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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Dial a 'Multiworker'

Dec. 21, 2016

A small island in western Japan is making waves with an innovative work scheme that might help rural areas facing depopulation.

Ama Town in Shimane Prefecture is located on a small island in the Sea of Japan, and Akihiko Ota moved there 3 years ago. Sometimes he works as a fisherman and other times, he processes squid in a factory.

But there is more to him than that. Ota is a "multiworker" -- a new way of working created by the Ama Tourism Association. Ota is the first such worker, and the tasks he performs are rotated seasonally, so he can help meet peak demand.

In the spring he helps ship oysters and in summer he works in a hotel. He is dispatched to various workplaces that need help.

He was called to a fishing port at 4 a.m. one morning. The fishermen were heading out to set up some nets. It's the beginning of the high season for squid and yellowtail and when the fishermen are understaffed, they call the tourism association and ask for a multiworker. Ota is often assigned to work with them, and he sometimes stays for nearly a month.

"We'll use two boats, this boat and that one. We'll place them close together and scoop up the fish in the net," Ota says.

He isn't a trained fisherman. He just does whatever tasks are given to him, and fishing in a remote area is a race against time.

The fish is sorted, packed into boxes and sent by ferry to a market on the mainland. When short-staffed, they can't make enough shipments, and they lose out on sales. When they have a big catch, they become so busy that any help is welcome.

"As I go from one workplace to another throughout the year, I see many aspects of the island," Ota says. "I really enjoy this job. I'm having fun, and helping others too."

At one time, about 7,000 people lived in Ama Town but by the early 2000s the number was down to about a third of that. Thirty-eight percent of the islanders were aged 65 or older, and many local industries were severely understaffed. The town was once on the verge of bankruptcy.

Town officials tried out various ideas, from launching a brand of marine products to starting a training program for fishermen. With these efforts, Ama made a dramatic turnaround.

Over the last 10 years, more than 500 people have moved there. New apartments have been built to accommodate them, and a local festival has been revived.

The number of people in their 20s to 40s has risen sharply. They are playing a significant role in the fishery, livestock breeding and other industries.

The multiwork program is another idea aimed at convincing more people to move to the island. It's the brainchild of Fujio Aoyama of the tourism association.

"If you try to start up your own business on this island, it's so difficult you might easily give up. But if someone asks you to come over and lend a hand, it doesn't sound so hard. So I thought that's a good way to start," Aoyama says. "The important thing is to enjoy living here. That's the idea we are trying to get across."

So far, 3 people have signed up and moved to the island. They're paid a monthly salary by the tourism association, which is hoping more young people will join. About 4 years have passed since the program started and locals are increasingly coming to rely on the multiworkers.

Ota was recently called to a fish processing factory where he often works. Shimane Prefecture promotes its products, such as Japanese confectionary and dried fish, at an annual fair in Hiroshima. Ama Town has been participating every year. The factory is taking part for the first time, and it wanted Ota to think of a good promotional plan.

"It's difficult for a wholesale company like us to appeal to individual customers," an official tells him. "So, take some time and please give us some ideas on how to attract them."

Ota has basically been working by following instructions, and this was the first time he's been asked to come up with a plan from scratch.

A week later, he presented his ideas.

"The aim of this plan is just to get young women to enjoy Ama Town's great food," Ota said.

He proposed using a life-sized squid mascot but his colleagues were hesitant.

"But young people don't really attend the fair," said one of them.

Ota had another idea. The next day he organized a tasting session for his colleagues and presents a "donburi" rice bowl.

"Squid is in season now. How about serving it on top of rice that's been cooked the best possible way?" Ota asked.

This time, he was given the green light.

"Each workplace has issues to overcome or dreams to pursue, but I can't tackle all of them yet. However, I do hope to be a part of the island's efforts," Ota said.

The multiworker has many workplaces but one mission -- to make a difference. Through this unique exposure, it is hoped that more young people will come and grow together with the island.