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Man looks to rebuild marine product business in new area 5 years after tsunami

Yoshikatsu Konno is seen in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture. (Mainichi)

NATORI, Miyagi -- Heavy machinery hums as metal frames are pieced together at the site where a marine product industrial facility is being constructed in this city's Yuriage area. It was here that more than 700 people died in the tsunami after the Great East Japan Earthquake five years ago.

    Yoshikatsu Konno, 41, president of seafood company Ichimaru Suisan, plans to start operations at a new factory to be completed this coming fall. The factory will stand about 45 kilometers north of his previous business location in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, and will mark a step toward his company's recovery from the 2011 disaster.

    On March 11, 2011, Konno's home and factory, located along the coast in Soma, were destroyed by the tsunami. The Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant meltdowns occurred on top of this, and Konno evacuated with his wife, four children, parents and other relatives to the Sea of Japan coast. He chose the city of Kanazawa, where he had trained in his craft for two years after high school, as their destination. There the family moved into city-managed housing.

    Ichimaru Suisan was a major seafood company in Soma, which Konno had taken over from his father, who used to be president. Before the disasters, the company had raked in as much as 2.5 billion yen a year in sales. After the disasters, however, Konno was unable to tell his business partners when his company would be back on its feet.

    "We have to start operating again, bit by bit, or we will be forgotten," Konno thought. The seafood company where he had trained handed him an unused factory building in Kanazawa, and in June 2011 he restarted his company's business operations, calling together some of his former employees.

    The company, however, lacked the equipment at the new site to create what were its former main products -- dried Japanese sand lance and whitebait -- and its sales were less than 20 percent of what they used to be. Even so, Konno maintained shipments to his former customers now and again, adding unfamiliar Sea of Japan fish varieties into his company's product lineup.

    Konno's desire to restart business operations in his hometown of Soma grew, but that city remains plagued by the nuclear disaster. Only test fishing is allowed along the Fukushima Prefecture coastal area, with the size of catches less than 10 percent of pre-disaster levels. Moreover, unfounded rumors of radiation contamination continue.

    In summer of 2014, a fellow dealer in marine products whom Konno knew from Natori suggested to him that he reopen his business at a new industrial facility in Yuriage, and Konno's resolve to return to Soma began to waver. As long as businesses at the new facility used a certain amount of disaster-area building materials, seven-eighths of their construction would be covered by aid money. Thinking he could ship in marine products from Soma if he got his business up and running at the new industrial facility, Konno made the tough decision to re-establish himself there, rather than in Soma.

    Konno's smartphone is now constantly buzzing with business associates looking forward to the construction of his new factory. He responds to them individually, telling them he will send them invitations when the factory is complete. Konno senses the possibility of success in re-establishing his company's sales routes, and once he restarts his business at the new site, he will aim to top his pre-disaster sales.

    Even as a child, Konno helped in his father's factory. If it rained at night he would get up and put a sheet over the Japanese sand lances drying outside, even at 3 a.m. It was hard labor, but for the family of fishmongers, it was their daily existence.

    Five years ago, when Konno stood on high ground, watching his home and factory in Soma being swallowed by the tsunami, and then when he and his family left Soma, he encouraged himself, saying, "I can't let my children see me looking down."

    In Kanazawa, his family grew by one, and he now has five children. The elder four all say they will be fishmongers when they grow up, and Konno hopes they will take on the Ichimaru Suisan business.

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