Riding the tide: Lessons from the Land of the Rising Sun

John A. Magsaysay (The Philippine Star) - December 13, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - An old employer once told me that with crisis come opportunities, and this was what was in my mind during the tsunami,” shared Toshimi Abe, a young entrepreneur from Matsushima. From its bays badly hit by the great waves of the East Japan earthquake of 2011, Abe managed to grow his Wagaki Ltd. company, one of the finest suppliers of Japanese oysters, or magaki, to date.

 “I used to be an oyster farmer. But the great Japanese earthquake was a good opportunity to start. It was during this time that I met Mr. Sato when he was helping rehabilitate the area,” Abe added. Sato, of course, became Abe’s business partner, and together, their Wagaki Ltd. offers valuable livelihood support for 20 local oyster producers still struggling to get back on their tsunami-tried feet.

Producing oysters proved to be a test for patience and dedication. The baby oysters or seeds are first collected in a basket, where they will be kept and left in open water for up to 3 1/2 years. As the oysters in their shells grow in size, their weight grows substantially that these baskets are reinforced with industrial buoys. And once harvested, they will go through the lengthy and laborious process of cleaning, shucking, brine bathing, and packing, which the three-year-old company manages to observe with industrial precision.

“When I visited France in 2011, I was impressed with how the French grow and enjoy their oysters. And it was the turning point for me to start something like that in my town,” shared Abe. “Three months after the tsunami, Matsushima Bay cleared up. Luckily, 20 percent of our original seeds survived the wave, and, together with my friends, we cultivated them and by the next few months, we were able to ship them,” he continued. Now, the company yields up to one ton of their fresh, high quality, on-shell Matsushima oysters, which they supply all over Japan, as well as Vietnam, and very soon, France.

Matsushima oysters have long been revered as the best in the world. In 1970, when French oyster growers lost much of their yield to red tide, the seedlings they used to regain production came from Matsushima Bay. “Producing oysters need good, flowing river water. Matsushima Bay welcomes many river channels, bringing in plants and algae that oysters love to eat. This makes oysters sweeter and fresher,” explained Abe. And like steroids to bodybuilders, this natural, steady supply of oyster food cuts the growing time of Wagaki’s oysters to a third. “The most valued oysters are the medium ones. It takes Europe two to three years to grow it this size, but it only takes us a year,” said Abe.

After having the supply and production lines in order, there is only one challenge that Abe faces. “The biggest difference between the European and the Japanese are the Europeans sell their oysters on shell, while the Japanese like them unshelled. Removing it from the shell greatly devaluates the oyster, so I thought of selling them in their shells,” Abe noted. Making the Japanese change their notions of consuming oysters in their shells mean that Abe would have to take a more proactive approach. “I hold oyster barbecues and invite people. The Japanese aren’t used to enjoying their oysters this way, and seeing them enjoy is pleasurable for me. This inspires me to carry on with my business,” Abe went on.

On the topic of inspiration, the 87-year-old doll maker from Matsushima, Nahojiro Motomura, never lost his, even amid the destructive tides of nature and change. Still creating his traditional kokeshi, or Japanese wooden dolls by hand, Motomura remains unfazed by the vicious tide that claimed 15 lives in his hometown, and the growingly digitized world of his once wide-eyed, young Japanese patrons.

“The tsunami took my house and my workshop, and it took me over a year to recover. The tourists only started coming back to Matsushima after three years. It was a hard time, but we never gave up,” shared Motomura. The 300-year old craft of doll-making, made from the mizumi tree that is endemic to Matsushima’s Tohoku prefecture, started with the town’s cookery craftsmen who made wooden toys for their children. Painting faces and pasting paper clothing on them, the toys proved to be a hit, becoming regular souvenirs in the resort town’s many onsen or public baths. Motomura then took on the craft when he was 20 years old, right after the Second World War.

