Well past retirement age, a Japanese expert has been single-mindedly working to assist the south-central Vietnamese province of Binh Dinh in sustainably developing its ocean tuna fishing industry.
Tuna caught using Japanese technology by Binh Dinh fishermen have been exported to Japan since the first batch arrived in the East Asian country for an auction at a local market in September 2014.
The saltwater finfish fetched three times as much as their local price of around VND60,000-80,000 ($2.82-3.76) per kilogram back then.
A clutch of activities have also been held to help Vietnamese fishermen master Japanese fishing and preserving tuna technologies to improve export quality, and foster economic cooperation between Osaka Prefecture, Japan and Binh Dinh Province.
Behind all these efforts is Hitoshi Kato, 87, chairman of the Vietnam – Japan Friendship Society in the Japanese city of Sakai, Osaka.
He has also been calling for Japanese enterprises to invest in Binh Dinh and recommended a local university to educational institutions in his country for cooperative projects.
Hitoshi was intrigued by one of his friends’ description of age-old tombs of Japanese merchants who had passed away almost a century ago in Hoi An City in the central province of Quang Nam after that person traveled to the locale more than 20 years ago.
“As chair of the Vietnam – Japan Friendship Society in Sakai, I was overwhelmed with emotions back from my own trip to Hoi An,” the expert shared.
“I kept wondering what to do to help boost the two countries’ ties, particularly economic liaison,” he added.
Hitoshi’s chance finally came when he learned about a working session between a delegation from Binh Dinh and Sakai City leaders in 2011.
He attended the meeting on his own initiative, during which Le Huu Loc, then the provincial chairman, introduced the province’s powerful fleet of ocean tuna fishing boats that have operated with high productivity.
However, their catches fetched low prices compared to other tuna exporters such as the Philippines and Indonesia.
It suddenly dawned on him how to make the ties between the two localities bloom.
Hitoshi flew to Binh Dinh not long after that.
“Fishermen in Binh Dinh struck me as hard-workers and fast learners, but almost all tuna sold locally were caught using traditional, out-of-date hunting, processing, and preserving methods which reduced the quality of the fish when they came ashore,” the authority observed.
He was set on helping the potential-rich province improve their ocean fishing value.
Back in Japan, Hitoshi called for assistance among local organizations and businesses in technology transfers to Binh Dinh fishermen and vessels selected for a pilot program to ensure quality of tuna exports to the Japanese market.
He traveled back and forth between Sakai and Binh Dinh and worked closely with local officials and experts on the project during the ensuing years.
Thanks to Hitoshi’s ceaseless efforts, in 2014 the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Vietnam – Japan Friendship Society in Sakai provided 25 ocean tuna fishing equipment sets as well as tuna hunting, preliminarily processing and preserving techniques to Binh Dinh anglers, with the project’s investment amounting to approximately US$1 million.
The province then set up two squads with a total of 25 boats and around 150 fishermen who adopt Japanese technology for their ocean tuna catches.
Hitoshi’s endeavors finally yielded sweet fruits: the first batch of tuna caught by Binh Dinh’s fishermen with Japanese technology was transported by air in September 2014 to an auction in the central fish market of Osaka City in Japan, where the fish were sold out for prices three times as much as the rates in Vietnam.
“Despite difficulties ahead, the project has provided great momentum for the local tuna fishing sector and helped local fishermen export their high-quality catches directly, considerably boosting export values,” Loc remarked.
Following the fruitful tuna fishing project, Hitoshi went on to promote Binh Dinh’s auspicious investment environment and economic potentials to entrepreneurs across Sakai City and Osaka Prefecture.
His promotional efforts have also been successful: In 2016 Japan’s Kei’s JSC implemented a project to grow fresh vegetables in the province, with an initial investment capital of around JPY3 million (nearly US$30,000).
The company also picked local farmers and engineers and offered them intensive training in Japan in how to grow veggies and farm bees.
Also through Hitoshi’s introduction, earlier this year another Japanese company, Marubeni Lumber, kick-started their $5 million project at the province’s Nhon Hoi Economic Zone to produce wood products.
The Japanese expert also suggested two Japanese universities provide counseling and assistance in agricultural production for Binh Dinh, and cooperate with Quy Nhon University, located in the namesake provincial capital, in establishing the faculty of aquatic products in the future.
Also in early 2017, with Hitoshi acting as an intermediary, Japan’s Sanicon Co. proceeded with the installation of its hi-tech water filtering system at a luxury hotel in Quy Nhon City.
“In my country, people can drink directly from such a water filtering system. If the project proves a success, I will work to expand the model in the entire Quy Nhon City,” he said.
Strong attach to Binh Dinh
During his latest trip to Binh Dinh, he accompanied representatives of environmental processing companies to Quy Nhon Port to work out ways to battle pollution in a bid to improve residents’ life quality, provide an impetus for the locality’s sustainable economic growth and draw tourists.
The elderly man is currently inviting another enterprise in Sakai to open a Japanese restaurant chain in Quy Nhon. He took his son-in-law and grandchildren along during his recent trips to Binh Dinh.
“I’m infatuated with Binh Dinh for its peaceful ambiance, and friendly and diligent people. Nowhere else have I witnessed the local administration issue investment certificates to foreign-owned projects within a single day like Binh Dinh,” Hitoshi shared.
“I’m old now, but I’ve promised to myself I will continue to assist Binh Dinh until I’m too weak to do so. Then my children and grandchildren will continue what I’m doing now,” he added, saying he yearns to become a citizen of the province.
The old man is loved dearly by local fishermen for his friendliness, devotion, and detailed instructions.
“Hitoshi has helped us unconditionally. We’ve invited him to be on the province’s Development Advisory Council,” Ho Quoc Dung, the provincial chairman, said.
Hitoshi, who remains agile despite his decrepit age, disclosed he is working to fulfill his promise with former Vietnamese State President Truong Tan Sang to assist neighboring Phu Yen and Khanh Hoa Provinces in adopting Japan’s tuna hunting and preserving technology.