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Kodai Kato & Yurika Tanikawa (amu)

December 18, 2023

amu is a start-up company that recycles fishing nets and provides materials inKesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture. In this interview, we asked Mr. Kato, the president of the company, and Mr. Tanikawa, a board member, about the appeal of starting a business in a rural area and their current plans.

Please introduce yourself.

I was born in Odawara City, Kanagawa Prefecture, which is a port town. But Igrew up without much connection to the sea. I moved to Tokyo for college and lived alone. When I was a freshman in college in 2015, I participated in a summer program by my teacher to support the reconstruction of Kesennuma inMiyagi Prefecture, a disaster-stricken area. It was my first time to visit the area.
I knew the name Kesennuma from the earthquake and tsunami that struck the city onMarch 11, 2011. But I was in about the second year of junior high school at the time, so I only had the image of a place where something terrible had happened.
The program involved 10 students from Tokyo, and we spent 10 days living together in a filthy, abandoned house and working on community development in Kesennuma.The community development part was mostly carpentry work to build something like a wooden deck in a prefab hut or dig holes under the scorching sun. That was how it all started. I also met my current team member Tanikawa there.
At first, I imagined the program to be something like removing rubbles from the disaster area, but the land had been completely cleared. The scars could befelt even in the cleared area, but we were in the stage of moving on. It was interesting that I could go there at that point of my life as a college freshman.I feel that the experience of creating something from scratch then is deeply connected to who I am today.
After the program, I kept going back to Kesennuma for about 100 days a year while attending college. I ended up dropping out of college in the winter of my junior year because as a struggling student, I thought one million yen a year for tuition was a waste.
After that, I worked as an intern at a startup called CyberAgent in Tokyo and went toKesennuma during long vacations. And I was earning money and enjoying my work during that time, so I started to think about making full-time commitment in Tokyo. So, when I got a job offer from that company where I was working as an intern, I got involved in the launch of new “Abema” internet channel, program production, sales, etc., and commuted to Shibuya for about two years.
Eventually the team grew and was reorganized, and I had less say in the decision-making process.So, I decided to leave the company and moved to Kesennuma to start a business therein 2019.


I could feel your attachment to Kesennuma very much.

I'm glad (laugh).


How did you start "amu" and why did you come up with a business that use fishing equipment?

At first, I moved to Kesennuma with the intention of starting a business there, but I had no idea what the business would be. However, I had decided to do something that could only be done in Kesennuma.
So,I was thinking of something related to the local history or culture. Kesennuma's core industry is fishing, and the town specializes in fishing. The entire town is willing to work together to create a port that becomes fishermen’s choice. Most companies there are also affiliated with fishing. We felt that this was an interesting aspect of the area, which we did not have in Tokyo. If that was the case, we figured that we had no choice but to get involved with fisher yourselves. We first tried a business that directly delivers products to the consumers from the origin but gave it up, as there were too many competitors (laugh).After that, we looked further upstream and came up with the idea for amu.


So, it wasn’t that you were interested in fishing gear. But you started with entrepreneurship and business creation and ended up with the fishing industry.You make products that reuse fishing gear, but what exactly is your business?

To put it simply, we have launched a brand of nylon materials from discarded fishing nets. We buy used fishing gear from ports around Kesennuma, have our recycle partners (chemical manufacturers) recycle them, and share the materials with product manufacturers and create products together from the planning stage.
Our strength is transparency. We know which materials come from which fishing boats, so we are able to assemble the story of each material before launching the product.


Is your business distribution completed within Miyagi Prefecture? What exactly do you produce?

We thought it would be interesting if we could complete the project withinMiyagi Prefecture. But there was only one manufacturer in Japan that could recycle fishing equipment, so we commissioned a different location. The technology is not yet widespread. It is still in its infancy.
Also, products are currently under discussion. We are working with partners and discussing with various companies such as apparel and outdoor-related manufacturers.
We are a material brand and can basically handle all kinds of nylon materials.


While marine pollution is one of the growing issues worldwide, please tell us what you know about the details and differences of the respective measures overseas and in Japan.

Yes. I feel that the management of fishing gear is still largely neglected worldwide. However, I’ve heard that fishing gear is managed with tags in Scandinavian countries. Since fishermen are dealing with nature, there are cases where their gears get washed out unintentionally. But it is also true that a certain number of people intentionally throw them away. So, they manage them with tags so that they know who bought them. Instead of penalizing them, we believe that we can ask for collaboration from the Japanese fishermen to collect used fishing gears and create added values. However, we are still looking for a way to collect those gears.


Could you tell us about the overseas companies you are using as benchmarks and the characteristics and strengths of amu?

There are many organizations and companies overseas that recycle and reuse marine debris. We use such companies as benchmarks. One of our strengths isthat we are located in Japan. Another strength is that we are directly connected with fishermen and can add stories to our products by collecting fishing gears based on our knowledge of where they were used.
Also,Japan is a country that produces a lot of fishing gears. For example, Indonesia catches the largest amount of tuna in the world, while Japan ranks second.Therefore, Japan is a country with very abundant resources. I believe that if we can establish our business in Japan, we can expand it to the rest of the world. In the future, I would like to expand overseas.


What advice would you give to people overseas who want to take some kind ofaction in Japan, such as starting a business?

I feel that those who believe in the potential of rural areas are not many inJapan. They just talk about it. Getting into local communities and turning local issues into business is now attracting a lot of attention. There are processes and conditions unique to each region, but there could also be ways to hack them. Because there are people who live there. I feel the need to explore the potential of Japan's regions. Just like the fishing industry, a regional issue could be connected to a global one, and we may be able to create businesses that can compete with the rest of the world.
I have a sense that there is considerable potential lying dormant in the local regions. So, I think interesting things could happen if we cut out Japan'srural areas from the perspective of people from overseas.


Since Japan is an island nation, many people think that they cannot do business unless they can speak and use Japanese, but there are organizations and local governments that support people who want to set up businesses in various regions, so it is possible to take advantage of such places. In addition, there are experienced entrepreneurs in various regions, not only in Tokyo, who provide specific support for each region and create interesting mechanisms originating from the region, and we would like you to connect with them. We encourage you to consider starting a business after seeing various regions, not justTokyo. There are also many interesting and wonderful people not only in theTokyo metropolitan area but also in other regions, so it would be interesting to make friends with them.


Are there ways to increase connections and relationships? 

In Kesennuma, an important way to connect with fishermen is to go out for drinks or dinner and become friends with them (laugh).


Fishermen in Okinawa are pretty amazing, because their drinking party goes on until the seventh session in which they keep drinking Awamori with water (laugh).I feel that the Japanese have exceptional loyalty for the one they support and have a high level of diligence.
I think that if they are so talented, they should start business by themselves ,but many of them don't want to be leaders (laugh). So, I think once you stand in front of the line, the rest will follow you including people who are even more talented than you and people who are committed to keep the organization and business running in back-office. So, I think you should try to expand your network as big as you can.


People would come out of the woodwork to support you behind the scenes.


amu :

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