Letter from Northeast Japan: 6 Entrepreneurs Who Are Rebuilding Thanks to Operation Kizuna

by Steve Furney-Howe

Two colleagues and I recently shared a truly inspiring experience.

Mari Nagahara, Yukari Mitsuno and I had the honor of representing NVIDIA for a visit to the city of Kesennuma on Japan’s northeast coast. This is an area that was heavily affected by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan two years ago.

We went there to gauge the impact of Operation Kizuna, our employee-funded response to the disaster. We raised $2.75 million, which went to provide immediate relief assistance, to help sponsor art therapy for children impacted by the event and to fund a longer-term program to help small businesses get back on their feet with grants and loan subsidies.

It’s amazing to talk to the people in this area, look at the work they’ve done to rebuild, thanks to Operation Kizuna’s small business initiative.

Throughout our tour, people expressed their appreciation.

“It has been such an inspiration for the people of Kesennuma that people from so far away, many of whom we will never meet, have cared so much about us,” Kesennuma Mayor Shigeru Sugawara told us.

After visiting Kesennuma and seeing the enthusiasm, creativity and passion the people here have for what they’re doing, it’s safe to say the inspiration they have given back is greater than anything they received.

Here are just six of the amazing people we met on our visit:

Saichi’s Mobile Supermarket

NVIDIA helped fund a supermarket on wheels.
NVIDIA helped fund a supermarket on wheels.

Jun Saichi was manager for a waterfront fish market swept away by the tsunami.  After the tsunami, he realized how hard it was to get reliable sources of food.  So Saichi made a pitch for what would become Saichi’s Mobile Supa, a supermarket on wheels.  Thanks to a grant from Operation Kizuna, he’s now able to deliver seafood, vegetables and dry goods to customers throughout the area

Hamanasu Kaiyoukan

Share a cup of coffee with the owner of Hamanasu Seaside Hall, Midori Suzuki, and you’ll hear a tale that’s like a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” After a tsunami damaged her 75-year old wedding hall she had to let all her employees go, and begin the rebuilding process herself. But she didn’t finish the process alone. A grant from Operation Kizuna helped her hire two employees. And despite the fact both Suzuki and her bank had lost all their records – they were able to work together to find the money to keep her business going.

Naganeyama Day Service Center

The Naganeyama Day Service Center is thriving.
The Naganeyama Day Service Center is thriving.

Japan has one of the oldest populations in the world. And rural areas like Kesennuma have some of the oldest populations in Japan. Shinsuke Horiuchi knows this well: he used to work for a Kesennuma senior care company. After the tsunami destroyed many senior care facilities, Horiuchi helped start a senior care facility able to support up to 20 residents (a grant helped buy a shuttle bus).  As he develops his business Horiuchi is adding a children’s playground and foot bath pool, giving seniors a chance to interact with the area’s children.

Kesennuma Fish Station

Kesennuma Fish Station is another example of pulling a team together.  The main force behind this venture is Tsutomu Onodera. His title is “station master.” After the tsunami wiped out much of the local fishing industry, Onodera was inspired by railway stations to create a hub where fishery-related businesses and consumers could meet. Nine different businesses now run their retail operations under in the station.

Mast Hanpu Handbag Store

Before the March 11 disaster, Masatoshi Shishido owned a shop that designed and manufactured canvas bags – many of them with nautical themes. The canvas material used for bags is the same as has been used by local craftspeople to make sails, tarps, and aprons used on fishing boats and by fish processors.  After the tsunami, many of those craftspeople no longer had any place to work. Thanks to a reemployment grant made possible with Kizuna contributions, Shishido has able to give them one. So far he’s hired seven people.

Peace Jam

Peace jam: good jam -- and good jobs.
Peace jam: good jam — and good jobs.

Ken Sato is a rock and roll and blues enthusiast who once played in a band dubbed “Rude Jam,” before returning to Kesennuma to care for his ailing mother and open a waterfront bar. On March 11, his bar was washed away. In the days that followed, Sato’s needed to find milk for his newborn baby. So he found a car and made runs inland to get milk powder for families with young children.

Sato quickly realized how hard it was for the area’s mothers to take care of their children while earning a living. So, with the support of a grant from Operation Kizuna, Peace Jam was born.  The day we visited, the mothers working at Peace Jam had just finished making more than 300 jars of orange, apple and cinnamon, and yuzu (a Japanese citrus) marmalade. Sato plans to move to a new, bigger plant as they continue to grow.

Featured photo: Sylvia Ross, Mercy Corps