Where the Land Meets the Waves: Japanese Fishers a Year After the Tsunami

The droning of the engine saturates the silence and rumbles my chest. I’m huddled just below the captain’s bridge watching the ship’s bow slice through one wave after another. The deck is crowded with cranes, winches, mechanical net haulers, and men clad in neon rain gear. The crew captain turns to me and yells over the noise of the engine. “It’ll be squirming with jellyfish. Just wait.”

It’s my first time on an industrial fishing boat. We head for a near-shore site to retrieve the catch waiting in an elaborate 22,000 square foot trap. Yellow buoys in the water ahead of us outline a massive oval, which our ship and another flank. As we reel in the net, the ships inch towards each other, thirty fishermen hoisting the thick black net onto the decks.

The captain was right; there is a dense cloud of squirming white blobs floating just below the surface of the water. There are so many jellies that in order to reveal the catch below, a massive suction grinder inhales them from the net and spews them over the side of the ship. Within minutes the dark green water around us oozes with minced gelatin.

Now that the jellies are out of the way, I can see a roiling commotion of dark shapes inside the net. The fishermen respond immediately, thrashing hooks into the murky water. A man on my boat manages to snag one and hoist it on board: a juvenile tuna. Its powerful tail fin frantically drums the deck until another man forces a metal spike between its eyes. The fish bleeds out.

Seagulls eager to pillage the ship’s bycatch. It is not uncommon for fishers to work in what they call “gas,” the thick fog that settles over coastal waters. (photo by Daniel Hoshizaki)

The fishermen work quickly and efficiently, pulling up one species after another: chub mackerel, ocean sunfish, Japanese amberjack, and crimson sea bream. For the final haul, a giant hand net is dropped into the water by a crane. Two men grab the

Fishers going for the last remaining squid with the hand net. (photo by Daniel Hoshizaki)

net’s wooden handle and push it deep into the water. Moments later they pull up a brimming haul and spill it onto the deck. A writhing red mass of long-finned squid slithers and squirms around them. One of the younger fishermen runs back and forth across the deck, shoveling the squid down a small compartment hole.

When they are finished, the captain points directly at me. “Off the ship, now!” he yells.

I scramble away and hop onto a smaller boat. The main ship reels sharply towards the south, then blasts away at full speed. It disappears behind a thick curtain of fog, carrying with it four metric tons of fish. It’s now a race against time for the captain and his crew: the quality and price of the catch diminish with every minute it is out of the water.

It’s amazing that there’s a market for them to hurtle towards right now at all. Perhaps even more amazing is that they – or anyone else – are even fishing in this region. The powerful tsunami that ripped through the northeastern coast of Japan on March 11th, 2011 cost the Tohoku fishing industry $16 billion in damages. In the hardest-hit coastal cities, entire fishing fleets were wiped out. The recovery of the industry thus far is a testament to the economic prowess of the country, the incredible productivity of the northeastern coasts, and the vitality of the fishers.




Locally abundant sea raven taste much better than they look. (photo by Daniel Hoshizaki)



I spent the summer of 2012 in three communities in the city of Ofunato, a municipality famous for its fishing industry prior to the tsunami. I lived among fishermen who witnessed and lived through the tsunami, and they taught me about their views of the disaster and about their recovery from it. One fisherman in particular, Chiba-san, opened my eyes to the ways of a ryoushi, a Japanese fisher.

“I like to think of myself as a hunter,” he tells me, as he blows a puff of smoke into the air. We are sitting on the floor, leaning over a dining table with short, stout legs. His wife brings out a bowl of sweets and coffee. “You say ‘fisher’ in English, but I like the word ‘hunter’ better.”

If hunting means bringing in twelve tons of animal mass every three to four days, then this man surely is a hunter. Chiba-san is the captain of a nineteen-ton fishing vessel that preys on Pacific saury, a fish widely used in Japanese cuisine. He is also a self-proclaimed descendent of a samurai family, and his demeanor suggests that he would be a samurai now if Japan still allowed people to carry swords.

Chiba-san shows off his swordsmanship. (photo by Daniel Hoshizaki)

I met Chiba-san through the local Fisheries Cooperative Association. The people I talked to in the cooperative cautioned me that he was one of the most respected –and feared – fishermen in the area. “He’s the type of captain who will tear your head off if you’re not doing your job correctly,” one fisherman told me. He has a fiery tongue and an outlandish way of linking everything to fighting and fishing. At the same time, his fierceness is grounded in his immense capacity for contemplation and reflection. It was his sophistication that propelled him up the ranks and positioned him at the head of his prefecture’s saury fishing fleet. His wife fondly describes him as “a raging child and thoughtful adult mixed into one person.”

Chiba-san showed me the intimate realities of the fishing world in northeastern Japan. I spent hours with him learning about elaborate light fixtures on his boat, which lure fish into his net. He introduced me to his friends at a local shipyard, and they showed me how ships are maintained and repaired. Over meals of the best sashimi I have ever tasted, he shared intriguing insights on the local fishing industry. He described how fishing rights for lucrative species like Pacific saury are guarded by certain families and businesses. He explained his plans to motivate local government officials to invest more in fishery development programs.

And he also told me about his experience surviving the tsunami.

