Rebuilding Japan after the tsunami - one soy sauce business at a time
In one town devastated by the tsunami, some 400 temporary housing units and a soy sauce business offer hope. But some 4,000 more units are needed.
“I’m Kono of Yagisawa Shoten.” The baritone delivery is confident, and accompanied by a smile that belies a tragedy repeated countless times along Japan’s northeast coast.Skip to next paragraph
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As his hometown of Rikuzentakata, in Iwate prefecture, comes to terms with the deaths of more than 2,000 people and the loss of 80 percent of its homes, Michihiro Kono hopes to rebuild his historic soy sauce business and instill hope in fellow residents.
The recent construction of the first temporary housing units is a sign the town is looking forward, but the rehousing effort is expected to take months to complete. Kono has been president of Yagisawa Shoten for less than a month, having asked his father’s permission to take over the family firm following the disaster. His goal is to guide the business – and the community surrounding it – through the most tumultuous time in its 207-year history.
The plant where nine generations of his family have made premium soy sauce and miso, staples of the Japanese diet, lies in ruins. All that is left is a pressing machine, which still gives off the smell of soy sauce, mixing in the air with that of rotten debris and seawater.
But outside the prefabricated hut on higher ground where Kono and his 45 employees are regrouping, stand several dozen full bottles of his signature product retrieved from the rubble.
"There is no doubt in my mind that we will be back in business," says Kono, whose wife and three young children survived. "My family has been making soy sauce in Rikuzentakata since the Edo era [1603-1868], and we owe it to our customers to get back on our feet."
Paying jobs and rebuilding homes
While thousands of people have no jobs to return to, he has continued to pay his staff from his savings, and even arranged a welcome party for two new recruits.
Despite the stream of requests for soy sauce – some accompanied by cash to fund the firm’s renaissance – Kono concedes it will be at least five years before Yagisawa is delivering its own products.
“We need to rebuild the factory first,” he says. “And it takes a long time to produce soy sauce and miso, up to two years for some items.”
A big part of that effort will depend on how the re-housing operation in Rikuzentakata goes. To date, 36 temporary housing units have been built in the town, a fraction of the 4,000 units needed for the estimated 7,000 residents living in shelters in the town.
They include Yukie Sato, who is living in a school gymnasium with her young son and mother. Her husband, a local government official, returned to work immediately after the tsunami.
"Even if we get rent-free temporary housing, we will still have to pay the bills and buy food," she says. "I don't know how it will all work out. My car was swept away, my workplace has gone, and we have no money.”