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Taking back the sea

Japan, May 18, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Noriyasu Kumagai. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps

Kesennuma, Japan is a city of the sea. Before the tsunami hit northeastern Japan on March 11, more than 85 percent of its 73,000 citizens were involved in the fishing industry in some way.

The sea is part of everyone here. And so — even though the waves shattered the city and then pulled much of it down into the water — people in Kesennuma still look out onto the now-placid Pacific waters and see their future.

"It's what people know," said 56-year-old Noriyasu Kumagai. "There's no other way."

Noriyasu can attest to almost everything, and every emotion, facing Kesennuma today. He can speak to the importance of fishing here, what the tsunami did to this place and what's happening now.

He was born here, grew up here and has been around the fishing industry in some way most of his life. For the last eight years, he's made a living catching katsuo — skipjack tuna — with a fly pole and teaching others to do the same. When the tsunami hit, he was about to go out to sea.

"I was getting my boat ready at about 2:00 in the afternoon, but got hungry and went to eat lunch. As I was paying my bill about 2:45, the earthquake struck and the tsunami sirens sounded," he explained. "So I went to the port, which was right there, and made sure there was enough slack on the rope to give my boat a better chance to survive. Then I got in my car and went as fast as I could to get away."

He reached a point up on a hillside where he could see it all: the sea sweeping in, ripping three huge oil tanks from the ground. Oil leaking. Houses, boats and debris mingling and swirling in the water. Then fire.

When it was safe to get around and assess the damage, Noriyasu found that his house had been spared. But he still hasn't found his boat — neither have most of his fellow fishermen.

"No one really knows where to start rebuilding," he said. "Most everything is gone, including the markets, the warehouses and the factories. All we have are our bodies, our hearts."

As we've seen in the two months since the tsunami, hearts like Noriyasu's are driving Japan's recovery. Mercy Corps and partner Peace Winds are committed to helping fishermen across the region reclaim their livelihoods and restore the industry that has made this city great. Our team is working with individuals, families, city officials and businesses in an effort to get boats back on the water, fish in the markets and cash into local economies.

Noriyasu is happy to hear that, but he's already doing much on his own to keep people fishing in Kesennuma.

He's started taking tsunami-displaced people from the many evacuation centers in the area out to fish on local rivers that aren't choked with debris. "It helps take their minds of what they're going through right now," he explained. He's teaching displaced high school students how to fish. And he's also organized a drive to get rods, reels and other fishing equipment donated from all across Japan — he's already received 30 fishing rods.

I asked him why he chose to fish for katsuo. He told me that he enjoys the challenges of finding just the right lure and using a special method of fly fishing. I told him that my grandfather was a fly fisherman, and he left behind a box of hand-made flies. Noriyasu excused himself and ran out to his car.

A minute later, he returned his a small plastic box. As he opened it, I saw dozens of beautiful and elaborate lures. Noriyasu stood there beside me and we went through the box together.

"Caddis fly," he said, holding one between thumb and forefinger. "Ant. Mayfly. Mosquito."

I could see that love of fishing in his eyes. That desire to teach. And I know that — with some help from around the world — Noriyasu and other Kesennuma fishermen will be back at sea soon, doing what they do best.