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Vol.4 Sotaro Usui, CEO of Usufuku Honten Co. Ltd.

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Interview Series, “Talk for Recovery” (Session 4)

CEO, Usufuku Honten Co. Ltd.

Mr. Sotaro Usui

(Date: Mid-September, 2012)

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Komori: Hello. I’d like to thank you for taking your time for this interview. I understand you are very busy as a CEO and active post-disaster rebuilding supporter.

Usui: I appreciate you accommodating my schedule. I have just been to the meeting in the city office.

Komori: I hope you are not too tired.

Usui: So, where do I start?

Komori: Today, it would be nice if we could cover three topics. First, your experience on the day of the earthquake and tsunami. Second, what you feel are the challenges remaining in restoring the affected areas. Third, necessary actions in the future. Please also cover your own contribution to the disaster recovery process.

Usui: Sure.

 

White wall on the horizon – witnessed from the hill into which he ran.  

Komori: Were you on the job when the earthquake and tsunami struck? 

Usui: Yes, I was in the office as usual. Our business is deep-sea tuna fishery and we always have about seven fishing vessels out at sea around the world. It is our responsibility to make the headquarters act as a hub for all the fishermen on the vessels and take care of their families. On the day of the earthquake, I was in the middle of the deskwork in our main office facing the harbor.

Komori: Then the earth shook violently…

Usui: We are used to earthquakes actually. So even though we heard an Earthquake Early Warning, we all still continued working as usual. However, the quake did not stop. In the meantime, the household Shinto alter shelf fell into the PC, and the window frame started falling down. So we all sensed danger, as it was extraordinary. I said, “let’s take shelter outside as soon as it subsides”, but we had to wait for a long time, as it lasted. 

Komori: You knew it was very different from the usual earthquakes. 

Usui: We went outside as we felt the quake came down to some degree. Then we saw water gushing out on the roads due to the ground liquefaction. A tsunami warning immediately came to my mind and I called out, “Tsunami is coming, let’s take shelter on the hill! Take the valuables and PCs only!” and we all drove to the hill away from the coast.

 

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Komori: Sounds like you made an immediate decision as a CEO. Were all the employees safe?

Usui: Yes, all staff is fine. And we were glad our PCs escaped the tsunami too — except for the one belonging to the accounting department…

Komori: From the hilltop, you saw the tsunami was approaching, didn’t you?

Usui: Yes we did. The hilltop soon became crowded with evacuated people while a tremor was still felt. Then I saw something white on the horizon. Wondering what it was, I took a closer look with the TV station’s camera zoom. It looked like a white wall on the horizon.

Komori: It seemed like a wall from that distance — it illustrates the significant height of the tsunami.

Usui: I started sending text messages to the employees and their families who weren’t gathered there, saying: “Run! Or you will die!” Phone lines were not working then; only text messages were available.

Komori: What an oppressive feeling — it’s beyond my imagination…

Usui: Soon, the first tsunami hit the coast. There was an oil tank at the entrance of the port and I saw it was torn off and swept away. Next, fishing boats spun and floated away. I saw the tsunami run up the river, sweeping our town.

Komori: You saw it first-hand…

Usui: Heavy oil flowed out of the tank; it caught fire on the sea surface and became a flame on top of the tsunami. That was the burning tsunami. It attacked the town and pulled water, leaving fire on the ground. It was such a scary scene.

Komori: At the night of the day, I watched Kesennuma Fire on U-Stream in the office in Shinjuku with other employees who remained there due to the cancelation of the public transportation. It was a picture of Hell… something I will never forget.

Usui: We went to the neighborhood obstetrics clinic to help people to evacuate from the fire. Some patients had just given birth and were still bleeding. The police and we carried them out of the building before the fire hit the area. It was snowing outside and we took the mountain path, avoiding fire. Soon after that I reached my father’s house, where I could meet my family members.

Komori: It was bad timing — it started snowing right after the earthquake. Many have told me it added severity to the situation.

