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Wistfully, Japan’s fishermen return to the sea

OFUNATO, Japan — Weeks after his hometown was engulfed by a massive tsunami, Yoshiyuki Kumagai still can’t bear to look at the sea.
He manages only fleeting glimpses, lowering his gaze and gesturing in the direction of the coast as he recalls the

OFUNATO, Japan — Weeks after his hometown was engulfed by a massive tsunami, Yoshiyuki Kumagai still can’t bear to look at the sea.

He manages only fleeting glimpses, lowering his gaze and gesturing in the direction of the coast as he recalls the day the water — which once provided his livelihood — arrived in Ofunato, destroying almost everything in its path.

The disaster killed 220 residents in this town of 40,000 in Iwate prefecture. The inventory of ruin includes much of its fishing fleet and its fish market. Yet Kumagai has vowed to return to the ocean.

“You can see for yourself what it looks like … like the end of the world,” he said outside a hillside community center that has become a gathering place for Ofunato’s dispossessed fishermen and their families.

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Outside, groups of men who should be at sea catching mackerel, squid, bonito and other fish attracted by the converging warm and cold currents off the town’s shore, instead sit around a stove drinking tea and contemplating the future of their business.

“For about a week, I opened my eyes in the morning and thought I’d had a really bad dream, then I looked through the window and it hit me that, no, this is for real,” Kumagai said.

“But I’ve got a family, so recently I’ve been feeling that I have to look forward and do my best for them, one step at a time.”

Kumagai and a handful of fellow fisherman form a small part of a growing movement that aims to quickly rebuild the many small communities that once thrived along the Pacific coast, but were left in ruins after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

The inspiration behind the relaunch of Ofunato’s fishing industry is Kenichiro Yagi, a 34-year-old seafood trader who saw the market where he worked reduced to its foundation stones.

What the successful entrepreneur lacks in infrastructure, he has made up for in ideas and enthusiasm.

With nowhere to refrigerate or store produce, he plans to provide online information on what is being caught in real time, directly from fishing boats, enabling customers to collect their orders as soon as the catch is brought ashore.

The nerve center for the operation is a gutted grocery store — the only building left standing in Yagi’s neighborhood, which he and his colleagues are now converting into a makeshift headquarters.

“Everyone is feeling bitter,” said Yagi, who comes from central Japan but decided to stay in the northeast to help rebuild his adopted home. “Some people are saying it will be impossible to catch fish. But I want to help them overcome their lack of belief, to tell them as soon as possible that we have fish to sell, ready for them to taste for themselves.

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“We have to get back to the way it was. Some fishermen will give up, but there are others who want to continue. They want to go back to the way it was.”

Farther down the coast in Kesennuma, the operation to salvage more than 40 large fishing vessels began over the weekend as the Miyagi prefecture town, famed for its catches of shark and Pacific saury, attempts to rebuild.

In Iwaki, in Fukushima prefecture, the local fishing cooperative said it hoped to resume bonito fishing by the end of next month at the earliest.

Tens of thousands of people across the region are still living in shelters, and troops this week mounted yet another attempt to retrieve the bodies of more than 12,000 people who are still missing. Authorities said the cleanup and rebuilding efforts will take years and cost billions of dollars.

Yet signs are emerging of a fledgling recovery: the resumption of bullet train services between Tokyo and Sendai, a city near the quake’s epicenter; the resumption of the academic year, in some cases at schools where children are sharing buildings with evacuees; and, last week the approval of $50 billion for post-quake rebuilding, the first in what is expected to be several huge disaster-spending packages.

But with many fishermen too old to start over, and its infrastructure all but wiped out, the region’s fishing industry will likely struggle to return to pre-tsunami levels. The disaster damaged more than 6,000 fishing boats and about 100 ports in Iwate and the two other worst- affected prefectures, Miyagi and Fukushima, according to government data.

Kumagai fears that the his town’s brave attempt to set a course for recovery will prove fruitless unless the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plan is quickly brought under control, and consumers in Japan and abroad are given assurances that seafood from the area is free of contamination.

“Depending on what happens at the [nuclear] plant, we could go ahead with our venture or abandon it,” he said. But, he adds, “We have no choice but to look forward. If we don’t, this could be the end of Japan’s fishing industry.”

Ofunato has grown wearily accustomed to catastrophes, having been hit by several devastating tsunamis over the past century. It has rebuilt before. And Yagi believes it will do so again.

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“As many as half of the people living here are involved in fisheries. Having said that, we have to try and return to normal. Yes, some people will give up fishing, but others have a strong belief that we can go back to the way it was.

“I’ve been told that it’s too soon to think about the future. But we have to do this while the will is there. The longer we wait, the less likely it is to happen.”