Many in Japan learn to live at the bottom of the pyramid

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON / SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES The tsunami disaster and economic hardship in Japan have created a new breed of entrepreneurs. Kenji Yui (left) and Hideki Suenaga have opened a makeshift "temporary pub" in Ishinomaki where they sell sake and cheap clothing, and play classic rock covers for diehard locals who refuse to abandon the devastated business district.

Christopher Johnson: SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES The tsunami disaster and economic hardship in Japanhave created a new breed of entrepreneurs. Kenji Yui (left) and Hideki Suenaga have opened a makeshift “temporary pub” in Ishinomaki where they sell sake and cheap clothing, and play classic rock covers for diehard locals who refuse to abandon the devastated business district.

 ISHINOMAKI, JAPAN Hideki Suenaga says he can understand how many people feel watching their stock holdings plummet during the most recent financial crisis. For Mr. Suenaga and most of his friends in Ishinomaki, the March 11 tsunami took away almost everything they had, and now worldwide fears of a deeper recession could set back their recovery even further. “I’m not an expert on the global economy, but I do know that I am at the bottom of the pyramid,” said Mr. Suenaga, 56, who dives for sea urchin in the cold Pacific waters of northeastern Japan. “I’m just trying to survive day by day.”

While the financial crisis has rocked markets worldwide, many Japanese, especially those in the disaster zone, are feeling the financial fallout more than most. The Nikkei stock index, already less than a quarter of its 1989 peak, has fallen about 10 percent in the past three trading sessions.

Despite a rare Japanese government intervention in currency markets, a global movement of money into safe havens has continued to push up the yen. A rising yen hurts Japanese exporters and millions of small businesses that already are squeezed by power shortages, supply disruptions and dwindling consumer demand in Japan.

Ishinomaki has perhaps the best chance for recovery, thanks to thousands of volunteers and hardy locals who refuse to abandon the battered city of 160,000. However, the local economy has barely grown since the tsunami destroyed its port and riverside areas. Yoshio Imamura, head of a local shop-owners association, said only seven of 32 business owners are trying to reopen their shops in the riverside entertainment district, normally buzzing with activity day and night.

Instead, at least eight owners, who grew tired of sleeping in crowded shelters, are housing their families on upper floors of shops, above the tsunami damage on lower levels. “Most people are not even trying to rebuild, because they have no money and not enough help from the government,” Mr. Imamura said. “The economy was already terrible before the tsunami, and this just made everything worse.”

Though the downtown business area around city hall still smells of mud and debris, locals have worked hard to dig out shops and decorate the streets with colorful paper cranes and flowers, especially sunflowers, which many believe will absorb radioactive cesium spewing from the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactors farther south. The partial resumption of train and bus services has helped thousands of children go to school. A partial restoration of electricity has allowed many survivors to return to live upstairs in damaged homes. But life is far from normal, and it probably won’t be for years to come, many locals say.

Mr. Suenaga deals with the daily hardship by drinking sake and singing rock and roll classics by Elvis Presley and Pink Floyd in a rustic shop near the city’s main train station. He and his friend Kenji Yui, who lost his cosmetics shop in the tsunami, found enough entrepreneurial spirit to sell 260 items of clothing for 100 yen a piece, about $1.25, at a flea market, which began a month ago. To build upon that momentum, they recently converted a warehouse into a “100 yen” store to sell clothing donated by visiting musicians from across Japan.

They also are hoping to turn their cozy space into a stage for small musical performances and gatherings of local diehards. So far, they have an amplifier, a few microphones and speakers, and a couple of beach chairs. Mr. Suenaga said he has to scramble to survive because his home island, Enoshima, a few miles north of the city, was devastated by 50-foot high waves that destroyed nearly every home and forced the town’s population of 100 to endure freezing days and nights on high ground.

He sleeps in the Ishinomaki shophouse and wakes up at 5 a.m. to catch a boat that fishermen salvaged from a pile of tsunami debris. He said he spends about four hours in chilly waters harvesting spiky black sea urchin, a popular delicacy in Japan. Then, when his job is done, he runs his shop and tries to figure out how he can employ locals who have lost jobs, homes and relatives. “Many people can’t help sitting around watching TV all day in the shelters, so I can’t blame them for lacking motivation to help themselves survive,” he said. “But we should be trying to start more businesses on our own.”

He said a restaurant is a good place to start. “Restaurants are easy to start in Japan because you don’t need to stock up on expensive merchandise,” he said. “You can just buy whatever supplies you need for the day, and then hope to get customers.”

He said he is just trying to keep his spirits up to avoid the depression casting a gloom on many faces around him. “I’m lucky because I have a job, but nobody else has a job,” he said. “At the end of the day, nobody cares about us, and I don’t really care about myself either. It’s enough just to sit here singing and drinking with friends.”

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