How This Remote Village of Japanese Fishers Got Rich

How This Remote Village of Japanese Fishers Got Rich

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The rich in Sarafutsu
Not all of Japan's wealthy residents live in cities. Learn how a small Hokkaido village of 2,700 found itself swell with cash.

Locations like Tokyo’s Minato Ward are famous for playing host to some of the top income earners in Japan. But one pocket of the well-to-do is in one of the places you’d least expect it: a remote northern village famous for fishing.

Where in the heck is Sarufutsu?!

There’s only one direct flight a day from Haneda to Wakkanai, Japan’s northernmost airport. It’s so far north and close to the Russian island of Sakhalin that a defector might swim across the Sea of Okhotsk. (One man did in 2021 from another island, the disputed territory Kunashiri.)

Get a car and drive for an hour. Fifty kilometers out of the city, a fisher’s village with no trains, malls, or restaurants. You think, what do people do here?

Population 2,700. There are four middle schools. Decent. One middle school. Wince. No high school. Forget about it.

This is Sarufutsu Village, Japan’s richest village.

This place?

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Big paycheck, small beginnings

Sarufutsu service station, Sarufutsu Park
The Sarufutsu service station near Sarufutsu Park. (Picture: よしだやすお / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

The coastal village of Sarufutsu has the 6th highest income among Japan’s 1,741 municipalities. Villagers, many of them fishers, have an average ¥7,317,405 ($49,108 USD) annual income.

The other top-class/first-rate income municipalities in Japan in 2022 were:

  1. Minato Ward, Tokyo Prefecture: ¥14,713,763
  2. Suooshima Town, Yamaguchi Prefecture: ¥11,769,535
  3. Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo Prefecture: ¥10,767,674
  4. Shibuya Ward, Tokyo Prefecture: ¥10,000,844
  5. Chūo Ward, Tokyo Prefecture: ¥7,608,681
  6. Sarufutsu Village, Hokkaido Prefecture: ¥7,317,405
  7. Ashiya City, Hyogo Prefecture: ¥6,979,979
  8. Meguro Ward, Tokyo Prefecture: ¥6,842,565
  9. Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo Prefecture: 6,678,187
  10. Setagaya Ward, Tokyo Prefecture: 6,030,702

That’s more than what Americans in their early twenties are earning on average ($38,324 USD). It’s even more than what the Japanese are earning across all ages ¥4,030,000 ($27,043 USD).

Some big paychecks have small beginnings. That’s Sarufutsu, the former punching bag for poking fun at poverty.

If you want to see poor people, go to Sarufutsu––a saying that was popular in postwar years, when villagers overfished their main catch of scallop and lost their jobs at coal mines.

Still, a decade later in 1975, Sarufutsu’s average yearly income (¥12,662,231) slumped at the bottom layer of Japan’s barrel. It was almost 900 ranks down from where it is today.

In the next decade, everything changed.

To be rich enough to say “We don’t have karaoke rooms anymore”

An assortment of fresh seafood
Picture: STUDIO EST / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

“In terms of glamour, it used to be crazier,” a current resident and fisher in Sarufutsu tells Gendai Business.

The man conceals his wealth like the rest of the village does. Everyone has luxury cars, but out of sight in garages. Homes today have fancy exteriors and three floors, but relatively humble interiors like any average Japanese living room, a reporter notes.

In the 80s though, only a decade after Sarufutsu had comprised Japan’s poorest demographic, self-made fishers flaunted their wealth.

“In the Showa era [until 1989] the cooperative only had one hundred members, and some had an annual income of ¥100 million ($671,220 USD). Their homes had elevators.”

Earning more than ¥7 million a year on average, what do fishers today lack that their founders had?

“We don’t have karaoke rooms anymore.”

Point taken.

What do the young top-earning fishers want then?

“A McDonald’s and 7-Eleven. Also, a pharmacy would be nice.”

Sarufutsu has just one convenience store––Seicomart, a chain convenience store that has 18 times fewer locations nationwide than 7-Eleven has in Tokyo alone.

“I’m unmarried and still live with my parents,” says a local fisher. “So, I can use money however I want to. But there’s nothing to spend it on. There are no stores to go shopping. There’s only the Seicomart on the coast.”

Business with no competition or hierarchy

Life with Karaoke rooms and luxury cars was once Sarufutsu’s destined future. In 1970, the village’s fishers cooperative changed its business model and collectively agreed on a payroll deduction system.

Receiving investments from banks and donations from residents, fishers abandoned the old way of wild-catch fishing. Instead, they embraced modern aquaculture, managing the ocean like farmland.

Dividing waters into four plots, the fishers rotated from one to the next each year. In each plot, they would release baby scallops, grown for a year up to five centimeters. They would wait for 4 to 5 years before harvesting them at twice the size.