Usui: When the tsunami subsided, I went back to the office, with home weighing on my mind. Then I found almost everything was swept away. The only thing that remained was a household Shinto altar (kamidana), which I am still keeping in the temporary office.

Komori: I have observed that those who work in nature value a household Shinto altar (kamidana).

Usui: I had a lot of tough experiences right after the disaster. Lots of bodies were left unattended and I heard their valuable belongings were taken away by thieves and mafia. Vending machines and safes were raided too. There were even murder cases.

Komori: Thieves came before raids… such a tragedy. Foreign media broadcasted about preserved order, but it was not always the case.

Usui: Correct. There were people who lost their mind due to the tragedy and they committed arson. Some even fired their own houses for insurance claims. These cases made me cautious enough to turn the gas off at the mains for the houses in my area, soaking in the water.

Komori: Sounds like chaos for the time being…

Usui: For the first one month after the earthquake and tsunami, we were busy with reorganizing the office and home, and gathering information about employees and their families’ whereabouts. Our head office is a hub to connect sea-going fishermen and those who are on the land. It is crucial for us to maintain the hub in good order to provide assurance to sailors. When one of the cell phone carriers (au) regained connection a week after the disaster, I borrowed it and kept calling them.

Komori: They must have been worried.

Usui: They couldn’t come back easily, since they were very distant from Japan. They said: “We are fine on the sea. We will do our best in our job and return with as much fish as possible for the money. So please take care of my family, not us.” And we responded: “Thanks, we will take care of things around here on your behalf.” We made sure sailors’ families were safe.

 

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Komori: So you worked so hard as a family member in sailors’ absence.

Usui: Yes, that’s a part of our job — to take care of the sailors’ families. In the business of deep-sea fishing, sailors usually cannot attend their parents’ deathbed. It is our job to go to a crematory to pick up the bones of the deceased on their behalf.

Komori: We should always appreciate fishermen’s effort and such stories behind fish on our dining tables, besides the earthquake disaster.

 

Who clears debris – deep structural challenges

Komori: As to the topic of challenges remaining in the post-disaster restoration, I heard there were various difficulties. The fundamental work, like clearing debris, is never easy, and there is a full agenda for planning and operation in each area for the restoration.

Usui: Correct, there were challenges piling up, literally.

Komori: I have been to Rikuzentakata city every month since September 2011, often visiting Kesennuma and Ofunato on my way. As I went through these cities, I noticed there were differences in the progress of clearing debris and reconstruction. My impression until late 2011 was that Kesennuma city was slow in clearing debris. What is your view?

Usui: You are absolutely right about the Kesennuma situation. There was an obstacle to debris clearing — “excessive localization”.

Komori: Excessive localization?

Usui: Clearing debris is undertaken by civil engineering constructors. In Japan, the constructors have their own business areas, and boundaries are strictly set. However, in this kind of emergency situation, local government is expected to go beyond the boundary to contact constructors in wider areas. Kesennuma city did not make such effort, unlike other towns.

Komori: They wanted to use local civil engineering constructors only, the same as a normal situation…

Usui: I was worried about the situation, as debris remained long. At the same time, I was contacted by a business partner who ran a civil engineering business in a neighborhood town. He offered help with the restoration. As I knew they were experienced and equipped well in debris clearing, my company’s subsidiary set up a joint venture with his company and joined the activities for clearing debris.

 

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Komori: You started it on your own out of necessity.

Usui: However, I found we were not accepted by the local people. They just couldn’t seem to let us join. There were some funds for cleaning debris; dependent on it, we managed to get to the job. On one occasion, our vehicles were navigated wrongly. When we finally got to the plot, another constructor was already there.

Komori: I can’t believe that kind of thing happens in reality…

Usui: Moreover, after I joined the activities for cleaning the debris, I came to notice a huge structural issue. Though I observed lots of trucks in the tsunami-affected areas, debris were not cleared as expected. I examined the situation, and then I found that the compensation for debris clearing was calculated per vehicle per day.

