A Very Lucky Man
Dear Family and Friends,
Rie is one of my university students. One day when we were chatting, she began talking about her father. “I really admire him,” she said. “I’ve never seen someone work so hard as he has since the tsunami.” The more Rie talked about her father, the more I wanted to interview him.
The first thing Yoshinori Kikuchi San said to me was, “I am truly a lucky man.” And then his story began to unfold. He had had a large seafood packing and distributing company in Ishinomaki, Miyagi. It was directly near the sea, so not surprisingly, it was devastated on March 11, 2011.
“At the time of the earthquake, my wife and I were in Tokyo on business. Even down there the earth started shaking violently. We immediately switched on the radio and heard what was happening in Tohoku. I had never had any real experience with tsunami damage because there was a protective wall between our factory and the sea. But something inside said this one was going to be a whopper.
“My factory and family house were very close to one another. I had three daughters at home, so immediately I called them. Luckily, very luckily, I could get through. People calling locally in Tohoku could not get any connection, but we were in Tokyo, so we could. I told my daughters to get to high ground as fast as they could.
“Then I called the factory. I told the workers to open all the doors and then get as far away from the sea as possible. Opening the doors was important. That way the water could enter the building without much resistance. Then there might be a slim chance that the entire structure would not be destroyed. And it paid off. Water went up to the top floor, but the iron frame of the building held.
(The light brown line shows the tsunami water mark. It is on the second floor of the building)
“Again, I was lucky,” he continued. “I had gone to Tokyo by car. There were no buses, trains, or planes at that time, but I had a way to get home. Also very fortunately my car was a hybrid, so it did not need as much gasoline as an ordinary car. Later we recharged our phones and even cooked from it. Lucky!
“Of course, my wife and I were panicked, so we immediately hit the road. We were all right for a while, but as we got closer to Tohoku, the roads became clogged with cars. Everyone was trying to get home. It took us 27 hours of non-stop driving, but we made it.
“Our kids were our major concern. So we headed straight for the school where we thought they might be. There were well over a thousand people there, so finding them took a while. But finally we saw them. I’ll never forget that feeling of utter relief to see my girls – and our dog – all safe and with smiles. We ran into each other’s arms and held one another for a long time.
(Small sculpture in front of Ishinomaki Station)
“After resting a bit, my wife and I headed to where our home and factory had been. The army had already started to clear roads, so we could make our way through the rubble. Close to our factory I saw someone wearing my company’s uniform, so I knew he was one of our employees. He seemed dazed, overcome with disbelief. ‘It’s all gone, boss,’ he said almost in tears. Together we went to inspect the damage. Our factory was indeed a huge pile of broken dreams and shattered lives. I was overwhelmed. But I had people who depended on me. I simply could not collapse.
“Again, luck was with me. It came in the form of my wife. She and I had worked together for years. We both looked forward in the same direction. And during that terrible time we continued the supportive teamwork.
After about three days of stunned shock, she and I sat down and started planning. The first thing was to send the children to relatives. We were very fortunate to have family in another part of Tohoku. Many families all came from Ishinomaki, so had no relatives elsewhere. But my wife was from the Japan Sea area. They really helped us a lot. They took in our kids and supported us in every way they could. One way to thank them is to make my company a success again.
“We had four children and thirteen employees. We felt a tremendous duty to them, and also to our ancestors who started this company.
All those things really motivated us to act quickly. We did not think it was fair to apply for temporary housing; we were young and not handicapped. So we immediately rented an apartment.
“My wife and I started reading every document we could about how to apply for government compensation money and loans and how to rebuild a business. We were really on the ball, so were some of the first to get started moving forward. We built new buildings, bought new equipment, and tried to reconnect to former business partners.
“We couldn’t have done any of this without the help of the government. I really, really appreciate all it has done for us. It’s unbelievable. Do you realize they gave us compensation money that was three-fourths of what we needed? The other quarter was a twenty-year, interest-free loan. Can you believe that generosity? And on top of that, the schools where two of my daughters go gave us free tuition for a year or longer. Unbelievable. You can’t imagine the depth of my appreciation.
“Before 3/11 we shipped to a huge area, from as far north as Hokkaido, to as far south as Osaka. But now we can’t do that. First, as I said, the fish aren’t back to the levels of before. And also there aren’t enough boats. There aren’t enough people to shuck the oysters either. And people out of Tohoku are still very cautious about buying things from here. So now we serve the Tohoku and Kansai areas only. We are one of the only companies up and running, but even so, business is still only 25% of what it was before the disaster.
(As you can see, Mr. Kikuchi’s factory stands alone. There used to be many houses and factories surrounding it. Now there are only empty lots full of weeds.)
“I realize things may never get back to where they were before. And I feel a tremendous obligation to my family and workers. So my wife and I came up with the idea of asking a friend in the wholesale vegetable business if we could work together. Lucky for us, he agreed. So now I am learning a whole new type of business. One of the vegetables we deal in is edamame. We boil them up and package them in the teeny kitchen we now have. Then we send them out. They are really big in the Sendai area, one of the traditional foods there, so we sell down there. Business is not booming, but it is a start.
“When this vegetable business gets more solid, I am thinking of moving into solar energy. We’re putting it into the new house we are building, so we will be less dependent on the government for our electricity. There wasn’t any electricity for weeks after the disaster and we don’t want to be in that position again. And if we produce an excess, we can always sell it for a bit more income.
“Down the line, I’m thinking of meat. It’s illegal to have fish and meat in the same plant, so I’ll have to build a new place. And I’ll have to learn a lot, too. I am sure the rules and regulations are very different for meat than for seafood. But my wife and I will research and learn. We are constantly growing, and we won’t stop.
“We love Ishinomaki. This place is in our bones. So we can’t let our home turf down. We have to make a future, not only for us, but for this community as well. Luck has been with us from the beginning. And I trust it will continue. It is all about attitude. I focus very intently on making each day be positive. I plan. I work hard. But I also know I have been blessed with very good luck every step of the way.”