On Japan's Coast, Fishing Families Weigh Rebuilding

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Japan's complex relationship with the sea was highlighted by the tragedy of the March 11 tsunami. Following the earthquake, the massive wave ripped through many coastal towns, devastating the boats and ports and fish processing plants that have been at the heart of those communities for generations.

Rebuilding the shattered fishing industry will not be easy.

Ship owner Yuta Suzuki and one of his grounded vessels that was thrown on shore during the tsunami in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. i i

Ship owner Yuta Suzuki and one of his grounded vessels that was thrown on shore during the tsunami in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
Ship owner Yuta Suzuki and one of his grounded vessels that was thrown on shore during the tsunami in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture.

Ship owner Yuta Suzuki and one of his grounded vessels that was thrown on shore during the tsunami in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture.

David Gilkey/NPR

In Kesennuma, Yuta Suzuki surveys the pride of his fishing fleet: an 800-ton vessel called the Myojinmaru. It is a beautiful boat — hundreds of feet long with a pink and white hull, and sturdy enough to withstand regular trips to the Indian Ocean to catch tuna.

The only problem is that it's now sitting in the middle of the street that runs down to the harbor. Such was the force of the tsunami that it lifted up the Myojinmaru and several other huge fishing boats, dumped them on land and then receded. Now Suzuki has many things on his mind.

There are government assistance and insurance claim issues to sort out, but Suzuki, the third generation in his family to run the fishing business, is still grappling with the magnitude of what has happened here.

He says he needs "positive thinking." It could take several years to rebuild.

He and his family escaped the tsunami by a few minutes. His home is gone, and two of his employees are still missing. The boat is beached, but it's not a human being.

'People Want To Rebuild'

Things are already starting to get moving at Kesennuma's port. A dredger is working to check that the seabed is safe for a supply ship to dock. The problem is that the fishing industry here and all along this part of the coast had been struggling even before the tsunami, hit by high costs and young people moving away.

Beside the harbor, several men are looking out over what used to be their place of work. Takashi Yao stands beside his 90-year-old father, who worked in the fishing industry all his life. Takashi has no doubt that with government help, Kesennuma will rise again.

"We believe we can rebuild, because people believe it. People want to rebuild all of these," he says.

"Seafood is part of our identity," says Satsuki Takahashi, an expert on Japanese fishing communities at Tokyo University. Takahashi says she hopes that "this connection of fish to Japanese identity is going to work as an engine for the rebuilding of the fishing industry, or at least the community of coastal towns."

She says it won't be easy though.

"They are going to be in a difficult position for years," she says.

Ominously, crows, not seagulls, circle overhead. But Kesennuma was one of largest fishing ports in Japan, so it may be that, with government help, it will be able to rebuild.

A little farther up the coast, in the smaller town of Kamaishi, it's much less clear.

'I Think It Might End With Me'

The center of the fishing industry in Kamaishi was the old fish market down by the waterfront. It's now a scene of devastation.

As with many other buildings in town, it appears that the only way forward is to tear it down and rebuild.

The tearing-down part is going on already — backhoes are demolishing whole streets of buildings damaged by the tsunami. But standing in his bright blue waterproof overalls, Takanori Niinuma, who runs a small fish processing plant, is not so sure that the rebuilding is ever going to happen.

"My family has been running this processing company for more than 100 years. I'm the fifth generation. But I think it might end with me," he says. "We were already struggling before the tsunami, and I think this will probably be the end."

Amid the positive thinking and the eternal stoicism of the Japanese people, on the coast there is also the philosophy of fishermen, salted with a wisdom that other, less primal professions have shaken off.

As Satsuki Takahashi of Tokyo University puts it, summing up the paradox of their relationship with the sea: "The sea gives the resources to the people of the coastal regions, and the tsunami takes away resources from them."

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