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By Laura Sheahen in Kesennumma

If you’d worked all your life to build up a business, only to see it swept away in minutes by a gargantuan wave, you’d be forgiven for wanting to give up. The aging residents of Japan’s east coast lost decades of labour when a tsunami struck in March 2011.

“There were many shopkeepers who thought about quitting,” says Masato Sakamoto, who lives in a coastal city called Kesennumma. The city wasn’t just swallowed by water, it was burned by massive fires that the disaster sparked.

In the town centre, the streets are silent. Debris dangles crazily from burned-out rafters. But where others see a ghost town, Masato sees possibilities. Standing in an empty lot, he describes his plans for a two-story shopping plaza that will house dozens of small shops here.

In poor countries, Caritas helps people help themselves by providing basic income-earning items like sewing machines or fishing nets. In an industrialized country like Japan, helping small businesses takes different forms. One is filling in the gaps as entrepreneurs rebuild. The tsunami was the most costly natural disaster in history, and while the Japanese government is helping many industries, people who own stores or small factories need additional support.

“I felt we had to restart our businesses, even though we’d been attacked by the tsunami,” Masato says. “We started selling items outdoors, and brought the older shopkeepers—the ones who were tired—to our market to see what we were doing. They realized: We can do it.”

Masato worked with other small business leaders to draft a plan for the shopping centre. “The government said it would build the mall’s basic structure if we found the land,” he continues. Caritas Japan plans to provide piping, finish the interior walls, and pay for needs like refrigerators. “There will be a fish shop, a bicycle shop, a shoe shop—more than fifty shops want to join,” Masato says. The project is moving forward, and will give employment to many tsunami victims who thought their working lives were over.

Farther south, in a city called Ishinomaki, an older couple runs a family-owned processing plant for seafood. The tsunami wiped out their equipment: “The machines here are digital. Once the water soaked them, they didn’t work at all,” says owner Futoshi Honda. His wife brought the seafood from the plant to an evacuation shelter to feed survivors. Meanwhile, they wondered how they would cope with the mud-logged rooms of the small factory.

Volunteers from Caritas are working up and down the coast to clean out survivors’ homes. Caritas groups, and volunteers from other charities, started coming to the Hondas’ plant to clean up.

“I’m so grateful to Caritas for helping us,” he says. With luck, the assistance will extend to many families. Futoshi has been able to hire some of his staff back, and believes he’ll be able to employ more soon. “I feel I must create jobs,” he says, “so people can start working.”