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Tsunami-struck oystermen find pearl of hope in Internet appeal

Two years after a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami devastated parts of northeast Japan, one of the worst-hit coastal communities is determined to rebuild. NBC News' Ian Williams reports.

SHIOGAMI, Japan — It was a bitterly cold afternoon, and there were moments when the hospitality tent was almost ripped from the ground by fierce gusts of wind.

But the fishermen of the Urato Islands were not going to let the weather spoil what for them was a huge step in the recovery of their community — the handover of a fleet of boats donated by the U.S. charity, Operation Blessing International.


After a brief ceremony, they took the boats for a spin, in circles around the small windswept bay, children lining up to take a ride.

There were plenty of smiles, but none broader than that of 37-year-old Yoshimasa Koizumi, the architect of the recovery here.

"We'll soon be able to support ourselves again," he predicted.

Koizumi is not your archetypal fishermen. For starters he's a good deal younger, and he arrived on the Urato Islands only in 2011, shortly before the tsunami struck. His was a rare move, since most migration had been away from these areas, leaving a barely viable and elderly community, just 400 strong.

But he was attracted by the pristine environment of the islands and joined the oyster business, taking delivery of a boat just one day before the tsunami struck. That boat was swept away, together with most of the local fishing fleet.

The islands, which sit close to the city of Sendai, acted as a sort of shock absorber, which was good news for some of the mainland coastal districts but not for the islands, which were devastated. Incredibly, nobody on the islands died.

A simple request
When, soon after, Koizumi was asked what he most needed, he replied: "Wi-Fi and a laptop. I just need the Internet."

The tech-savvy oyster farmer then began a Web-based campaign, the Children of the Sea, using the Internet and Twitter to rebuild the local oyster industry. Under the scheme, supporters were offered 10,000 yen ($105) shares to help the rebuilding of the industry. He soon had 14,000 shareholders and also attracted the attention of Operation Blessing.

Shareholders are really donors. They don't make a profit, but they are kept abreast of the recovery -- and also receive oysters as a kind of dividend.

Koizumi says that other, mostly elderly, fishermen were a little puzzled at first, and not at all sure about all that Internet stuff. But they soon rallied round as the shares were snapped up.

The islands benefit from sitting astride nutritious areas for raising oysters regarded as among the best in Japan. In fact, the oysters harvested there are so good they serve as "seeders" for other areas, making them not only critical to the local economy but important to the greater Japanese oyster industry. And Koizumi is confident Urato Islands oysters will soon be profitable again, thanks in part to the help of the many donors.

Government help has been slower, and like 200,000 other tsunami survivors Koizumi is still living in a temporary home.

"I never expected I'd still be living like this after two years," he said.

Much of the coastline here is now a vast, wind-swept wasteland. Rebuilding has hardly started, bogged down in bureaucracy. According to a study late last year by the Board of Audit of Japan, half the $150 billion tsunami relief fund has yet to be allocated.

Millions of tons of debris have been cleared and sorted, but it will take years to dispose of it.

"Some places are picking up, but there's still a lot more that needs to be done" said Don Thomson, the director of Japan operations for Operation Blessing.

For his part, Koizumi said he believes that communities themselves need to take the lead, demonstrating the can-do attitude that has provided inspiration to his neighbors.

"Rather than just wait for government aid, we have to do it ourselves," he said.

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