Shikoku fishing firm reels in young talent with guaranteed income

A fishing company on Japan's western island of Shikoku is breaking with convention by offering workers a guaranteed salary. And young people are taking the bait.

There was a time when the annual catch at Mitsuoshiki, based in Muroto City, Kochi Prefecture, was worth 300 million yen, or about 2 million dollars.

But the boom days eventually dried up, and the drawn-out period of decline that followed has culminated in several years of hard struggle.

Japan suffers from a chronic labor shortage, and the fishing industry in Kochi is no exception. Twenty years ago, there were about 7,000 fishers in the prefecture, but the figure has since plunged to about half.

"For many years, people would only hire locals," says senior Mitsuoshiki official Yamamoto Kosei. "Due to the declining birthrate and aging population, no one was left to join the industry."

Yamamoto Kosei, a senior official at Mitsuoshiki

The problem was so protracted that Mitsuoshiki didn't hire anyone straight out of school in more than 30 years. Less labor equates to fewer fish, and revenue fell by two-thirds. Two years ago, the owners had no choice but to dissolve.

But Mitsuoshiki lived on thanks in no small part to Yamamoto. The 67-year-old secured funding from a net manufacturer in northern Japan, and the firm was reborn as a joint-stock corporation.

Starting salary determined by age

Yamamoto has since been instrumental in turning Mitsuoshiki's fortunes around by eschewing the fishing industry's long-held practice of paying people based on what they catch.

Instead, he introduced a guaranteed base salary, which rises to 250,000 yen per month by the age of 25. On top of that, he pays an additional monthly allowance to workers in senior positions that tops out at 150,000 yen per month for a captain.

What's more, the company subsidizes housing, commuting, and food, and even provides monthly allowances for spouses and children. There are paid holidays, and bonuses are regularly handed out for a large catch.

Perks attractive for young parents

The wages and benefits on offer for new employees at Mitsuoshiki rival some of Japan's largest corporations across any industry.

Kono Kiyotaka, 32, left his job at a local food company to join Mitsuoshiki. At more than 400,000 yen a month, his salary is over double what it was before. He finishes work in the afternoon, so he has plenty of time to pick up his child from daycare.

Kono Kiyotaka, right, and his family

The job has been a revelation for Kono, who used to think higher incomes and flexible hours for child-rearing only existed outside of Kochi Prefecture.

"If I have something to do and want to take a day off, I can. And the company adjusts to unforeseen circumstances, such as when my child is sick," he says.

"These working conditions right here in my hometown are perfect. I will continue to be a fisherman for the rest of my life."

Kono Kiyotaka

Seniority system cast off

Yamamoto is not only focused on hiring locally. He visits employment seminars and vocational schools across the Kansai region to recruit young people from afar.

"This will help dispel the negative image about irregular and unstable work in the fishing industry. We cannot survive with the old way of thinking," he says.

He believes success will come by shifting away from an obsession with short-term profits. He's investing in boats, nets and other equipment to give the team at Mitsuoshiki a better chance of realizing their potential.

Yamamoto Kosei

Working culture in Japan has a deeply entrenched seniority system in which the important jobs go to older people regardless of ability. But that no longer exists at Mitsuoshiki.

Tanaka Yugo from Osaka is a case in point. The 24-year-old joined the company three years ago, and he has already been chosen to steer a boat. He even has the salary to boot.

Tanaka Yugo steers a boat.

"I feel I'm being acknowledged and encouraged, and getting a higher wage motivates me to work even harder," he says.

Tanaka Yugo

Kochi govt. offers support

The Kochi prefectural government is now supporting would-be fishers who are thinking about moving to the prefecture. Officials have set up an experience program that covers the costs of lodging and equipment, and they're working closely with the team at Mitsuoshiki.

Ikeda Issei, an 18-year-old from Nara, has always loved the sea. He joined the program, and found it to be a real eye opener.

"I like fishing boats so much that I have them as my phone's home screen," he said before setting sail. "Just to be getting on board a boat is so exciting."

But out at sea, Ikeda found the work extremely tough.

"I thought I could do it after seeing videos, but the real thing is totally different. The nets and fish were heavier than I imagined. You go side by side with your own life. I want to think about whether I'm ready for this line of work."

Ikeda Issei

But that's not to say he's thrown in the towel already. Some of the fishers Ikeda worked with on the program made the move to Kochi from elsewhere, and he appreciated the way they took him under their wing.

"I saw the harshness of this industry in person, and it was beyond my imagination. But it was cool to see the others toiling at sea. And I felt their warmth when they spoke to me.

"I won't have any regrets if I join this company."

Ikeda, right, enjoys a well-earned drink.