Like many other local communities around Japan, towns in the Tohoku region have tried to brand their specialty products to promote sales.
Three and a half years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami crushed those industries, the northeastern communities have resumed their brand image efforts–but now with the survival of communities at stake.
In early September at the Koishihama fishing port in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, fishing boats hauled in large catches of Koishihama Hotate, a scallop raised artificially in Okirai Bay.
The scallops, farmed where the Oyashio (Chishima) and Kuroshio (Japan) currents meet, are known for their thick, tough texture and sweet flavor.
The Koishihama community started scallop aquaculture about half a century ago.
To broaden the market, the fishing cooperative in 2008 branded the scallops Koishihama Hotate, replacing two kanji characters with the phonetic reading “koishi” (pebble) with different characters having the same reading but meaning “beloved.”
The Sanriku Railway also adopted the alternate kanji for the name of Koishihama Station. The station’s waiting room contains a plethora of votive-offering tablets made from scallop shells that people have hung up to pray for fulfillment in love.
On March 11, 2011, the tsunami swept away the young scallops and the rafts at the farms. Only two of the 40 boats survived.
Ryoetsu Matsukawa, a 62-year-old member of the fishing cooperative, fled from the coast in his boat.
“When the tsunami receded and I returned to the port, there was nothing left,” he recalled.
Sixteen of the 17 scallop-farming families have resumed their work with young scallops ordered from Hokkaido. The remaining one decided to retire because of advanced age.
In September 2012, they shipped their first products since the earthquake. The Koishihama Hotate Teriyaki Bento, a popular boxed lunch, has also made a comeback.
The Sanriku Railway fully reopened in April. Passengers on a special train are served scallops at the station.
“If we didn’t have the scallops, the young people would be gone,” Matsukawa said. “Our community is vibrant because of the scallops.”
The Momonoura fishing port in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, is also banking on marine products for survival.
Momonoura was already facing an aging population and difficulty in finding successors to family businesses when the 2011 tsunami washed away 65 of the community’s homes and the majority of its aquaculture facilities.
Fifteen local fishermen set up a limited liability company in August 2012 to create jobs and attract workers.
Working with a trading firm in Sendai that specializes in fisheries, the fishermen are attempting to achieve year-round shipping and high quality under the brand name Momonoura-san Kaki (Oysters made in Momonoura).
They ship their products to such buyers as nationwide chains of major supermarkets and restaurants.
“If we can brand our product, then the fishermen will be motivated and also help us revive (the local economy),” said Katsuyuki Oyama, a 67-year-old representative of the company.
Farmers in Fukushima Prefecture have a different hurdle to overcome: The rumors about radiation that have hurt their reputation.
The prefecture is placing hopes on reviving the original Tennotsubu variety of locally-grown rice.
The Fukushima Agricultural Technology Center spent 15 years developing the strain and released it in fiscal 2011.
The plant itself is sturdier and more difficult to knock over. It can also grow easily even in fields that have lain fallow since the triple meltdown at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
The release of radioactive substances in the disaster led to planting restrictions and voluntary bans in the prefecture. The area of rice fields in Fukushima in 2011 fell from the fourth-largest in Japan the previous year to seventh.
Municipalities in the Hamadori area along the coast and the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives are presenting Tennotsubu as a “symbol of reconstruction” and giving priority to planting the rice variety in reopened fields.
The town of Inawashiro in the prefecture created its own production standards, starting with last year’s harvest. It is selling the rice under the name Inawashiro Tennotsubu.
“We want people to remember that Tennotsubu is made in Inawashiro, just like they know that Koshihikari is grown in Uonuma, Niigata Prefecture,” a town official said.