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June 20, 2012
Consuming Tohoku Products Contributes to Revitalization

On June 20th, over a year after the March 11th disaster in Tohoku, JETRO Chicago and the Japan Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Chicago held a seminar, entitled “Tohoku Disaster Recovery and Japanese Sake Promotion in the US,” in Chicago.

Featured speaker, Mr. Kousuke Kuji of Nanbu Bijin Brewery in Iwate Prefecture in Tohoku, gave a poignant speech about his experience of the disaster and its aftermath. He was passing through a tunnel on a high-speed train in Fukushima when the earthquake struck; all the trains stopped and the electricity failed. For the next 24 hours, the passengers had to cooperate to stay warm and share the limited food and water available. The adults on the train kindly gave their coats to the children as the temperature dropped due to the lack of heat. The train car was filled with the cries of hungry babies; as there was no supply of hot water, formula could not be prepared. As the passengers tried to deal with each of these pressing issues, they could only wonder about what was happening outside since they were confined to the train by the conductor’s order. Only later would they learn about the tsunami and the victims it took.

After evacuating the train and staying overnight at a high school gymnasium, Mr. Kuji and others rode in a taxi to their respective towns. The Nanbu Bijin Brewery, while still intact, had suffered extensive damage from the earthquake, including the collapse of many walls, the roof, and the chimney. Amazingly, the sake casks were not damaged, however sake production could not resume until repairs were made.

More urgent than reconstructing the brewery was the extreme lack of food and gasoline in the area. With the need for food so desperate and the number of refugees reaching over 43,000 people, sake quickly lost priority not only in Tohoku, but in all of Japan. Supermarkets were empty of everything except stockpiles of alcoholic beverages, and to Mr. Kuji, who was already facing difficulty in reconstructing the brewery, it seemed that there was no hope for recuperation.

At that time, Mr. Kuji was also mourning the death of his best friend. A few days after the tsunami, Mr. Kuji was notified that his best friend’s body was found. Like many who died in the disaster, this friend survived the earthquake, but he, his wife, his mother and his younger daughter were swallowed by the tsunami while evacuating. He was survived only by his father, who was on a business trip, and his older daughter, who was in school. His father arranged the cremation and was not expecting any other attendees, but Mr. Kuji felt that he should support his friend’s father by attending the cremation. Transportation, however, was problematic since there was a severe gasoline shortage. In the end, Mr. Kuji’s employees offered him their remaining gasoline, and Mr. Kuji and his friends made it to the cremation.

At the cremation, his friend’s father did not cry, but rather smiled. He considered himself lucky to be able to find and cremate his son when so many others could not locate their loved ones. He encouraged Mr. Kuji and his friends by saying, “You have survived, you have your family, you have your own business. You can challenge anything. Try to do something good for the recovery.” One of Mr. Kuji’s friends who owns a construction supply company went directly to tsunami affected areas to help with reconstruction. Another friend who is a chef went to visit tsunami affected areas to serve food for evacuees. Mr. Kuji himself continued to ponder what he could do for Tohoku’s recovery.

Mr. Kuji began to realize that revitalization cannot succeed only by rebuilding infrastructure; reconstruction of the economy is equally essential to the recovery. During that time, out of respect for the terrible situation in Tohoku, many Japanese refrained from having hanami (cherry blossom viewing) celebrations. Although he appreciated consumers’ emotions toward Tohoku, he thought such consumer behavior would make Tohoku recovery more difficult. He decided to start a small media campaign to combat the idea. He was among the first people in Tohoku to suggest that the region was in danger of a “Secondary Economic Disaster,” which means self-restraining consumer attitudes causing further economic damage to Tohoku. It started with a post to his Twitter account only five days after the tsunami occurred. Mr. Kuji argued that this restrained consumer behavior would damage the economy and encouraged instead people to celebrate the cherry blossom season and consume goods from Tohoku in order to revitalize the economy.

Encouraged by responses to the tweet, on April 2nd, 2011, he worked together with other Tohoku brewers and posted a YouTube video that received over 535,000 views. It attracted a lot of media attention and sparked much debate, but above all, it inspired an outpouring of support. The initiative to increase consumption of Tohoku goods has spread and become social movement. This movement led to the opening of specialty stores and online stores selling everything from food and beverages to traditional crafts and artwork made by people from the affected areas.

Mr. Kuji voiced his gratefulness to everyone who encouraged Tohoku from all over the world and ended his speech with the sentiment that if we work together and do everything in our power, there will always be hope for a full recovery. He also introduced the Beacon of Rebirth Poster Project which supports affected areas. Mr. Kuji said he is always keeps one of the project’s slogans in mind: “Ain’t gonna let it break my heart.” To learn more about this project, please visit “A Beacon of Rebirth Poster Project” .

Mr. Joji Yusa of Okunomatsu Brewery located in Fukushima also spoke at the seminar. His factory suffered such extensive damage that all sake production was interrupted for nearly ten months. He mentioned that Fukushima is facing extreme difficulty in recovery because of the nuclear disaster, but he thinks 2012 is the first year of recovery. He stressed that Fukushima producers and related government agencies are making every effort to keep the food and beverage products safe. He believes that Tohoku should develop and become even more powerful in the future and thanked all those lending support to Tohoku.