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Tsunami-hit fishing town fighting to survive

By Pamela Boykoff, CNN
February 29, 2012 -- Updated 0644 GMT (1444 HKT)
The tsunami wave swept this ship into Tokuyoshi Takahashi's fish processing factory in northeastern Japan.
The tsunami wave swept this ship into Tokuyoshi Takahashi's fish processing factory in northeastern Japan.
  • Ishinomaki was just one of many Japanese towns hit hard by last year's earthquake and tsunami
  • Tokuyoshi Takahashi was forced to lay off the 120 staff at his fish processing factory
  • But Takahashi is one of a small group of businessman determined to rebuild the city of 150,000
  • They are trying to attract investment in rebuilding to lure back residents who left the town

(CNN) -- The pictures of Tokuyoshi Takahashi's fish processing factory in northeastern Japan taken after March 11, 2011 illustrate just how destructive the tsunami was.

A ship was swept on to land by the giant wave and left stranded against the front of the factory, while entire sections of wall collapsed, leaving twisted metal and debris protruding from inside.

Takahashi estimated the catastrophe caused US$19 million worth of damage to his business, Takatoku , which processes fish for major supermarket chains across Japan.

He was forced to lay off all of his 120 employees.

"I set a goal right after the quake," he said. "All the staff would be back by January 1."

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Three months after that deadline and he's almost there. Seventy are now back at work and he expects that number to rise to 100 by March. Though he's found many of his old employees, some have left the city all together to find work elsewhere.

Takahashi is one of a small group of businessman determined to rebuild Ishinomaki, a city of around 150,000 on the coast of northeastern Japan. The tsunami caused widespread damage here, knocking down homes and wiping out the fishing port and processing factories that account for 30% of the jobs in the city.

With no jobs and no homes, many have left for bigger cities like Sendai or Tokyo. The survival of the fishing industry here is deeply intertwined with that of the city itself.

A year on and progress has been slow. Kunio Suno, president of the Ishinomaki Fish Market is one of city's most determined champions, spearheading the effort to create a newer and better port. He says fishing volumes are still at just a fifth of what they were before March 11, and fisherman have nowhere to sell their catch without the processing plants.

His biggest frustration is with the pace of the recovery.

The national government insists on following the normal -- but lengthy -- approval process for the rebuilding plans, rather than fast-tracking proposals as an emergency case.

If this industry is gone, people will have to go to Tokyo and they will be without a true home.
Kunio Suno, Ishinomaki fisherman

"There is a huge gap between our feelings and those of Tokyo," he said.

Only two weeks ago Ishinomaki's local government announced plans to rebuild the fishing industry at a cost US$1.5 billion, including support for small and medium fish processing plants. It will take three year to complete.

Suno's vision for the fish market is even more ambitious. He wants to expand beyond the commercial auction and add restaurants to attract tourists, like similar sites in Sydney and Seattle.

As for the processing plants, Takahashi believes only two of his competitors are back in full operation. He says others have struggled to raise capital or to rebuild the land under their factories, which sunk a meter in the disaster. His hope is that Ishinomaki can attract investors to the rebuilding process so that people can be convinced to move back.

For Suno, convincing people to stay and work in Ishinomaki is about more than saving the city he's lived in for twenty years. It is less about money and more about saving a way of life.

"If this industry is gone, people will have to go to Tokyo and they will be without a true home," he said.

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