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Postcard From A Japanese Steel Town

The Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal plant in Kamaishi Japan.
Adrian Ma
The Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal plant in Kamaishi Japan.

Kamaishi, Japan, may be a long way from Cleveland, but both cities have a lot in common.

Once upon a time, they were thriving hubs for steel production. Then globalization happened. Companies had to figure out how to compete and survive in the world marketplace, and the old ways of doing things didn’t quite work anymore.

Japan and the United States are still major players in steel. In the first seven months of 2018, Japan produced about 53 million tons of crude steel, making it the world’s No. 2 producer, according to the World Steel Association, while the United States produced roughly 42 million tons, putting it at No. 4, behind India. But those numbers don’t reflect the cycles of boom and bust that can come with being a steel town.

Kamaishi is the birthplace of Japan’s modern steel industry, the place where the country’s first “Western-style” blast furnace was built in 1857. But the people of Kamaishi—like folks in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and the constellation of former steel towns that dot America’s Rust Belt—know what it’s like to see a once-thriving industry fade away.

Masaaki Hino is a manager at the Nippon Steel plant in Kamaishi.
Credit Adrian Ma / Ideastream
Masaaki Hino is a manager at the Nippon Steel plant in Kamaishi.

'We Didn’t Create this City'

The best way to get to Kamaishi is on the steel tracks of a passenger train. From Tokyo, it’s a six-hour ride north, up into the mountains, then down toward the coast.

When you get there, the first thing you are likely to notice as you walk out of Kamaishi Station is a giant green manufacturing plant. On its side, in big black letters, reads: “Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal.”

The plant is large enough to hold 14 Tokyo Domes (a stadium about half a million square feet in size) according to Masaaki Hino, a manager at the plant. Inside, machines run nearly 24/7, extruding red-hot steel wire at a rate of 100 meters per second.

After it’s coiled and cooled, it will be shipped around the world. One of the most popular applications for the wire, Hino said, is tire manufacturing. He added that a good chunk of what the plant produces is bought by U.S. companies.

Hino didn’t want to talk about the Trump administration’s current 25 percent tariff on Japanese steel products entering the United States. But he was eager to show off how automated the plant is. Today, it employs about 300 people. But at its peak in the early 1960s, the number of employees was nearly 9,000.

At the time, the company (then known as Fuji Steel before it merged with Yawata Steel to become Nippon Steel in 1970) employed about 10 percent of the roughly 90,000 people who lived in Kamaishi. In Japan, they call company towns like these “castle towns.”

“When I was growing up in elementary school, I was living right by the plant, so I could see all the chimneys,” said Ikumi Kawahata, a historian at the Kamaishi Historical Materials Museum.

Kawahata was born in 1964. Growing up, life was good. The city was bustling, thanks in large part to Nippon Steel, Kawahata said. The company threw festivals and built sports fields that were shared with the public. And sure, there was a bit of air pollution. But if you wanted to get clean, you could always go to the public baths — also operated by Nippon Steel.

But then, in the 1970s and '80s, the company restructured, moving many of its operations away from Kamaishi. The goal, according to company officials, was to streamline its supply chain, reduce costs and increase efficiency. The Japanese have a term for this: “rationalization.”

Hisatada Maruki, director of the nonprofit Kamaishi Social Welfare Council
Credit Adrian Ma / Ideastream
“I’m not disappointed in this city. I see a lot of potential, especially for the younger generation,” said Hisatada Maruki, director of the nonprofit Kamaishi Social Welfare Council.

Kawahata remembers watching on TV as the chimneys from the old blast furnaces were torn down.

“It made me feel sad, because I thought, ‘We’re no longer the City of Steel,’” she said.

In the decades that followed, Kamaishi lost about two-thirds of its population, going from over 90,000 residents in the 1960s to around 34,000 today. That wasn’t just a loss for the city’s economy, said Hisatada Maruki, director of the nonprofit Kamaishi Social Welfare Council. It was a blow to Kamaishi’s civic identity.

“When they left, that was the first time I realized, we didn't create this city,” Maruki said. “Nippon Steel created it.”