Now, it takes Motomura one day to carve 30 dolls, while five days to paint them, everything by hand. His intricate paintwork and distinct shape become Motomura’s trademark among other kokeshi makers, yet, sadly, this unique craft may not pass on. “I’m the only kokeshi maker living in Matsushima. There used to be four of us, but the rest passed on due to old age or health complications. Unfortunately, I don’t have a successor,” Motomura mentioned with a certain sense of regret. However, his kokeshi shop facing the legendary “Special Place of Scenic Beauty” Matsushima Bay offers workshops for tourists and visitors, with hopes that more and more will be inspired to take on and continue the centuries-old art.




In the seaside city of Natori, the great waves of the magnitude 9 East Japan earthquake and tsunami reached as high as 10 meters, virtually erasing the industrial processing city on the Japanese map. With families displaced and businesses badly damaged, the seaside community makes a conscious effort to return to normalcy, where community shops were built to assist in the livelihood of those who can’t afford acquiring land and housing on higher grounds.

“The damage was devastating. However, from all over the world, we received tremendous support, that is why we want to thank you, and this is the best time to show our gratitude,” said Hiroshi Sasaki, now the managing director of the forty year old Sasaki Brewery, distilling the city’s famous Nami-Oto sake.

“One year after the tsunami, we couldn’t do anything. But, with the help of the government and some private patrons, we were able to start making sake in this place,” Sasaki added, referring to his makeshift brewery in one of Natori’s warehouse spaces.  Now distilling 18,000 liters of its premium rice wine, a relatively decimated amount to its original 30,000-liter yield pre-disaster, Sasaki still counts positive his company’s enduring plight. “The volume of our current sake production may be small compared to the other sake breweries in the country, but our product is unique,” Sasaki mentioned.

Sasaki Brewery’s sake is made from the hitome-bore rice of the region. Loosely translated to “love at first sight,” it is the golden grain yielded from the Yuriage town, which, when distilled with the soft waters of Miyagi, makes for the suiting foundations of high-quality sipping sake. “My sake goes well with seafood by enhancing its taste. It doesn’t destroy the natural flavors of the fish, but it deeply complements it,” Sazaki declared proudly.

“If sake has too strong a flavor, or too heavy, it may cause you to lose your appetite. My sake has a light texture and balanced taste that invites you to eat more seafood,” stressed Sazaki further. Hiroshi Sazaki attributes this taste to his newfound manual process of preparing sake, unlike his fully mechanized counterparts. Together with his master toji, or sake blender, brother Jinpei, they produce their six varieties of sake during the cold seasons of November to December, where the yield takes one whole month for fermentation, or until the traditional cedar tree ball, or sugidama, found in the warehouse’s entrance turn from a lively green to a rich brown color.      

“I may have some certain inconveniences with our current setup, but I’m an optimistic person, so I don’t mind these inconveniences. There are some benefits as well. It’s more compact, so it lets us focus on our product more. This, I believe, makes our sake better than ever,” Sazaki stated.

For the three-centuriy-old sweet shop Kumagai-ya Confectionary, still found in its original Sendaishi-Aobaku store, the 10th generation confectionary maker Norihiro Kumagai still produces their traditional dagashi sweets, or “low-class” sweets since the time of the Tokugawa  Shogunate, despite the current wave of newer dessert trends sweeping through Japan.

Unlike its jogashi, or high-class counterpart, where the traditional desserts are made with refined sugar thereby catering to the tastes of royalty and courtiers, the dagashi  desserts use the less costly raw sugar for its mochi-based, anko (red bean) filled desserts that prove popular to the Japanese working class.

“The pleasure of eating dagashi is not just in the taste, but the experience of history,” Kumagai said, while letting us sample some of his 20 different dessert varieties prepared in his sweet shop daily. The shop still uses the traditional hand prepared and molded methods for three centuries, and the owner claimed that its taste never changed through the years.

