Japan fisherman in post-tsunami town sees hope in 'dream oysters'

In Ogatsu, Japan, one man is on a quest to bring town and fishery industry back to life

After pulling on his army-green fisherman’s overalls, Hiromitsu Ito crams a cigarette between his lips and guns the throttle on his boat, steering it out into the waters that have sustained and betrayed him.

Five minutes offshore, he idles along some buoys. His rotund nephew and a 17-year-old apprentice haul in a net. Ito grabs a shell bigger than a man’s palm, opens it with a rusty blade, and quickly rinses it with seawater. “Yume-gaki,” he says, foisting the shell on two visiting city slickers. “Dream oyster. Try it!”

Oysters, scallops, mussels and sea squirts thrive here in Ogatsu Bay, which bends like a crooked finger more than a mile inland from Japan’s northeastern coast. Ito’s father plied this inlet, and his grandfather too. Four years ago, Ogatsu had 300 such salty dogs among its population of 4,300.

But Ogatsu was one of the towns closest to the epicenter of the magnitude 9 earthquake that jolted Japan in March 2011. An 80-foot-high tsunami roared up the bay, swallowing the community and demolishing a hospital, schools and 80% of the homes. Three hundred people died here, among 15,890 victims nationwide.

Since then, across northern Japan, hundreds of thousands of tons of debris have been cleared away and disposed of. Hundreds of miles of roads have been rebuilt, as have 95% of damaged hospitals and 96% of damaged schools. Ports and sea walls have been reconstructed and fishing boats replaced.

But officially, about 220,000 people are still classified as displaced or evacuated and have yet to return to permanent homes. The recovery rate for the fishery and food processing industry lags behind those of all other sectors, according to Japan’s Reconstruction Agency. In backwaters such as Ogatsu, the going has been particularly tough.

Only about 800 residents have returned, among them about 70 fishermen. The town, whose neat homes once hugged the hills circling its little harbor, looks like a vacant lot. There is no gas station, no restaurant, not even a mini-mart.

Ito lost his house and three boats but has refused to give up. He has been on a quest to find a way, any way, to bring his town and its fishery industry back to life.

“I feel like it’s my mission,” he says on a gray Sunday in February, his 54th birthday. “No one told me to do it, but someone has to do it.”

For the first six months after the disaster, Ito drove supplies every day to Ogatsu from Sendai, a metropolis two hours to the southwest. After that, he and some other fishermen got back to the waters, sharing what few boats they had and cultivating oysters.

They tried attracting tourists with fishing expeditions and launched a support-the-locals program that rewarded donors with seafood. They dubbed the enterprise Oh! Guts!, a play on Ogatsu’s name, with a clenched-fist logo to signal their determination.

For a while, interest ran high. Journalists from around Japan and the world came, even students from Harvard Business School. But outsiders’ attention eventually waned. “We thought we could develop some tourism here, but we couldn’t,” he says. “In the end, we were 15 million yen [nearly $125,000] in the red.”

Dream oysters are part of his latest, perhaps more sustainable, undertaking: a sea-to-table business ending at his restaurant in Sendai. Four years ago, yume-gaki didn’t exist — at least not with that name. Ito, though, has trademarked the moniker for these oversize Kumamoto oysters raised in Ogatsu Bay.

Typically, they’re 4 years old and must be 9.8 ounces or more to qualify as a yume-gaki. “They’re called yume-gaki because it’s about the dream of recovery,” says Ito, whose masculine gruffness frequently yields to a sweet idealism.

The tsunami did more than rearrange the physical landscape; it upended relationships. Initially, communities pulled together and rallied; later, petty jealousies grew and old grudges flared, relationships fractured. “Many things got tangled up. You’d think it’d be easy for people from a place like Ogatsu to just go live elsewhere, but it’s tough,” says Ito, whose two daughters wound up divorcing after the tsunami.

But other things changed for the better.