Learning to ride on two wheels
Like Cleveland, Kamaishi has spent the past few decades trying to reinvent itself.

Although “rationalization” took a heavy toll on Kamaishi’s steel industry, the result has been an economy that is more diversified, if still largely dependent on manufacturing.

In 1985, about half of all manufacturing jobs were steel-related, according to Shunichi Oyamada, chief of the business development section of Kamaishi’s municipal government. Today, the biggest employers are food processing companies and machine parts manufacturers, he said.

Even Nippon Steel tried diversifying, at various points investing in various offshoot businesses that have included orchid growing, soy-meat production, caviar farming and furniture manufacturing. Eventually, in 2000, the company found a stable source of revenue in the form of coal-powered electricity generation.

When steel was the plant’s only source of income, said Hino, the Nippon Steel manager, “It was like riding on one wheel. Now, we have two wheels.”

By the mid-2000s, it seemed to some that Kamaishi had found its economic footing. But then, on March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake caused a tsunami to rip through the city.

According to The Japan Times, over 1,000 people died and about 3,700 buildings were destroyed in the flood.

Credit Adrian Ma / Ideastream
AEON Mall, built after a tsunami ripped through the city in March 2011, sits on land that Nippon Steel once used to store iron ore and coal.

Still a "castle town"

Today, large swaths of the city are still rebuilding. The area around the mouth of Kamaishi Bay is a massive construction zone, with bulldozers and trucks at work reforming the terrain to mitigate the impact of a future flood.

Down the road, some 240 families are still living in temporary housing that was erected shortly after the disaster on land owned by Nippon Steel.

Eiko Murakami at the Azuma Fish Store
Credit Adrian Ma / Ideastream
“Everything looks brand new and well-constructed, but that’s just the outward appearance,” said Eiko Murakami, who runs Azuma Fish Store, a third-generation family business. “Things are slow for us.”

Drive into the city’s downtown center though, and it’s a different picture. Nearly every building that was destroyed has been rebuilt with the help of nonprofits and subsidies from the local and national governments.

A multi-story shopping mall — perhaps the most conspicuous sign of the city’s recovery — stands on land that Nippon Steel previously used for storing coal and iron ore.

Looking at it, it’s hard not to think that Kamaishi, in a way, is still a castle town. Nippon Steel has had an outsized role in the city’s rise, its decline and its recovery.

Still, Eiko Murakami, who runs a third-generation family seafood business located in the city’s main fish market, said the recovery hasn’t helped her business much.

“Everything looks brand new and well-constructed, but that’s just the outward appearance,” Murakami said. “Things are slow for us.”

“We’re a small store to begin with,” she said. “When these huge stores come in, it takes away our customers.”

But, she added, the biggest challenge for her is not a fancy new grocery store; it’s demographics. Like most cities in Japan, Kamaishi’s population is rapidly aging, the birth rate is down and its younger residents are moving away to urban centers.

Teenagers in Kamaishi, Japan
Credit Adrian Ma / Ideastream
Naoya Sasaki, left, and Ino Hasegawa are a year from graduating high school. Both say they want to attend college, which means they will have to leave Kamaishi.

“I would definitely have to leave for my education,” said 16-year-old Ino Hasegawa. “There’s no college here.” Asked if she will return after finishing her education, she said she wasn’t sure.

“It’s comfortable here,” she said. People are “warm hearted.” One of the great things about Kamaishi, she said, is that “even though it’s changed a lot in recent years, the people have stayed the same.”

Still, Hasegawa said, she doesn’t know if she’ll be one of them.

Adrian Ma is a business reporter and recovering law clerk for ideastream in Cleveland. Since making the switch from law to journalism, he's reported on how New York's helicopter tour industry is driving residents nuts, why competition is heating up among Ohio realtors, and the controlled-chaos of economist speed-dating. Previously, he was a producer at WNYC News. His work has also aired on NPR's Planet Money, and Marketplace. In 2017, the Association of Independents in Radio designated him a New Voices Scholar, an award recognizing new talent in public media. Some years ago, he worked in a ramen shop.