kushiro along with fisheries and coal mining.

We should all learn from the experiences people went through in fisheries and coal mining. The landings of fisheries have been on the decline, but the city’s fisheries processing production has increased to a certain level.

When Taiheiyo Coal Mine, the operator of Japan’s last remaining coal mine, shut down its mine in Kushiro in 2002, local residents had nothing but bleak prospects for the future.

But when the government entrusted to the new company — Kushiro Coal Mine Co. — the project of training workers overseas, their skills were transferred to another country. Measures to support the local coal industry materialized, with various ideas pitched by local residents.

What needs to be done to maintain positive energy in the local community?

How about using the appeal of Kushiro’s abundant natural environment? Kushiro Wetland was nothing but wilderness, but it was turned into a site that was registered with the Ramsar Convention for conservation. When member countries held a conference in 1993 in Kushiro, two hotels started their businesses in the city.

At present, there is a momentum for countries worldwide to become carbon neutral. There may be something that can be done in that regard using Kushiro Port and the lot vacated by the plant.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also dealt a huge blow to the local economy.

As coronavirus infections spread, companies are establishing satellite offices and a new “workation” lifestyle of staying in rural areas (to work remotely during weekdays and enjoy tourist spots after hours.) Many long-term visitors have already been staying in Kushiro, where it’s cool during the summer and where there is abundant nature. Kushiro City and local businesses are cooperating with each other to accept more long-term visitors.

What should the relationship with Nippon Paper be from here on?

For Nippon Paper, the ties it developed with Kushiro in the past 100 years will be useful in the years to come. They could start a new business using Kushiro’s local resources. The two sides should maintain their relationship as partners to discuss business.

The original article was published Sept. 21.

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