Komori: Per vehicle per day?

Usui: It does not matter how much debris were cleared. One can make more profit by working slowly, spending a greater number of days. I actually saw many trucks in the town loading a small amount of debris only.

Komori: (Speechless)

Usui: Later an organization called “All Kesennuma” debris clearing was formed. I read the FAX from the organizer, and I learned that the intention was to work on Kesennuma debris only by constructors within the city. I asked them why my company was not involved, and was told that we were not registered. I asked again why they disturb me, and then they said they would let us join. But nothing was done afterwards and we were never included.

Komori: The fundamental work, like cleaning debris, was proceeded by “who to do” than “what to do”. It is a story that is everywhere in the world, but I feel sad that such a kind of story happened here in Japan…

Usui: As our organization got more and more supporters, we did most of the work eventually only by a few companies. I imagine that Kesennuma would still have debris even after 8 months of the disaster if we did not do it ourselves. However, most local companies did not support us and we lost some business quite frankly.

Komori: I can see lots were done recently, compared to the situation last fall. Having said that, there is more work to be done, such as removing the basic fundamental of broken buildings.

Usui: Yes, we need to break fundamentals, remove broken water pipes, and then install new pipes and cover them with the soil. I believe it is required to get support from multiple constructors within/outside Kesennuma to make full restoration happen. Outside of the disaster-stricken area, the image from the disaster is going to be forgotten. One of the benefits of involving external companies is to make people remember a great earthquake.

 

Project in Ginza

Komori: What you have distinguished yourself is how you worked on a nationwide stage rather than local. You were on TV right after the disaster and you had public relations space to have a promotion for Kesennuma in Ginza, Tokyo. 

Usui: It started with a TV program (“TV Tackle” show). I made an appearance before the earthquake. Takeshi, the main commentator on the program, asked the staff to confirm safety of all of us; hence, I received a phone call. They apparently tried hard to get in touch with me, with no success for a long time, and expected the worst. When the phone finally got connected, the staff on the other end was sobbing.

Komori: I am sure they worried about you, especially because you were at the coast of the tsunami-affected area. 

Usui: Soon after they confirmed my safety, a TV crew came to interview me as a tsunami survivor. I showed them around Kesennuma, and then they asked me to speak more about the experience in the TV studio in Tokyo. I turned it down at first, considering the situation right here.

Komori: That’s understandable.

Usui: However, when I told my father about it, he said, “you should go to the studio, representing all the disaster survivors”. I came to agree with him and decided to accept the studio interview. The day before the interview, there was a major aftershock and I almost canceled my trip to Tokyo. It was my father again who insisted I should go, although I am most worried about him saying “OK”, haha.

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Komori: That’s how you appeared on TV right after the earthquake.

Usui: Yeah, an aged woman from Fukushima and I were in the studio. The program was perceived well, with lots of reactions. First, I was invited to the charity dinner show in Tokyo by Ms. Agawa (famous essayist). She said that I had only to come to receive the money.

Komori: Which you went?

Usui: Yes. Then I met a number of celebrities there, such as Mr. Kanazashi (CEO of Tokyu Land Co. Ltd) and Mr. Hattori (Chairman of Seiko Holdings Corporation). Mr. Kanazashi told me that his offer to help had been declined by Kesennuma city and he said, “Kesennuma misses a lot of chances to restore”.      

Komori: Your Ginza project started through these networks.

Usui: Right. While Mr. Kanazashi and I talked, he offered me the chance to use an old building in Ginza as a free space until its planned pull-down in September 2012. I had no idea what to do at the beginning, but accepted the offer after discussing with young people in Kesennuma.

Komori: I see. What did you actually do with the free space?