Meanwhile, the cooperative deducted a large sum from every fisher’s income every month. They created an asset management fund, leaving each with roughly ¥70 thousand.

These people had the bad habit of spending a day’s income before dusk. The cooperative’s deduction system forced them to think like team players. That, in turn, transformed the entire fishery business into a team sport.

All fishing on the same team. No competition.

The cooperative split the profits equally among all members. Predominantly wealthy fishers opposed this at first. But, a veteran fisher explains, it led to everybody becoming rich.

A regular deckman gets a ¥400,000 ($2,698) per month. An engineer, ¥42,000. The captain, ¥45,000. On top of that, everybody gets bonuses. Dividends are given to members who achieve official membership after five years until the age of 78, even after the retirement age of 60.

“I received over ¥10 million [$67,460] every year from just bonuses and dividends. After turning forty, ¥30 million a year was easy. In the years we had good harvests, members in their twenties could get a little over ¥20 million.”

Favorite (ex-)customer: China

Hokkaido
The island of Hokkaido. (Picture: shimanto / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Sarufutsu’s business expanded exponentially around 2010 when China began importing more scallops from the region.

Seafood exports, mostly scallops, from Japan to China jumped from 9.6% to 46.6% of all overseas shipments.

By 2015, production increased eightfold.

In 2022, Domestic production of scallops amounted to 5.12 million tons, 83% of which came from Hokkaido.

The average cost of scallops at the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market continued to increase for two decades on since exports to China began (¥992/kg in 2009, ¥2991/kg in 2022).

Why you shouldn’t rush off to Sarufutsu

Sound tempting? Hold your horses. As much as it is a team-player’s business, Sarufutsu’s fisheries are strict on their family-only policy.

It’s a gated business: Only the eldest sons of scallop fishers can fill the job.

“We get calls from people who ‘want to become scallop fishers,’ but I politely turn them away” says Mori Toyoaki, special director of the cooperative.

“If someone who isn’t the son of a scallop fisher wants to become one so badly, their only option is to marry into a family of one that has only daughters. But there apparently was one outsider who disturbed the village after marrying into a fisher’s family, which is why it’s now avoided.”

Ban destabilizes wealth

Haul of sanma on a fishing boat
Picture: xhiiiix / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

With fisheries having become dependent on the Chinese market, the industry has taken a major blow this year. Exports plummeted 39% due to the ban on Japanese seafood following the Fukushima wastewater release on August 24th. Scallop prices recently fell 11 to 27%, according to the Fisheries Agency.

The government decided in September to subsidize fishery businesses with a budget of over ¥1 trillion ($674,810,840 USD). Some believed the rich fishers in Sarufutsu shouldn’t get a dime.

“I’ve gotten phone calls with complaints like ‘A rich village like yours doesn’t need subsidies.’ Complaints came pouring in from the early mornings during September and October. I’ve even been told, ‘die’ by a caller.” said Mori.

Meanwhile, younger fishers are managing their wealth as best as they can.

“Even if I make ¥30 million annually, ¥12 million gets taken away by resident tax,” says one young fisher. “I buy stocks. But there are others who use FX and crypto assets.”

Sources

[1] 年収3000万円は当たり前で、移住希望者も続出!「日本一の金持ち村」ホタテ長者たちが明かす「驚きの暮らしぶり」…冬の3ヶ月間は休み、競争は存在しない、完全世襲制. 現代ビジネス

[2] 《日本一の金持ち村》「ホタテ御殿」の車庫にはフェラリーにポルシェ、コンビニにはドンペリが…!漁師たちが明かす「知らざる実態」. 現代ビジネス

[3] 2022年度(令和4年)市区町村別 所得(年収)ランキング. ZEIMO

[4] ホタテガイの中国向け輸出拡大と国内産地への影響等に関する考察. 農林水産省

[5] 「ホタテ御殿」が一変、積み上がる在庫 中国禁輸、北米向けにも影響. 朝日新聞

[6]  漁師の年収お3千万円以上!「ホタテ御殿」が並ぶ日本最北端の漁村とは. MAG2NEWS

[7] 北海道猿払村が全国屈指の高所得村に発展した理由【ホタテ事業の歴史】. jijinews

[8] 猿払村の平均所得・年収. 年収ガイド

[9] 組合概要. さるふつほたて便

[10] 「日本一の金持ち村」にホタテ長者が続々誕生!日本最北の漁村に嫁いだ妻たちの「本音」とは?…北海道「猿払村」が抱える「村民格差」と「危機感」. 現代ビジネス

[11] 平均年収ランキング(年齢・年代別の年収情報)【最新版】. doda

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