The town of Shibetsu is located at the northeastern end of Hokkaido, in the heart of Nemuro Prefecture. The area as a whole is best known for its unspoiled nature, with the Shiretoko National Park, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, needing no introduction. Despite the truly awesome scenes of a grand natural landscape in its surroundings, Shibetsu itself is rather unassuming. Aside from being a hotbed of traditional culture for the native Ainu, the town is a traditional fishing enclave, with a significant amount of the population of just over 6,000 employed in the industry. Indeed, the name Shibetsu means “place with many salmon” in the language of the Ainu, and it is this fish specifically that remains the symbol of the town until this day. Aside from salmon, scallop, trout, and shellfish farming has been the cornerstone of the local economy for decades now. However, there are two main issues that have made their mark on the local fishermen. The decline of the salmon yield, driven in part by climate change, and the ongoing territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands, which has direct impacts on the fishing industry as Russian authorities routinely stop Japanese fishing vessels in the area.
It is in this difficult environment where Hayashi Tsuyonori lives. He is the head of the Hasshin-kai, primarily an association of likeminded fishermen who are challenging the ways of the past by facing up to the realities of the present. Indeed, talking to local fishermen like Hayashi is an interesting study in how macro trends such as climate change or geopolitics impact people on a micro level. We asked Hayashi about this, beginning with the declining salmon yield: “While Shibetsu is known for salmon, the number of salmon being caught in recent years has declined,” says Hayashi. There are several possible explanations for this, including overfishing as well as climate change affecting the currents and thus fish breeding patterns. While Hayashi, a true veteran of the sea, monitors the situation closely, he is definitely a man that looks forward rather than back. “This town was built on the salmon trade, but there is such a rich maritime yield in this area that we do not have to be dependent on it. By looking to the sea and understanding what is happening, we can find a way to continue our trade. As fishermen, we must evolve together with the sea.”
Diversifying the catch, as Hayashi is doing, might seem like the obvious solution. However, the aforementioned territorial dispute does bring real limits to the waters Japanese fishermen can access. Of course, local fishermen like Hayashi are far removed from geopolitical posturing in Tokyo and Moscow. Still, they are keenly aware to how it affects their trade. “There are certain waters we know are simply inaccessible, even though our forefathers have fished in them for decades.” Despite efforts to resolve the dispute in the late 2000s and during the Abe Administration, tensions have increased in recent years, with Russia has stepping up enforcement and seizing Japanese vessels on numerous occasions.
In lieu of getting bogged down into politics, however, let us take a step back. Hayashi was born to a fisherman, and ever since he ran into his dad at work while on a field trip to the harbor as an elementary student, he decided to follow in his path. Reminiscing, Hayashi says: “Just seeing him working and in his element, he looked so cool. Maybe I was an impressionable kid, but I just knew that fishing is what I wanted to do from that moment on.” While his father sadly passed away, he still treasures the utmost respect for him. “He was a real fisherman. It wasn’t just a job for him, it was his life.” Indeed, it is this distinction, between what Hayashi calls “salaried employees of the fishing industry” and real fisherman, that informs his approach to his craft to this day.
Splitting his time between Shibetsu and Aomori Prefecture, Hayashi’s family eventually settled in Shibetsu. “He was an outsider at first, and built up a business here, the fruits of which I was eventually able to reap.” Ironically, Hayashi’s attitude and vision for his community have put him in a position where he is sometimes also struggling to get accepted by the more traditional fishing community in the town. Why? “I am definitely trying to do something new, something different. The fishing industry was and is very traditional.” It is this strict adherence to tradition that probably has fueled the continuing reliance on salmon – and perhaps even the increasingly fruitless ventures into what Russia sees at its territory.
Hayashi is seeking to find a better way. Primarily, Hayashi sets himself apart is by focusing on traditionally “unpopular” fish, for instance flatfish, yellowtail or shellfish such as scallops. These are still catchable in relative abundance in undisputed waters. While some may see this shift as a calculated response to the modern realities facing local fishermen in Shibetsu, Hayashi has a different opinion. For him, this shift is only natural, as he is simply responding to what the ocean will give him. As Hayashi puts it: “For many others what I am doing is crazy. They are so stuck; they cannot conceptualize changing the old ways. I really believe that while our fishing technology has increased, our appreciation and respect for the ocean has suffered in return.” Hayashi always attempts to steer the conversation back to the basics of fishing. Indeed, another related effect of the industrialization of fishing that Hayashi mentions often is the loss of respect for life. He explains that “fishing is inherently a craft where you take life. Respecting each life that the sea gives you and making sure that feeling is passed on down the supply chain to the final customer, is something that we must hold dear.” Nevertheless, while his passion is authentic, this still leaves the question of how to build a sustainable business, one that both respects the changing climate situation and the limited access to territory fishermen face.
This leads us into the second big goal of Hasshin-kai’s activities: bridging the gap between fishermen and the final customer. He has already cultivated personal relationships with several restaurants, including in Hakodate and Tokyo. This way, he ensures that each fish is being handled and prepared with the same values that he holds. Ultimately, his goal is to build a brand that people can associate with his approach: “While Shibetsu is relatively unknown, there is a network of younger fishermen across Eastern Hokkaido who think like I do. Therefore, linking up and building a “Eastern Hokkaido” brand only makes sense.” This way, he can effectively add value to each fish he sells and ensures that his business remains competitive despite not focusing exclusively on high yields of popular fish, which is clearly unsustainable.
Another way to bring the final customer closer to the sea is through arranging tours. For instance, during the egg-laying seasons he sometimes takes local students on his fishing boat to marvel at the region’s nature. “I realized that many people are interested in authenticity. The feeling of going to sea on a real fishing boat, accompanied by real fishermen, is completely different to going on a tourism boat.” He hopes that this can turn into a full-fledged tourism activity to propel more visitors to Shibetsu. “Our town is a fishing town first and foremost, so it only makes sense to stay true to who we are and give people an authentic experience.” Tying this venture back into the Kuril Islands also offers an intriguing possibility. While visa-free travel for locals to the disputed territory is technically possible, such travel too has become politically charged, with numerous incidents detracting would be travelers. One way to overcome this is through “border tourism”, a concept recently promoted by numerous governmental and private actors to experience Japan’s links with neighboring countries. In the context of Hasshin-kai and Eastern Hokkaido, operators like Hayashi are looking towards offering a glimpse at the disputed territories from their boat. This allows both locals wishing to see the land of their forefathers as well as interested visitors to experience, at least from a distance, these fascinating islands without risking a geopolitical incident.
We live in a changing world, with climate change and geopolitical tensions impacting our life in ways we never thought possible. Our foray into Shibetsu has underlined this, and it is now up to local fishermen to deal with the situation in a way that allows them to continue their business in a sustainable way. Oftentimes, this necessitates breaking with past traditions. This is something that Hayashi certainly willing to do. Despite all the challenges facing him, together with his like-minded colleagues he is attempting to change fishing in the region from the ground up. It all comes back to his core ideology: “We are not employees, we are not fishery operators, we are simply fishermen.” What does being a fisherman mean to Hayashi? “Two things: we live to become as close to the sea as we can, and we must sustain life. This means taking what the sea grants, treating it with respect, and ensuring that we connect every soul we take with something meaningful.” It seems that this motto is present in every new challenge Hayashi undertakes.
The Hokkaido Tourism Organization website provides information on Shiretoko.