Usui: It was important for me to make discussion as open as possible to agree on the decision of what to do, so I first consulted Kesennuma Chamber of Commerce & Industry. They further consulted their parent organization, Japan Chamber of Commerce & Industry, and they contacted 15 other chambers in affected areas. As a result, 10 cities/towns were involved in the Ginza project.

Komori: I can see that you made it a point to keep the open communication.

Usui: I was shocked afterwards to find the project not moving at all after I delegated it to the Chamber of Commerce & Industry. It seemed few traders took part. The truth was that they started charging commissions to the users of Ginza free space.

Komori: Financial issue again!

Usui: It was not acceptable because the space was offered by the owner free of charge. How can the organizer attempt to make money? When I complained, the Chamber of Commerce explained their intention to raise the funds to increase employment through this project. Though their intention is good, it really defeats the purpose of the project. I interfered and said to the future traders that we nullified the commission.

Komori: It is surely difficult to keep the channel open and transparent if there is a chance.

Usui: It was not the end of the story. Even after the free space became open to the public last October (2011), I sensed something was wrong as I suddenly stopped hearing from the organizer.

Komori: Whenever there is no contact, something happens.

Usui: I visited Ginza and found the space not utilized well. They turned it into an ordinary shop, the sort you would find in train stations. I complained again, insisting how it was crucial to use the space to convey the message rather than selling goods. I got appointed as a Total Advisor and have started being deeply involved in the project ever since.

Komori: You led by example rather than making orders and instructions. What a strong leadership you are displaying.

Usui: As I had many connections with many people after the disaster, we held special events to raise public awareness. But we struggled to attract attention at the beginning. Mr. Hattori, Chairman of Seiko, whom I met at a charity event, came to help me then. He took the trouble to hand out fliers of the event to the shop owners in Ginza. After that, people around Ginza came to join gradually.

Komori: That’s great. Your effort to have TV interviews representing disaster survivors during a tough period turned out well.

Usui: I will continue to voice out in public in Tokyo. Though the initial phase of the Ginza project came to an end, we are now talking about the second and third phases. Mr. Kanazashi, the CEO of Tokyu Land, offers to support us, too. It isn’t over yet — it has just begun…

 

Three key essentials I have noticed from the earthquake             

Usui: Through my involvement in various activities around restoration, when I look back, I noted that there are three key essentials.

Komori: What are those three? 

Usui: The first key is the importance of energy, such as petrol, electricity, etc. We experienced severe inconvenience right after the disaster, for lack of energy. Energy is very important.

Komori: True, there were lots of issues across the wide Eastern Japan. It affected various industries too. 

Usui: The second key is food. In an emergency situation, clothing and shelter will be secondary, as you can survive with the roof, wall and one set of clothes for a week. However, you can’t survive without food. The disaster brought home to me the importance of stable food supply.

Komori: Food is the source of life, isn’t it? I heard some shelters did not have enough food after the disaster.

Usui: The third key is bonding among people. They say that bonding is rare in the big cities but I observed that even our area lost it after the disaster. 

Komori: The word “kizuna (tie)” became popular after the disaster.

Usui: Conversations were naturally initiated. For example, when I ran into the wife of my neighbor who escaped the tsunami, we shook hands with tears. We also tended to have small conversations with strangers, such as “good weather today, isn’t it”, “let’s hang in there”, etc. 

Komori: I heard lots of such stories in other affected areas, too.

Usui: It is my opinion that the Japanese economy got weaker as we lost the mindset of “working to help others”. The importance of bonding came home to my bosom through the hardship. 

Komori: Food, the second key you mentioned, is directly related to your own business of deep-sea fishing. I heard you were a keen activist of food education even before the earthquake.

Usui: That’s correct. I am promoting making school lunches from 100% locally produced food. 

Komori: 100% local food.

Usui: All the recently broadcasted international disputes in connection with the boundary all have the same root: primary industries such as fishery. If the government does not put importance in fishery and agricultural industries, fishermen and farmers will discontinue their business and abandon their homeland because they will not manage to live on their income.

