Women back to work as seaweed harvesting begins

Japan, February 3, 2012

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  • Women back to work as seaweed harvesting begins
  • hiroko_mirura_crop.jpg
    Hiroko Mirura leads 400 women who have found jobs in the local wakame seaweed industry, back in operation thanks to equipment donated by Walmart and distributed by Mercy Corps. Photo: Sylvia Ross/Mercy Corps Photo: hiroko_mirura_crop.jpg
  • equipment_crop.jpg
    New equipment stands ready for the boats to return with the latest seaweed harvest. Photo: Sylvia Ross/Mercy Corps Photo: equipment_crop.jpg

Yesterday I met Hiroko Mirura. In her early 60s, Ms. Mirura is a former scallop merchant, proud wife of a fisherman, and a strong female leader in the town of Minamisanriku. Hiroko's impressive life boasts many accomplishments, including being the only female board member of the town's powerful fishery association.

But last March, Hiroko's husband was swept away in the tsunami, and her house and business were decimated. Overcome with grief after losing her husband, she went into a deep depression for the next three months. She didn't eat. She didn't get out of bed.

Then one day, she decided that her drive to help her community was stronger than her grief. She wanted to do what little she could to mobilize the other grief-stricken women in Minamisanriku —and it turned out that 'a little' was a lot. She started hosting teas for the unemployed women in town, which led to a community candle-making venture, which led to the need for re-employment. With a little help from Mercy Corps and Peace Winds Japan, and thanks to the generous support of Walmart, she is transforming her community.

Today, Ms. Mirura is in charge of mobilizing the 400 women who have gained employment through Mercy Corps' wakame seaweed program.

Wakame seaweed is wildly popular food in Japan and around the world (I’ve already eaten it many times in only four days here). This northeastern coast of Japan is famous for its high quality wakame, but after the tsunami, cultivating, harvesting and processing of this valuable crop had all but ceased because the specialized equipment was washed away. Generously, Walmart donated 26 pieces of the wakame processing equipment, bringing the industry back to life.

I was lucky to arrive just in time for the beginning of the 12-week wakame harvesting season. Each morning at dawn, as the fishing boats return with harvested batches, a group of women gathers around a large metal tub ready to first boil the seaweed, then wring it, then dry it. It's a complicated and intricate process — and one that these women, and Ms. Mirura, are immensely proud of.