Six years after the Fukushima disaster, local government is working with private firms in one Japanese city to rebuild its economy
Tomatoes growing in Japan’s Wonder Farm as part of Iwaki City’s reconstruction efforts after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
It’s a cold January day in Iwaki City, 211km north of Tokyo. But here, in a balmy glasshouse, light and sunny, pop music is being piped in, and tonnes of tomatoes are ripening and being picked.
They’re not in the ground; they’re being grown from waist-high pots of coconut matting. These are no ordinary tomatoes. They are growing on Wonder Farm, an “integrated agricultural theme park”, run by Tomato Land Iwaki, which is part-funded by the local city council and the Fukushima prefecture.
But another of the Wonder Farm partners is train firm Japan Rail East, which sells the tomatoes via its own restaurants. Because these small red fruits are part of plans by the local city government and local businesses to reinvigorate the local Iwaki economy after the devastating impact of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, a mere 50km up the coast.
After such a cataclysmic series of events, rebuilding an economy based on fishing, agriculture and tourism is not easy. It requires some innovative thinking. Luckily, that’s something with which this area is already familiar. Fifty years ago, another of its industries, coal mining, faced decline. Here in Iwaki City, the Joban coal mining company came up with a novel idea. It retrained coal miners’ daughters as hula dancers and created the Spa Resort Hawaiians, Japan’s first theme park, which from its opening in 1966 until the events of March 2011, attracted thousands of visitors a year to its array of pleasures, including golf, a huge swimming pool and hot springs centre, and, of course, hula dancing and fire knife displays.
“We were driven by the need to survive,” explains Yukio Sakamoto, a director at the Joban coal mining company. “Yes, it was a radical change, but it was a success because everyone in the company focused on the plan. It wasn’t about knowledge or expertise, but mindset.” The idea faced considerable opposition: “People said coal miners should just dig coal. But we trained the daughters of coal miners as professional dancers.”
That kind of ingenuity has been called for even more since 2011 in this part of Japan. It’s been hard work for everyone involved to try and get visitors back to the region and to restart the market for local food and produce. The city government has worked with regional and national bodies to measure radioactivity levels in local produce, and the figures are publicly available. But rebuilding trust that food from Fukushima is safe has been slow. The local fish market may be open, but almost all its stock is from elsewhere in the country.
Still, at least it is open and Senzaka Yoshio, one of the officers at the La Mew Mew fish market, which was badly damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, says visitor levels are now back up to 80% of the pre-disaster days.
Further along the quay from the fish market are more fish. Live ones, this time, in the spacious tanks of the Fukushima Aquarium. When the tsunami hit, this aquarium lost 90% of its creatures. It reopened just four months later, in July 2011, a feat possible, according to executive director Yoshitaka Abe, due to teamwork, local leadership and co-operation with other aquarium authorities, who sent specialists and volunteers to help with the reconstruction work.
The Fukushima aquarium, which reopened just four months after the tsunami of March 2011.
For Sakamoto, at the Spa Resort Hawaiians, overcoming the 2011 disaster has been about local people. The resort has brought more than 9,500 jobs to the area. On the day of the earthquake, there were 617 guests in the hotel. All got safely home. But many employees lost family members and homes. “We continue our operation thinking about the people who suffered,” he says. “Our main idea was not to fire people because of the difficulty in the business, but to redeploy them.”