Yet, it is the taste of his patrons that changed. With the influx of international pastry franchises throughout Japan, bringing with them the pancakes, bonbons, and éclairs that prove irresistible to the younger Japanese palette, the centuries-old sweet shop admitted to facing some serious competition. “We used to produce over 60 kinds of desserts here, but due to the changes of market taste, we decided to trim down,” Kumagai shared. “We now maintain 20 of our traditional recipes, while coming up with newer ones to match contemporary tastes,” Kumagai added. The results are localized versions of the French macaroons that the sweet shop fondly calls makoron, made from ground peanuts.

Other than developing its age-old recipes to make them timelier, Kumagai turns to social media marketing and pop culture placements as well, with the hopes of getting more and more Japanese youth to enjoy their dagashi. Recently, Sendai’s oldest sweet shop was featured in a hit anime TV show called ‘Wake Up Girls’, where Mr. Kumagai played the father of the central character, and the sweet shop became the backdrop for the show’s exciting exploits. “The producer wanted to support Sendai after the tsunami, so they decided to feature the shop on their show. When the TV show came out, more and more youngsters started visiting the store,” Kumagai revealed.

And when speaking of modern desserts, it is strawberry that proves to be perennially in season for the Japanese tastes, finding their way in pies, trifles, waffles, and even wines. In the farming town of Yamamoto, where the agricultural land was badly damaged by the saline waters of the tsunami, a new sprout is starting to thrive, making the crowned scarlet fruit available all-year long.

In partnership with Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Agricultural Production Corporation GRA Inc. (GRA) set up an experimental strawberry farm in the now-barren lands of Yamamoto. By utilizing newer growing technologies coupled with traditional agricultural know-how, the GRA succeeded, in just three years, to revive the town’s dwindling farming economy.

By using effective temperature and climate control, the 2,300 square meter, ¥200 Million-worth growing farm yields its prized Migaki-Ichigo strawberries all year long, which retails for ¥1,000 a piece in Tokyo’s top department store chains.

“During the tsunami, the town of Yamamoto lost 4% of its population, alongside 95 percent of its strawberry greenhouses. It has been our mission to aid economic rehabilitation through industrial agricultural businesses when we founded in 2011,” explained its sales and marketing manager Koji Tomoto. Tomoto, who used to be a Tokyo banker, joined the GRA in 2013, and saw the growing farm’s vibrant development.

With ceilings twice as high as the regular greenhouses, the GRA strawberry growing farm encourages plenty of photosynthetic sunlight beneficial for the overall growth of the fruit. Its transparent roofs open automatically, through temperature sensors, to open or close depending on sunlight and heat requirement, while heater boxes provide the needed temperature through underground ducts during the winter seasons, letting warm air circulate around the farm. Florescent lamps strategically placed overhead provide UV light during the nighttime. Tomoto notes that 3 hours worth of UV light radiation promotes better resistance against plant diseases and insects.

For irrigation, the farm uses rainwater collected from indoor and outdoor vats carried through a system of pipes. In a seaside town where fresh tap water proves costly, the harnessed rainwater proves to be a practical and beneficial alternative. This water is mixed with nutritional elements or synthetic fertilizers that are carried through pipes found burrowed under its coconut husk planting agents. Here, the water is strategically injected in the strawberry’s crowns, through the farm’s patented “Crown Control System”, which optimizes the fruit’s growth. In pollinating the flowers to grow the fruit, the farm uses natural maruhana-bachi honey bees to carry out the task.

“The purpose of this program is to get the best results for the adaptation of other farms in this area as well as the rest of Japan. We are also responsible for disseminating this information by handing out the same technology for the average farmer,” Tomoto explained. With this, the rest of Japan can taste the sweetest, juiciest strawberries (or other crops), despite the climate or the season.


Despite much of the Japanese’s resilience, seen on their rise after the limping twin disasters of the great Tohoku tremor and tsunami, the country is facing yet another trying time. Caught amidst a looming economic depression, Asia’s technological powerhouse is looking introspectively rather than the usual superficial, band-aid solutions.

