Waves of change: Japan’s female fishers fill the gap in a struggling industry

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With 1 past heave, Mayumi Okada launches a heavy, sopping bedewed statement into nan Pacific Ocean. As a caller day upwind forms frothy crests connected nan waves, her husband, Kuniaki, leaves his cabin, peers complete nan separator of their vessel and confirms that nan latest batch of oyster “spat” larvae is successful position, fresh to mature into nan plump, highly prized bivalves associated pinch this region of north-east Japan.

Three years ago, nan mates abandoned regular careers to build a caller life successful Tomari, a mini coastal organization 500km (310 miles) northbound of Tokyo. Kuniaki, 54, had ever dreamed of earning a surviving going retired to sea. Mayumi was supportive, but she besides had maritime ambitions of her own.

Mayumi Okada useful connected a sportfishing vessel disconnected nan seashore of Tomari successful north-east Japan
Mayumi Okada useful connected a sportfishing boat. A increasing number of fisheries operators are turning to women to reside nan dependable diminution successful labour arsenic nan workforce ages. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Guardian

“He had ever wanted to beryllium a fisherman, truthful we looked astatine a batch of places successful nan region, and Ofunato was nan astir welcoming,” Mayumi, 49, says. “I was besides willing successful fishing, particularly farming oysters, scallops and different shellfish.”

Today, they are preparing to cultivate oysters disconnected nan seashore of Iwate, 1 of 3 prefectures devastated by a deadly tsunami 13 years ago. In a quayside tent, women hole quiet scallop shells that will beryllium utilized to bring nan young oysters to maturity. But dissimilar her female peers, Mayumi is to beryllium recovered retired astatine oversea arsenic often arsenic connected shore.

Japan’s sportfishing manufacture is successful hopeless request of labour. Like different accepted sectors of nan country’s system it is ageing and shrinking successful sync pinch nan wide population. The mean property of a Japanese fisher is approaching 60; successful immoderate places it is complete 70. In 1961, Japan employed 700,000 seagoing workers, but nan number had much than halved by nan early 1990s and halved again by 2017.

According to nan astir caller five-year census, conducted successful 2018, nan manufacture now employs conscionable 87,000 people, pinch women making up conscionable complete 11,000, aliases astir 13%.

“When I look around, location are very fewer women who spell retired connected boats, but astatine slightest it’s not zero,” says Mayumi, who will go afloat qualified adjacent twelvemonth erstwhile she completes her training astatine a fisheries academy. “There are truthful fewer group present that we request everyone to spot in.”

Kuniaki agrees. “We heard astir companies that refused to waste boats erstwhile they heard women would beryllium moving connected them, but attitudes are changing. But if women aren’t progressive past nan men will beryllium incapable to do it each by themselves … sportfishing is that benignant of industry.”

A increasing number of fisheries operators are turning to women to reside nan dependable diminution successful nan workforce. But they are up against a assemblage dominated by men astatine each level, and a taste guidance towards women earning a surviving retired astatine sea.

Some of that guidance is rooted successful folklore, according to which nan goddess of nan oversea becomes “jealous” erstwhile women committee a sportfishing boat.

Mayumi Okada prepares ropes that will beryllium utilized to cultivate oysters successful Tomari, a sportfishing organization connected Japan’s north-east coast
Mayumi Okada prepares ropes that will beryllium utilized to cultivate oysters successful Tomari connected Japan’s north-east coast. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Guardian

Farther northbound successful nan coastal territory of Omoe, Koichi Sato, a fisher for much than 3 decades, is sceptical astir revitalisation programmes that promote much women to execute physically demanding, and perchance dangerous, activity astatine sea.

“There is an aged saying, ‘Women connected land, men astatine sea,’” Sato says arsenic he uses a crane to assistance sacks of kombu seaweed retired of a retention tank.

“The section sportfishing manufacture wouldn’t beryllium capable to past without women, but you request beingness spot to activity connected a boat, hauling successful nan drawback and putting it successful storage. And past location are nan agelong hours, including moving astatine night. And what astir oversea sickness?”

That mobility prompts a good-natured laughter from Natsumi Nakamura, a female fisher whom Sato, contempt his misgivings, is now mentoring done nan last stages of her training. She says she has stronger oversea legs than her husband, Koshi, pinch whom she moved to Omoe conscionable complete a twelvemonth agone to statesman a caller life successful seaweed aquaculture.

“I find it frustrating that women’s domiciled successful fisheries originates only aft nan drawback has been landed,” Nakamura, 28, says, referring to nan ample numbers of women employed successful processing. “But this is simply a very accepted region of Japan. When I told my neighbours that I wanted to beryllium a fisherwoman, a batch of them asked maine if I was serious. It’s not really sexism … group conscionable can’t ideate women moving connected sportfishing boats.

Natsumi Nakamura, a female fisher successful Omoe connected Japan’s north-east seashore kneels down arsenic she useful connected sportfishing nets
Natsumi Nakamura, a female fisher successful Omoe. Despite authorities efforts, nan proportionality of women moving successful fisheries remains low. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Guardian

“But I’ve ever had an liking successful marine life, truthful it felt earthy to want to spell into fishing,” adds Nakamura, who studied astatine nan National Fisheries University successful Shimonoseki – nan superior of Japan’s whaling industry – earlier spending almost 2 years astatine James Cook University, wherever she majored successful tropical biology and conservation.

Her husband, a autochthonal of Omoe, concedes that his sportfishing family are “still not 100% OK” pinch Natsumi’s profession choice. “They support asking her if she is perfectly sure, but I cognize that she loves fishing, truthful I’m good pinch it,” he says.

Natsumi Nakamura and her husband, Koshi, activity together successful Omoe, a sportfishing colony connected Japan’s north-east coast
Natsumi Nakamura and her husband, Koshi, activity together successful Omoe. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Guardian

Despite authorities efforts, nan proportionality of women moving successful fisheries remains low, arsenic different sectors, including farming and transport, besides scope retired to Japan’s underused excavation of female talent.

Recruitment events person been held successful Tokyo for women willing successful moving successful fisheries, though a 2023 study recovered only astir 60 of nan 300 firms hoping to return connected caller workers said they would employment women.

“There are jobs successful fisheries that group utilized to deliberation could only beryllium done by men, but that isn’t nan lawsuit immoderate more,” says Kumi Soejima, a elder teacher astatine nan National Fisheries University. “Mechanisation and different improvements – for illustration nan installation of toilets – person made it overmuch easier for women. All it takes is simply a alteration of cognition and a small ingenuity.

“The full sportfishing manufacture has a patriarchal civilization successful which older men are astatine nan apical of nan level … that needs to change. If nan sportfishing manufacture successful Japan is going to past it needs to pull much people, including women. The doorway should beryllium unfastened to them.”

Women cleanable scallop shells that will beryllium utilized to cultivate oysters successful Tomari, a sportfishing organization connected Japan’s north-east coast
Women cleanable scallop shells that will beryllium utilized to cultivate oysters successful Tomari. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Guardian

Back successful Omoe, Nakamura brandishes a freshly caught octopus nan mates will waste astatine nan section market. She admits that hauling up traps carrying a dense drawback tin beryllium a struggle. “A batch depends connected really unsmooth nan oversea is … sometimes my hubby will do definite jobs connected nan boat, sometimes it’s me. You conscionable person to adapt.

“I would decidedly promote different women to springiness sportfishing a try. Times person changed, and we’re surviving successful an property wherever women tin do thing they put their minds to.”

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