In Post-Tsunami Japan, a Seasoned Builder Decides Retirement Can Wait

by Yuriko Nagano

A year after pondering retirement, Osamu Sasaki spent a recent cold, windy late-autumn morning sitting ramrod straight in a 16-ton crane truck, gingerly lifting exterior wall parts from truck beds.

The 62-year-old skillfully placed them onto the second floor of a new apartment building, nudging forward the reconstruction effort, piece by piece, for tsunami victims in northeastern Japan.

Back when the tsunami hit in March 2011, Sasaki was preparing to give up his role as chairman of a 20-person construction company started by his wife Miwa’s family. They were in their two-story office building as it shook violently from the initial earthquake. Desks, walls and shelves spilled their contents, which came crashing to the floor.

Shell-shocked, the Sasakis stepped out after hearing neighbors and townspeople yelling to run. They saw the waves approaching, carrying debris and buildings with it. They scrambled to higher ground, saving their own lives, only to witness the tsunami swallow their office building and much of the city.

Miwa’s mother was less fortunate. Worried for her daughter, she went searching for her, driving unknowingly towards the waves. Four days later, her body was found.

After the tragedy, it took the Sasakis a year to decide on whether to retire or start all over again in business. Osamu knew there would be a huge demand for cranes to aid in rebuilding the city. So, along with a longtime colleague, he decided to launch a heavy equipment company, called OMJ, specializing in cranes. Funding from NVIDIA, through nonprofits Mercy Corps and PlaNet Finance Japan, helped him get his start.

This time, however, with the focus of his work on the reconstruction effort, Sasaki wanted to work hands-on by putting on a construction uniform again and operating the heavy equipment.

“I really enjoy being back full time at the construction site,” says Sasaki, whose face is well-tanned from the daily work. “It’s great to see with my own eyes a structure being built instead of managing behind a desk.”

Sasaki initially second-guessed himself, fearing his venture may have been premature. The construction business had been tough in Japan. Prior to the tsunami, many of his competitors had gone bankrupt. But it turned out there was much demand for reconstruction to rebuild the region.

“I think a reconstruction boom will continue for another five, six years, but I do anticipate that at some point we will go back to a slow business,” he predicted.

Since starting his business, the small band of eight employees has been working full swing. “The phone keeps on ringing, so I can’t complain about being able to fill our schedule board,” says Miwa, who serves as finance manager.

Part of Sasaki’s mission is to use his company to train his construction workers, who are licensed but green to the trade. He wants to polish them to be more experienced equipment operators.

In the wake of such destruction, the Sasakis say they are happy to be able to help rebuild the community any way they can. Retirement will have to wait.