OJIYA, Japan >> Yuki Kawakami is not your typical carp breeder. At just 30 years old, she is the fourth-generation operator of the renowned Torazo Urakawa Koi Farm in Ojiya, Niigata Prefecture.
Sixteen years after the farm survived a deadly earthquake in the region, she is using social media — and her English skills — to promote sales abroad and help her family’s business stay afloat amid the challenges of the coronavirus.
Like it survived the earthquake, Kawakami is confident the farm will survive the pandemic. “We’ll also beat this coronavirus. Just you watch,” she said.
In mid-October, Kawakami used her smartphone to take video of the carp to send to a potential buyer in the U.S. “Send more photos,” the customer quickly replied.
During a typical year, this would be the busy season, with customers from across Japan and overseas visiting to make purchases. But without an overseas buyer in sight, sales at the farm have plunged by 40%.
“We have to get through this somehow,” she said, clutching her phone.
Just before 6 p.m. Oct. 23, 2004, when she was in junior high school, a powerful earthquake devastated the region around the farm. The quake killed 68 people and forced residents in the area to evacuate. In Ojiya, it killed many carp as well as fighting bulls, a huge blow in an area where bullfighting is a local tradition. The shaking cracked about 30 ponds and caused other damage at Kawakami’s farm. Her father, Tsuyoshi, rescued many carp, securing them in holding ponds.
Repairs were completed the following fall. Watching her father’s determination to get his business running again left a deep impression on Kawakami, one that she tapped into years later, after graduating from high school, studying in the U.S. and working away from the farm.
“Don’t let the curtain come down on the Torazo brand,” one buyer told her. That’s when she realized the stature of her family’s business.
“Breeding carp is a job recognized around the world,” Kawakami said.
She returned to her hometown in April 2018 and started learning to lead the farm.
Today, the pandemic has completely altered the farm’s fortunes, preventing overseas buyers, who account for the majority of sales, from traveling to Japan.
But Kawakami understands the power of social media to connect with people around the world. To drum up wider interest in carp, she uploads videos of the fish with English messages. Since then, she has received inquiries from around the globe. On some occasions, she has sold more than 10 fish in less than two hours.
Still, there are challenges social media can’t fix. Some of the farm’s pricier carp can cost nearly $10,000, and potential customers require seeing the fish in person before making a purchase. That makes it difficult to predict when business might return to normal.
In the meantime, Kawakami keeps trying.
“We’re in a tough situation, but I want to use this as an opportunity to grow the number of carp fans and breathe life back into my hometown,” she said.