“If you’re a fisher in this region, you know how terrifying tsunamis are. You can do one of two things. You can run for the hills or you go save your ship.”

Chiba-san chose the latter. As soon as he had driven his wife to the top of a hill, he raced back toward the ocean, toward the tsunami, toward his ship. “By the time I had reached the dock my chief engineer had already readied the ship for departure. If it hadn’t been for him I probably wouldn’t have gotten it out of the bay in time.” The two of them took the ship out past the oncoming tsunami. It was from the water that Chiba-san witnessed “a wave larger than anything I had seen in my life crash into the harbor. I thought for sure that my house would be destroyed.”

Fishing is a risky profession, and tsunamis are a devastating risk inherent to this region of coastal Japan. “We risk our lives everyday when we go out to sea,” Chiba-san told me. “Tsunamis are one of the many dangers out there, and I try to minimize my risk by having my house and equipment on higher ground.” In this case, his decisions saved both his house and his most valuable fishing equipment.

“The way I see it is like this: as fishers we take things from the ocean all the time. We can’t really complain if it decides to take some things away from us.” He furrowed his brow, and I saw a glimmer of the hunter-warrior spirit in his eyes. “As a fisherman who hasn’t lost a thing, I see it as my duty to get back out there and take as much from the ocean as physically possible.”

Chiba-san is optimistic about his own prospects for fishing and about the overall condition of his district’s fishing fleet. He, along with a group of captains in his district, is spearheading efforts to recruit young fishermen, increase fishing revenue, and circulate more money through the local economy. His personal goals are to fish harder than he has in the past, bring in much needed resources to the community, and help revitalize the broader economic network of fish market, transportation, and processing industries.

Chiba-san’s chief engineer, who saved his captain’s boat – and life – by preparing the ship for departure immediately after the earthquake. (photo by Daniel Hoshizaki)


Not everyone is as fortunate as Chiba-san.  Optimism seems to be proportional to the harmful personal impacts of the tsunami. In anther part of Ofunato City, Fumiko the wife of a local oyster farmer shares a poem with me that articulates her thoughts on the disaster:

the event that hurtles one’s everyday life
into a spiraling abyss

Her words echo through the hollowed-out shell of her home. Her house directly overlooks the bay and what used to be the city. The only traces that remain of her neighbors’ homes now are empty lots dotted with weeds.

Funamoto preparing his equipment. It won’t be another year until part of his aquaculture farm can generate income. In the meantime he has to rely on government subsidies, volunteers, and help from family members to get by. (photo by Daniel Hoshizaki)

Her husband, Funamoto, is a longtime oyster farmer who ran an oyster bar before the tsunami. He is out in the backyard uncoiling mounds of the synthetic rope used to grow oysters. “Give the end of that rope a solid pull,” he says, showing me how to fasten the cords that will eventually by strung with oyster shells. The work is tedious and monotonous, but vitally important for the family, which earns its income through aquaculture alone. Their eldest son also toils away next to us, diligently working to keep his family’s business afloat. Piles of coiled, untouched rope still cover the living room floor, reminding the family that much more remains to be done before they can once again earn a stable living.

Although all of this family’s basic needs are now being met through their own efforts and government assistance, the reality of it all is unsettling. How will they be able to pay off the loans they took out to finance their new aquaculture equipment? What results will they find if their oysters are tested for radioactive cesium from the Fukushima plant? There are so many uncertainties. “I can’t decide whether to have this house torn down for free and hope that I have enough money to build a new one, or keep this half destroyed place just so I’ll have a place to live,” Funamoto tells me. “Who knows if the government will even let us build here anyway?”

For many in Tohoku Japan, the tsunami marked a complete disjuncture in the trajectory of life. Entire cities were wiped off the landscape. People know their hometowns will never be the same.

Despite the astonishing scale of the impacts I witnessed, people are working to move beyond the devastation. A local barber who rebuilt her shop independently of any government funds explained to me her outlook on the situation: “I don’t want others to forget what happened here, but I also don’t want to be treated like a victim for the rest of my life.”

For the people who remain in the region, the northeastern coast is home.  They love their way of life enough to risk starting over again. Pain and vitality will always color this place. People will continue to rebuild despite the devastation. The bounty from the ocean that has long supported these coastal communities will allow them to regrow. The hope is that lessons about surviving a tsunami are passed on, and that the communities of Tohoku can collectively learn to manage the risks and rewards of life where the land meets the waves.


  1. Ernest Hollaway says:

    Ray and Asano Hoshizaki went to Japan on the same ship with me and my family, so I feel like I almost know the author!
    This is a very insightful article about the survival of an important industry in the Tohoku area. Thanks for the patient research that made this report possible.

  2. Cindy Reynolds says:

    After being in the Tohoku area off and on for the past year and a half, I truly enjoyed reading this. Daniel did an excellent job of describing the fishermen and expressing in writing their desire to get back into “hunting.” Would love to read more about all Daniel learned during his research!

  3. Excellent and poetically written article with beautiful photography! Exceptional journalism. I am so impressed by the resiliency of the Japanese people in the face of such devastation. It will be interesting to see how the rebuilding progresses and if the new residences will be situated above the danger line. I remember reading about the old stone markers that cautioned, “Do not build below this line.”

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