In the country’s capital of Tokyo, Dr. Yukio Hattori, Japan’s foremost culinary champion, most known for being the original Iron Chef, as well as being at the helm of the Ecole de Cuisine et Nutrition culinary college, recently teamed with the Japan’s health and education ministries to encourage a more mindful way of eating to develop a more enriched society. With his self-designed ‘Shoku-iku’ or conscious eating initiative, Dr. Hattori aims to develop a stronger, better nourished society starting from the homes, the schools, and the communities.

“To have proper food nutrition is to maintain health and life themselves,” explained Dr. Hattori. Through the initiatives’ three pillars: food health, food safety, and food security, Hattori delved into the traditional Japanese dining practices, as supported by current medical and industry research, in devising what became the Japanese government’s framework for the Shoku-iku Basic Act of 2005.

Amid the growing demands of the Japanese for fast food, Dr. Hattori aims to uphold the benefits of non-processed, preservative-free food, and a proper, balanced diet to public primary school students through built-in lessons in their current curriculum. According to Dr. Hattori, “10 years old is the critical age in a child’s development, and if they don’t develop well into these years, through the food that they eat, then they may not recover at all.”

In terms of food safety, Dr. Hattori believes that nothing could be more secured as a meal enjoyed at home, when eaten together. Other than ensuring the right nutrition from kitchen to table, Dr. Hattori also believes that the emotional connection spurred by meals shared together as a family releases happy hormones vital in the full development of a child. “The hormone oxytocin has been scientifically-proven, since 1994, as a hormone that strengthens the bonds between mother and child, passed on through breastfeeding. Spending time eating together also generates this same oxytocin, and this is the same hormone that promotes brain generation. So, spending your meals together as a family is key to developing a child’s brain well,” Dr. Hattori explained.

And, lastly, in the midst of industrial globalization, Dr. Hattori sees a more pressing concern for food security and sustainability. “Fifty years ago, Japan is an agricultural nation which quickly shifted to a technological economy. The decline of agriculture was caused by a drop in farming manpower, where work shifted to stimulate industrial growth,” Dr. Hattori recounted. Now, Japan’s 61% of food supply is imported, making it, among 193 developed countries, in 16th place from the bottom in terms of food self-sufficiency. “Maybe Japan is not a sovereign country after all. Maybe we are a subordinate country relying on imports,” Dr. Hattori noted.

Now, with Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Dr. Hattori is holding dialogues with agriculturists, farmers, and industrialists to focus on the pressing matters of food self-sufficiency. “To increase the motivation of our food producers, we must increase the salary of farmers and agricultural workers more than the office workers. Of course, in our economy now, this proves impossible, but, at least recognizing their value in our society will be a substantial start,” shared Dr. Hattori.

Seeing Japan as a country also battered by natural catastrophes, tested by the shifting tides of the times, as well as being challenged by an increasingly modernized, globalized, and detached society, makes it relatively closer to the home front. Sure, while our Asian neighbor may be far off in terms of economic scale, tech development, and productivity, the issues they face and the solutions they propose are something more akin to what is pressing and possible in our own shores.

In the still, man-made lake of the World Heritage Motsuji Temple in Hiraizumi, I had the time to reflect on the lessons of what makes the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ enduringly rise, and rise again. Even amidst a disaster-tried and conflict-stricken geographical location, and an increasingly challenged global economic position, it is its people’s constant traversing from tradition to technology that makes it inevitably take off.

“By rebuilding our communities, we are also rebuilding our culture,” I remembered the sake brewer, Hiroshi Sazaki, say. And with that, I realized that it doesn’t matter what broke. It is what you build again that counts.

* * *

For information on Japan’s disaster and economic resiliency, you can visit the Japan Information and Culture Center (JICC) at the Embassy of Japan in the Philippines, 2627 Roxas Boulevard, Pasay City.

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