Ito had wanted to create a sea-to-table business before the disaster, but the entrenched system that in effect obligated fishermen to sell their catch through the fishery association and other middlemen was too powerful. “Before the tsunami, people felt that they couldn’t say they wanted to join our group,” he said. “But now, the atmosphere has changed. In the tsunami, we lost physical things, but gained new ideas and new attitudes.”

By paying fishermen double or even triple the rate they’d get selling to middlemen, Ito’s outfit, Kai-you, has attracted a network of willing suppliers, sometimes taking in 2 tons of seafood a day. Kai-you handles the cleaning and distribution, selling directly to 350 restaurants across Japan (while paying the fishery association a small fee to not make waves).

There are still challenges. Though Ogatsu is far north of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and has had no harmful radiation in its products, Kai-you still can’t sell to South Korea, which stopped buying seafood from northeastern Japan amid fear of contamination.

Nevertheless, in November, Ito finalized the final link in his chain. With a $350,000 bank loan, he opened Ostra de Ole, a 32-seat oyster bar on a busy corner in Sendai. (Ito, who has a penchant for bilingual wordplay, explains the Spanish name also conveys the idea of “My Oysters” in Japanese.)

One recent Saturday night, Ito traded his rubber waders for a crisp white shirt and a dapper black vest. Patches of gray poked through his black mane. He roamed the restaurant, greeting customers and keeping an eye on his waitstaff. “Try this yume-gaki,” he encourages one diner, explaining that they take four years to grow so large. “It was born in the spring of the tsunami.”

Although Kai-you and Ostra de Ole seem to be getting on their feet, whether they are enough to breathe new life into Ogatsu remains deeply uncertain.

Just two new homes have been built in Ogatsu since the disaster. Ito bought a drafty old house up on a bluff that barely escaped the deluge, but is splitting his time between Ogatsu and Sendai, where he’s pushing his sales and keeping tabs on the restaurant.

“I bought this for my parents, but even they don’t want to live here,” he says. His mother, 82, and father, 84, have relocated to the nearby city of Ishinomaki, though his dad still comes around to help clean fishing equipment and do other tasks.

For now, the house is inhabited by Ito’s 17-year-old apprentice, Hayato Yabuuchi, whose father brought him to Ogatsu for some real-world experience after the teen had difficulty in school. After he finishes his daily work classifying oysters by size and packing them, Hayato passes the time writing rap lyrics and keeping a diary.

“It’s a little lonely being here,” he says. “There are no other kids my age. I plan to stay a year, but honestly I don’t think young people will want to live here. It’s scary.”

Ito agrees: “It is scary. There are no people, lots of animals — deer, raccoons, civets — and ghosts.”

“Yes, ghosts,” Hayato says. “One time, I heard a noise from the bathroom. It was not wind. It was someone knocking on the wall.”

Ito insists the ghosts are local to Ogatsu. But on the other side of the mountain from his town is another haunting spot: the wrecked concrete hulk of Okawa Elementary School, where 74 of 108 students died after staff failed to move them to higher ground in time. Two shrines have been erected in the school’s parking lot.

On a hill next to Ito’s house stands the long-established Sakura shrine; its name translates as “creating joy.” A recently erected sign out front designates the spiritual site as an evacuation spot in case of another disaster.

Ito climbs the stairs and ritually rings the overhead bell before sliding open the doors to the small red building. “I don’t come here much,” he says.

He motions behind the shrine, to an area with some construction equipment. They’re going to build 10 or 15 houses over there, he says, “but so far, demand is less than supply.” Another 15 or so units are going up toward the center of Ogatsu. When those are complete, the population of Ogatsu may climb back to 1,000.

Driving out of Ogatsu in his Mini Cooper, Ito points to a vacant expanse that used to be the site of the elementary school, junior high and some housing. There are plans for a new school, he’s heard, but he doubts they will ever come to pass.

“Before, this was a town,” he says. “Now, I don’t know what to call it.”

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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