Trying to Grow Jobs in the Japanese Disaster Zone

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seafood processing is slowly coming back

Tokyo  The population losses in Ishinomaki and Onagawa were different than New Orleans.  After Katrina, a city that had evacuated was (is!) unable to return with 80% of the housing flooded.   The Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and the tsunami that followed virtually wiped out everything in its path, killed, destroyed, and returned to the sea.  Where it went it was worse, and in some areas it went inland 6-miles, but in others it hit the cliffs and hills and could go no farther.  Ishinomaki had 5000 deaths, but only lost 10,000 on its total population of over 150,000.  Onagawa had 1000 deaths and saw its population drop from 8000 to 6000.  Bringing the rest of the victims and survivors back is a complex undertaking that sorts through trauma, continuing fear and unease, dislocation, and, as always the need for housing and jobs.  For those who lost housing, there is a conundrum of places where people may never be able to return, financial difficulties in rebuilding due to age and income, and way stations of temporary housing.

Jobs are a problem, as always.  In the Ishinomaki area, there had been more than 200 seafood processing factories, many of them surprisingly (to me) processed fish from the United States, but now only 63 or so had reopened.  Japan, unlike Indonesia in Banda Aceh, has not tried to stop the fishing industry from relocating near the water.  Part of the problem here and in housing construction is the lack of skilled workers.  Yoji Tatui, vice-president of RENGO-RIALS (the Research Institute for Advancement of Living Standards of the Japan Trade Union Congress) was a panelist commenting on my lecture at Meiji University about all of these topics.  He mentioned that there was a continuing debate inside the labor movement on their proper role after such a disaster.  Should they simply provide ameliorative aid to their members and others impacted in the community or should they expand their role?  This had also been the labor debate after Katrina and in both cases the lack of consensus arguably leads to mixed results.  In neither area was the response based on taking advantage of the shortage of labor to organize aggressively (remember after the Great San Francisco Fire unions exploited the labor shortages to make San Francisco construction work all union and the city a union-town!) or to push to import skilled workers rather than food and water.

with Bihoro key leaders

The Japanese Workers’ Cooperative Union (JWCU) was not large in the area before the earthquake, but has used government resources for training workers for new jobs as well as meeting needs for health care and other service workers, to expand their presence in the affected communities.   Ken Takanarita, who has an article on this in the coming Social Policy issue, told on our panel of having made 15 trips to the area, initially on a weekly basis, for this purpose as soon as the shinkansen were back in service.

We visited with a group of women in Ishinomaki who called their project the “Power of Gaga.”  They were hoping to use the current popularity of Lady Gaga to bring some buzz to their “marketing” effort.  Gaga means “mothers” in Japanese, so fittingly in my view this was really the Power of Mothers project.  Some 15 women had been recruited after several meetings who were joining together to try and create jobs for themselves making organic tofu in the traditional methods as well as healthy, local foods through a café of sorts if they can organize one.  Using six kitchen “units” in a local community center, they served us a delicious meal of tofu steak, made with their own hands, brown rice with chestnuts they had picked in the local forest, sushi from cod and squid caught locally, and other treats.  The organizer commented that using local products was cheap for them in a meal that would run from 500 to 700 yen or about $8 to $10.  Until they can connect with Lady Gaga and get some exposure, they are supported by the municipal government, but have to succeed by March in making these jobs move from idea and training to paying.  Several of these middle aged women commented that their tofu would be good for Lady Gaga in helping her lose weight.  I missed the connection, but in our global mono-culture, it seemed well known to everyone else there that the formerly razor thin Gaga, has been dealing with some weight issues recently.

Not far away, hard by the coast, Onagawa sat on a beautiful lake that had been sheltered from the tsunami attack.  Driving up, there were signs of oyster fishing they pointed out everywhere along the lake, nestled by forested hillsides.  The Bihoro Workers’ Cooperative was about a dozen years old.  They were 100 members in various occupations before the earthquake and now they were 60 members.  Forestry had been their specialty but they told me when we visited that only about 10 of their members were employed there.  Most were “care” workers or employed in subcontracting schemes from the municipality.  They had huge plans of being developers of some forest land they had owned along the lake road nearby.  This would be a $10 million dollar development with 3-story housing for families, training centers for the local soccer team, health and childcare centers, and even training for forestry workers and forestry education for city dwellers.  It was all confusing because the government would provide 75% of the financing but they had to come up with 25% and since the land they didn’t own was now “high ground” and priced more dearly, the owners were not as excited about the co-op’s development plans.  This whole effort they told me might add 30 jobs.  As it turned out by the end of our conversation, many of their drawings were the standard “dream castles” of all architects and developers anywhere, and open to negotiation, so who knows what may develop with this in the future.

People are desperate for jobs and the government seems willing to support a variety of efforts that might create even relatively few new jobs with uncertain futures, livelihoods, and wages.  But the efforts are real and sincere, and you have to have a horse to beat a horse, and until there’s a better plan, this kind of thing is the bellwether of the JWCU and others in terms of job creation.

Rebuilding is a marathon, not a sprint.

big development plans of Worker Co-op Bihoro in Onagawa
a picture with the Power of Gaga team
traditional process of making tofu