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Three Years After: Current State of the Marine Products Processing Industry Key to the Recovery of the Tohoku Coastal Region and Recovery and Rebirth Initiatives | Dr. Eng. Yasuo Suzuki Professor, Regional Liaison Center, Miyagi University Program Officer, JST Center for Revitalization Promotion (Sendai Office) Coordinator/Leader, Tokeiren Business Center [Date of Issue: 30/September/2014 No.0235-0943]

Date of Issue: 30/September/2014

Three Years After:
Current State of the Marine Products Processing Industry
Key to the Recovery of the Tohoku Coastal Region and Recovery and Rebirth Initiatives

Dr. Eng. Yasuo Suzuki
Professor, Regional Liaison Center, Miyagi University
Program Officer, JST Center for Revitalization Promotion (Sendai Office)
Coordinator/Leader, Tokeiren Business Center


Three years have already passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake, and particularly in the marine products processing industry, which has epitomized the damage suffered, assiduous efforts are being made toward recovery. However, it is clear that simply restoring the old will only mean once again submitting tamely to an era of decline. For the disaster-struck Tohoku coastal region to be reborn as a model region for industry of the future, recovery needs to be accompanied by something new—the essence of challenge.


1. The affected area today

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) and the Japan Marine Product Processing Cooperative Federation examined the state of disaster recovery in the marine products processing industry in Iwate Prefecture, Miyagi Prefecture and Fukushima Prefecture three years after the disaster (28 February-12 March 2014)(Fig. 1). They discovered that 41 percent of businesses have recovered at least 80 percent of their production capacity (restoration of facilities, etc.) across the three prefectures, but that a far lower 28 percent have achieved a sales recovery of 80 percent or more. Small-scale processors in particular are still far from a return to their former sales levels (Fig. 2).

A lack of human resources, difficulty in securing sales channels and reputational damage account for 30 percent of recovery problems, and more than a few businesses are still having great difficulty restoring lost sales channels three years on (Fig. 3).

Thanks to government schemes such as the SME Group Subsidies, the 7/8ths subsidy, and free loan of temporary premises for business use, some 80 percent of processing facilities, etc., have been restored, but businesses can't find employees the way that they used to, and there are also facilities and works which still can't be rebuilt because of building restrictions. Meanwhile, while businesses that have been fortunate enough to receive government recovery assistance might have been able to restore physical infrastructure-facilities and equipment-they have not been able to restore business to former levels, and are consequently being forced to maintain low operating rates. Another problem looming on the horizon is a rise in fixed costs. Personnel costs, depreciation, interest, utility charges-will companies be able to absorb these business expenses with bigger factories and record a profit? Because they want to maintain their production pace, companies are buying work at skyrocketing port prices. Selling at cheap supermarket prices could see a reversion to bad pre-disaster practices.

2. What producers are seeking and what is being sought of them

There are a few companies that have succeeded in securing sales channels. Some companies have even grown their business scale beyond pre-disaster levels in the three years since the disaster. These producers are moving proactively to open up new sales routes for new products, shift their business models to expand their mail order or retail business, and significantly boost productivity, etc.

Currently, rebuilding industrial capacity is the key to regenerating communities into places that inspire in people-including those disaster victims scattered around Japan-the desire to live there again. What kind of industry would create vitality along the Tohoku coast? Given the marine resources with which the coast is blessed, the marine products processing industry seems an appropriate choice in terms of building the region's vigor.

For the Tohoku coastal region to be reborn as a model region for industry of the future, the only option is to create the new and take on the challenge of innovation. Innovation is quintessential to creating the future.

To develop an ambitious vision for industry on the Tohoku coast that places the future on a different trajectory from the past, the affected area urgently needs to crystallize knowledge from around the country to create a new and competitive marine products processing industry.

3. Recovery and regeneration initiatives

Government projects related to the creation of a new marine products processing industry, as well as R&D projects and initiatives using knowledge (researchers) from around Japan to create something new for marine products processing, are currently underway in various settings, with some already in the final stages of research.

The Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), with which I am involved, has also rolled out a Revitalization Promotion Program utilizing innovative technologies being developed at universities and elsewhere. Through two programs in particular-"Creation of Innovative Core Technologies to Restore Marine Products Processing Supply Chains", which focuses specifically on the marine products industry, and its industry-academia matching program-the JST is currently working hard on R&D targeting the development of a future marine products processing industry which can drive the recovery of the Tohoku coastal area (Table 1) (137KB).

4. Tohoku coordinators who can rise to Tohoku's hour of need

However, as suggested by the challenges facing the disaster-affected marine products processing industry that were noted in Figure 3, the industry has virtually no spare capacity in terms of people, goods, money or time, let alone the reserves to pursue innovations in the development and sale of unique value-added commodities and processes. Regardless of how much knowledge is available around the country, and how hard researchers work on their R&D, the disaster-struck marine products processing industry simply doesn't have the reserve capacity to trial and commercialize these. The gap between research and current industry conditions is massive, while the lack of human resources who can assess research progress is also proving an obstacle.

It should be noted that in only 20 years from 1965 through 1985, shipments for Niigata City's food processing industry soared ahead of other industries, with employment reaching 2.0 times compared to the industry average of 1.1 times (Niigata City Research for Public Policy and Management report, 2009). This was obviously the result of synergy between innovation (double innovation on both the demand and supply sides) and the power of prefectural experimental research facilities (called 'open management' in the report), which were evidently successful in the tricky task of linking researchers with the companies that turn research results into business.

In October 2012, the Tohoku Economic Federation (Tokeiren), a local economic association, concluded a cooperation agreement with the JST to contribute to creative industrial reconstruction in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake by using the networks and knowhow of Tokeiren and JST to commercialize the fruits of the JST's Revitalization Promotion Program. The Tokeiren Business Center, a key resource in the agreement, has 80 coordinators who provide sales and marketing support and industry-university partnership support.

There is naturally a fundamental difference in the values of the researchers involved in the various R&D projects currently underway and the industry side which commercializes R&D results, but a bridge must be built between these different worlds. Coordinators are essential. Moreover, those coordinators must have more than the ability to perceive quantitative effects; they must also have the mettle and the open management skills to envision the damaged Tohoku coastal region being reborn as a model for future industry and the marine products processing industry generating vitality for the region. The various coordinators need to focus their sights on the future rebirth of the Tohoku coast marine products processing industry, band together, and be ready to respond to the needs of the moment. In that sense, the cooperation agreement with Tokeiren out in the private sector holds great promise.

(original article : Japanese)
(For the Japanese version of this article)


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