By Samantha Magick
It’s a cool Sunday morning, as Mr Ishigawa carefully tends five scallops in their shells over a small brazier at the Yuriage Port morning market in northern Japan. The Sendai City man, his wife Miki and six-year-old son are visiting the market for the first time. “It’s really bustling, there are many people, and I’m so excited,” he says.
Like many visitors, the Ishigawas chose their seafood from stallholders, before moving to the small barbeques to cook their ‘catch’. The choices are vast, all kinds of fish, octopus and squid, skewered meat and more, but for Miki it wasn’t a difficult decision. “I love scallops,” she says.
The family is also impressed with the prices. “It’s much cheaper here, it’s very cheap,” Mr Ishigawa says.
Visitors like the Ishigawas are just the kind of market patrons Hiroyuki Sakurai, the Chairman of the Yuriage Port Morning Market Cooperative Association, is keen to attract.
Rebuilding from devastation
On March 11, 2011, the Yuriage market was devastated by the magnitude-9 earthquake that hit northern Japan. Across the region, more than 19,700 people perished. Sakurai was unable to return to the area for four days, and he was worried about his sister, who he had been unable to contact.
They were reunited after a few days at an evacuation centre. However, at that centre, he met many customers of the market, who told him they had not eaten for two days and expected to receive only a piece of bread the following day.
Sakurai says the market association had ¥20 million (FJ$310K) in its accounts, and he suggested to his fellow members that they use that money to provide food to people in the shelters. The five members he managed to contact agreed. It was a now or never situation, he said through an interpreter. Of the association’s 47 members, five died in the tsunami, 15 lost family members and ten had lost their homes, factory or farmlands.
To provide the food, Sakurai went to the market to buy vegetables. He also negotiated to secure three two-tonne trucks worth of expired bread, which otherwise would have been thrown out.
For two weeks, the association provided food to tsunami survivors living in emergency accommodation. But for many people, it was just very hard to find food, Sakurai said. So on March 27, he organised what he thought would be a one-time market, ‘borrowing’ the parking lot of a shopping mall.
About 20,000 people attended that market, and the food sold out within an hour. As Sakurai gave customers their change, they said to him, “‘let’s not give up’. That’s something I cannot forget,” he says.
The next day many people called, asking when the next market would be held. He had no plans to continue the event, but recalls he was pushed by the municipal market and others to continue, so he organised a second market for a fortnight later.
For two years, the market ran in the mall’s parking lot. Then in 2013, with a gift of 1 million yen from the Canadian government, the market moved back to its original site at Yuriage.
“With two tonnes of expired bread we got this building,” he said, gesturing to the simple but warm and welcoming timber structure Canada funded. A store selling local delicacies and several small restaurants sit in this building, which is open every day.
But it’s on Sundays that the place really comes alive with shoppers and diners as that is when the adjoining market runs.
Sakurai says between 5000-7000 people come to the market each Sunday. He continues to work to attract people to the venue, staging events and a produce auction each week to try and recreate some of the excitement he himself feels when he goes to fish auctions. A government grant enabled the association to buy kayaks so visitors to the market can rent them and “get closer to the sea”. He would like to see more government support for development in the area.
Sakurai plans to step down as chairman in two to three years. Then it will be time for younger people to decide what will happen, he says.
“What I learned is that it is very important to take action,” Sakurai states of his journey since 2011. “Because I lost everything in the earthquake, I had nothing more to lose, so I could challenge new things without hesitation, and I could ask people without hesitation. So, I think my character changed after the earthquake.”
Yuriage Port morning market
This article first appeared in Fiji Traveller, January-March 2023.