The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Tokyo has long had distinct areas specializing in one product or trade, where artisans or other workers have gathered to support one another and stimulate healthy competition. Neighborhood solidarity is a powerful economic tool that benefits customers and tradesmen alike, but changing times have rendered some livelihoods obsolete. This column looks at various communities that have adjusted the core of their commerce to remain together and retain identity.

The few rivers that still flow through central Tokyo are purled in the shadows of highways built over them during the post-war decades. The Furukawa river is one of these nearly forgotten arteries. It’s the murky jade color of neglected water, fenced off and walled in by the backs of buildings, only glimpsed occasionally where it empties into Tokyo Bay near Hamamatsucho.

At this delta, however, from the Edo Period (1603–1868) until the mid-1960s, fishermen thrived along the brackish shores, and sold their fresh catch to provide protein for the burgeoning city. The Shogun in the early 1600s even awarded locals, in appreciation, large stretches of land on which to spread out and dry their nets.

“It has always been an area of relatively poor people,” says Eiko Takeuchi, 84, who married into a local fisherman’s family more than half a century ago, “but we used to be able to fish right off the banks here. People also collected nori (seaweed). My husband would collect it, and I’d dry it on racks in the sun. Edo nori was really delicious,” she says, “and it brought a good price.”

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But, Eiko tells me, “the waters grew dirtier and dirtier, and finally it became impossible to continue. To get fish suitable to eat, our men had to boat far from shore. My husband and others eventually found they had to go as far as Yokohama and Yokosuka.” To sustain the family, Eiko’s son, Shinichiro (60), and other fishermen, had to float a new idea.

Today, six companies, along with the Takeuchi family, have repurposed their seafaring know-how to become captains of pleasure boats, catering to tourists and customers seeking a cool evening on the bay waters. It’s not the same thing as fishing for a living, with its attendant freedom and autonomy, but it provides a steady income. Now, anyone who strolls along the river near Daimon will see yakatabune (roofed pleasure boats) bobbing picturesquely on the tides, with a few fishing boats tied up in between.

“My son also takes clients on fishing trips,” Eiko says, “but these days, to get fish, they need to go as far away as off the coast of Kisarazu, in Chiba. That means the boat has to be a fast one, or they can’t manage to go and come back in a single day.”

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I watch the Takeuchi crew, Shinichiro and his wife Emiko, their youngest son, and university students with part-time gigs bustling about preparing trays of food for the evening’s bay cruise. Shinichiro sings under his breath almost non-stop, as if simply the prospect of leaving shore makes him happy.

I ask Eiko if she misses the days of selling fish for a living. She nods. “But that’s how time flows, and there’s not much you can do about it,” she says, with a guttural laugh. “And, if you start to complain about all the things changing for the worse, there’s no end to that,” she admits.

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However, Eiko’s daughter-in-law, active in the business, is more vocal about her objections. “It would be good to preserve some aspect of the history of the area, with its roots going back hundreds of years,” Emiko says. “Maybe the boats have changed somewhat and our jobs too, but the river has traditionally always been used this way—for hundreds of years—and I think people should see that, and respect that history. Recently, some people are trying to chase boats off the river entirely. They’d like the river to have nothing on it at all. But I want my kids, and grandkids, to continue in this business and protect the traditions of our family.” Emiko has five grandchildren already, so she’s got crew waiting to get on board with that idea.

At dusk, before Eiko’s evening guests arrive, I pop down to the docks behind their storefront. There, a tiny freshly-tended shrine dedicated to the gods of safe voyages is carved into a boulder. At the makeshift landing, I enjoy the reflections of a tranquil, small fleet of colorful boats strung with moon-like lanterns. Without them, how sad the river would seem.

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Kit Nagamura is a photojournalist with 25 years’ experience in publishing. She writes the monthly Backstreet Stories column for The Japan Times and hosts regular programs on NHK.
The Furukawa river is one of those nearly forgotten arteries.