“We have bread and rice”

Japan, March 28, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Yusuke Ota's small business was impacted heavily by the tsunami that swamped his town of Kesennuma in northeastern Japan. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps

Northern Japan is struggling to get back to business. Riding through Kesennuma town in Miyagi Prefecture, we saw checkered activity: some stores destroyed, others being gutted and cleaned, still others with doors wide open and — in some very lucky cases — their lights on.

The heart and soul of many coastal towns in Japan is fishing. The mayor of Kesennuma told us that the fishing industry impacts up to 80 percent of the local economy. Yesterday we took a long walk — through thick mud and the ruins of cars, buildings and businesses — to the center of that industry: Kesennuma Port.

The Port is in shambles, and its vast wholesale fish market is just remnant of what must have been a bustling marketplace. That’s where we met Ryuji Ando, who owns a nearby fish store. Ando, clad in head-to-toe waterproof garb, is working hard to clean up his store.

While his building is structurally sound, he doesn’t have electricity. He’s applying for government funding to help reopen his business, but there’s no guarantee he’ll get it. He also needs fish, but with the port destroyed, there’s none coming in.

Ando is frustrated with the speed of the government’s response. “I need electricity, the port reopened, and this rubble cleared up. I’m ready to get back to business,” he declares.

Back in town, we drive by a very American-style 7-Eleven store. A man out front holds high a cardboard sign that reads: “We have bread and rice.”

What the store doesn’t have is electricity or refrigeration equipment, but the shelves are stocked with decent supplies of drinks, bread, lunch boxes and rice packets wrapped in seaweed — the favorite local snack food. It’s cold enough to keep these goods without refrigeration.

We speak with the franchise’s owner Yusuke Ota. He tells us that they reopened a few days ago, and they’re operating 2-3 hrs a day. They’ve been busy, with a mix of customers from evacuation centers and just folks from the neighborhood. He’s getting regular supplies of food from headquarters in Tokyo and, as long as he can keep selling, he’ll keep stocking the shelves.

Ota and his small staff are optimistic but they’re not trouble free. He doesn’t have insurance, as is the case with many small business owners here. He desperately needs new equipment and repairs, and isn’t clear how he’ll get funding for these.

Ota’s situation is similar to the plight of many small business owners in northern Japan. There’s plenty of eagerness and entrepreneurial drive, as well as the traditional underpinnings of a vibrant private sector that smart businesspeople can leverage to their benefit. But in the short term, they need funding and a boost to survive and rebuild.

In the coming weeks, Mercy Corps hopes to pursue several market-based interventions to help the Japanese people get back to business. First of all, we hope to implement voucher schemes to allow evacuees to “buy” goods they want — food, clothes, furniture, home repair items — rather than being given supplies they might not need. This will give customers choice, as well as start pumping money back into local economies.

Next, we’d like to help small business owners like Ota get the short-term funding — and possibly debt relief — they need to make repairs, purchase equipment and replace inventory. In a country as business savvy as Japan, it won’t take much to get local economies back up and running. With the right strategic, targeted boosts, we’re confident the Japanese people will recover.