Rebuilding A Soy Sauce Company, From The Barrel Up

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Michihiro Kono is the ninth-generation chief executive of soy sauce maker Yagisawa Co. in Rikuzentakata, Japan. His factory, storeroom, customer records and two of his employees were washed away in the tsunami. But he's determined to rebuild. i

Michihiro Kono is the ninth-generation chief executive of soy sauce maker Yagisawa Co. in Rikuzentakata, Japan. His factory, storeroom, customer records and two of his employees were washed away in the tsunami. But he's determined to rebuild. Chie Kobayashi for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Chie Kobayashi for NPR
Michihiro Kono is the ninth-generation chief executive of soy sauce maker Yagisawa Co. in Rikuzentakata, Japan. His factory, storeroom, customer records and two of his employees were washed away in the tsunami. But he's determined to rebuild.

Michihiro Kono is the ninth-generation chief executive of soy sauce maker Yagisawa Co. in Rikuzentakata, Japan. His factory, storeroom, customer records and two of his employees were washed away in the tsunami. But he's determined to rebuild.

Chie Kobayashi for NPR

Some businesses are pledging to rebuild in the areas most ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The question now is how.

The infrastructure is gone. Local governments are decimated. Workers no longer have houses. And factories and customer records have been washed away.

But one soy sauce maker is on a quest to overcome the odds.

It's hard to find what used to be the 204-year-old headquarters of Yagisawa Co. in what was the city of Rikuzentakata.

Its ninth-generation CEO tries first to locate his parents' house, which stood across the street. With so little of it left, Michihiro Kono gets confused.

The factory and store itself were made of centuries-old lacquered clay shingles and wood. A dirt path runs where the entrance once was.

"At first it was like, 'Oh, a tsunami! Oh, it's coming. Oh man, it's huge. Oh ... the company. There goes the company.' "

And just like that, the ocean claimed more than $6.5 million worth of plant, property and equipment.

People scrambled up a nearby hill, carrying older people on their backs. Two of the 41 employees didn't make it.

Finding A Way To Keep Going

Yagisawa Co. is still functioning. Employees cram into a one-room trailer behind the city's driving school.

Kono scraped some cultures necessary to recreate his family's ancient soy sauce recipe from the inside of a broken machine. Little else of value remains.

Insurance will cover about 5 percent of the loss. A lawyer told him to file for bankruptcy protection.

Still, Kono is determined to help rebuild. He says without jobs, people will leave, lose hope.

"If you've lost family, the house where you lived and you have no hope of working with your colleagues again ... then what?" he says. "I don't want this to become the city where, six months later, survivors are committing suicide."

'What Are You Thinking?'

Local businessmen meet at the driving school to discuss recovery plans. They, like Kono, are hoping to restart by asking the government for low-interest loans and other support. They track other business owners down at shelters, hoping to get them on board.

But, Kono admits, in a city where everyone's lost someone, many aren't ready to hear it.

Truth be told, even some of Kono's own employees don't know what to make of him.

Fumie Abe says Kono showed up at her house shortly after the tsunami and asked her to report back to work.

"My honest feeling was, 'What are you thinking?' I mean, at that point we worried about food. Privately, I was still looking for loved ones," she says, "and I still had to deal with that."

On the side of the road, about a half-mile from the old headquarters, Kono discovered one of the wooden barrels used to make his soy sauce.

The barrel is large enough to stand in. It still smells of good, savory soy sauce. On the backside of the barrel, some dark brown liquid pools.

Yup, Kono says, that's my soy sauce.

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