Komori: It is already happening in the countryside across Japan.

Usui: Lots of people are concerned about the stories of Chinese people buying Japanese land and islands. I believe the issue of abandoned primary industries in those areas originated the situation. For example, those who made a living with fishery used to be keeping their eyes on the land and borders. As they didn’t see a future in the industry, fishery business stopped attracting the next generation and they eventually moved out. 

Komori: That made you focus on the food education.

Usui: Yes. I really want people to notice the value of locally produced food. Kesennuma has some very good fish and vegetables/fruits which even won awards. Why are these not widely acknowledged and used? The answer is simple — consumers nowadays only focus on the low prices. 

Komori: Quality should be given importance, not only the price.

Usui: Right, and I believe school education will help children to have a right awareness of food to understand the value. We should teach children where each ingredient comes from, how the farmers grow them, what their challenges and achievements were, and what kind of living creature they were (in cases of fish and meat). We should also appreciate the value of life through the learning. 

Komori: I understand that you wish children to learn all the stories behind the food, including how to value the quality. Eating is not simply taking the necessary calories, is it. That’s why your project of school lunches from 100% locally produced food is important.

Usui: That’s exactly what I believe. From a broader viewpoint, Japan should never neglect the food producing industry. National security of the food should really be taken seriously. However, the government gave the manufacturing industry single importance and did not prioritize primary industries appropriately. 

Komori: Japanese governmental policy to protect farmers/fishermen seems to be ending up in a run-down of the industries.

Usui: In addition, in the international discussion, Japan is too keen to keep rights and interests of mineral resources, and readily sacrifices primary industries. I am aware of lots of tragic instances happening on the ocean, fighting with neighborhood countries… something mass media never broadcasts. Japanese aquatic resource is being devastated. I really want to do something about it by raising awareness of food. 

Komori: As to the restoration of disaster-affected areas, is there anything you are planning to start newly? 

Usui: Yes, I am working on the new initiative called “Kesennuma Marine Park Project”.

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Komori: Marine Park?

Usui: I want to make a compilation of the marine product industry in Kesennuma to attract people all over the world.

Komori: Such as an aquarium?

Usuij: That’s one of the plans, but that is not a simple story to build a big aquarium. We plan to accommodate a real Sanriku rocky shore in the water tank, where wakame (sea weeds) and oysters are farmed, and people can see it from the bottom of the water tank. We also plan to keep the same kind of fish, which we can actually get from a net in Sanriku, in the water tank.

Komori: Reproduction of Sanriku coast.

Usui: I am envisioning visitors coming to the Marine Park to experience and learn fishery in Kesennuma. For example, we install actual toilets used in the fishing boats. We operate water taxis in the Park. We would like to provide visitors with opportunities to learn through experience, even through role-playing, like kizzania.

Komori: Role-playing of the fishing industry sounds interesting, even for adults. I was a keen fisher in my childhood!

Usui: The project includes local food restaurants. We are in discussion with Ms. Mineko Hamada, a popular food advisor. Our goal is to serve the very best quality of food using Kesennuma products prepared by the great local chefs who can be recognized around the world. I hope we can make it.

Komori: Lots of action being made – your typical style!

Usui: The earthquake was a tragedy, but it resulted in the network among various people. I am sure it will evolve into great achievements further. The important thing is what we actually do. My mission is to contribute to Kesennuma city to revive and prosper through raising awareness of “Energy, Food, and People Bonding”. I believe what Kesennuma will experience in the near future has the power to change Japan.

Komori: Great mission! Oh, it’s already about time to finish the talk. Thank you very much for your time and sharing your valuable story today. We learned that there are lots of practical challenges working on restoration. However how hard it is, people like you with great hope and belief will make things happen, and the small steps will evolve into the big tide. Wishing Kesennuma prosperity from the bottom of my heart.

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(End)

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Translation by Shino Kihara. Administrative support by Yumi Shimono.

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