The Somali pirates terrorizing the waters weren’t at all like the swashbucklers from children’s books. Instead, the men attacked transport and fishing ships, held crews hostage and then demanded ransoms to let them go. Thousands of miles away, though, a sushi chef in Japan heard about the problem and came up with a solution that was just inventive enough to actually work.
At the start of the 1980s, the Somali fishing industry showed some potential to succeed. During that period, you see, the country’s Ministry of Fisheries joined forced with the Coastal Development Agency to establish a plan to help develop businesses in that arena. In addition, overseas investors saw promise in Somalia’s untouched waters, which were rife with marine life.
And although the Somali government was seemingly looking out for its own people’s small-scale fishing operations, it also gave out licensing deals and made arrangements with other nations such as Italy and Iraq. But just as the industry started taking off, Somalia fell into an internal crisis – and much of the country descended into chaos.
Without a functioning government in place, then, the Somali Navy had no guidance. That military department therefore fell apart, leaving the nation’s pristine waters to go unprotected. And as a result, fishing operations from other countries began to cross Somalia’s maritime borders illegally. To make matters worse, some even emptied their waste into Somali waters.
However, after watching their nation’s resources become depleted and their waters dirtied, local fishermen were no longer content to sit idly by. Instead, Somalis joined together to safeguard their seas, eventually relying on weapons to keep unwanted ships away. And from there, some stepped into piracy – through seizing foreign vessels and demanding ransom money, for instance.
At first, the Somali pirates exclusively went after fishing boats, although they eventually diversified their efforts to include cargo vessels. They operated in both the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, where they staked out ships to take over. And, ultimately, the bands of men involved raided hundreds of boats, even if not every offensive resulted in a hijacking-and-ransom situation.
One of the most famous assaults made by Somali pirates occurred in April 2009. At the start of that month, the Maersk Alabama was making its way from Oman to Kenya with nearly 20,000 tons of cargo and more than 20 people on board. However, a quartet of marauders had their eyes on the vessel.
Coincidentally, the Maersk Alabama crew had in fact gone through an anti-piracy drill the previous day. On that occasion, they had practiced first aid and the use of firearms, for example, among other required skills. Nevertheless, on April 8, 2009, four pirates – all aged in their late teens – made their way on board the cargo ship.
Thankfully, the Maersk Alabama’s crew had enough time to close down the ship’s engine controls as well as the rest of her systems, meaning the pirates couldn’t redirect the vessel. And while the raiders subsequently held Captain Richard Phillips and others hostage, they were never able to restore the Maersk Alabama’s functions.
Eventually, then, the teenagers took drastic action. With Captain Phillips alongside them, they sailed away from the Maersk Alabama on one of her lifeboats. Apparently, they hoped that other pirates would arrive to help with the ship’s capture – yet that assistance never materialized. Instead, they faced a stand-off with the United States Navy that left three of the four young men dead.
The story not only grabbed headlines, but it was also adapted into a 2013 movie called Captain Phillips, which starred Tom Hanks as its eponymous lead. But, of course, not every pirating story ended in the same way as that of the Maersk Alabama. Some gangs have killed the hostages that they have taken, for example. And in all, a life of piracy once apparently proved lucrative, too. In 2010 Forbes reported, for example, that Somali pirates’ activities had in total earned them in the region of $150 million during the past 12 months.
Eventually, though, the world came together in an attempt to improve the situation in Somalia. In particular, the United Nations adopted a slew of policies to protect ships traveling through the area. These included the use of water patrols to stave off any pirate activity, and vessels from NATO, the United States, Russia, the EU and China all helped in these efforts.
At the same time, however, a man thousands of miles away from Somalia took it upon himself to try and help. But then again, Kiyoshi Kimura had always had plenty of ideas. As a teenager, for instance, he had envisioned himself becoming a pilot, to which end he subsequently joined the Japan Air Self-Defense Force. Fate put paid to that plan, though; after Kimura suffered a mishap, he couldn’t then see well enough to continue flying.
Yet Kimura didn’t stop working hard after that tough break. Instead, he picked up a job selling encyclopedias in order to pay for his education. Then he started a different business. In essence, he began picking up small fish that were destined for the trash heap and then sliced them up before reselling the pieces to sushi joints.
That experience would in turn lead Kimura toward a new career – one that he had begun to envision for himself after his dreams of being a pilot had ended. Principally, the Japanese man wanted to open a 24-hour sushi joint. And at the age of 59, he achieved that goal when his own restaurant – named Sushizanmai – launched in 2011.
Nowadays, Sushizanmai has in excess of 300 outlets, and the chain has since turned over millions of dollars in revenue. Kimura has earned himself a nickname, too: currently, throughout his homeland, he is also known as “Tuna King.”
And in January 2019 Kimura more than lived up to his “Tuna King” moniker when he made a record-breaking purchase at the famous Toyosu fish market in Tokyo. On that occasion, the head of Sushizanmai bought a 612-pound bluefin tuna for a price of more than $3 million. He later told CNN, “It is a good tuna. But I think I [paid] too much.”
Despite that extravagant acquisition, however, Kimura is keen to keep his offerings at Sushizanmai affordable. And according to Sushi.com, he makes sure that this is the case “even if he incurs deficits, because he wants common people to enjoy high-quality tuna without spending too much.”
Furthermore, Kimura does his part to give back to the community. For example, he handed out 1,300 sushi plates to recent graduates whose lives had been disturbed by the massive earthquake that afflicted Japan in 2011. Kimura personally went to the disaster area as well and offered further assistance to the survivors.
So, with philanthropy already part of his life, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Kimura found himself helping out with a cause thousands of miles from his home in Japan. The restaurateur came across the issue as he sourced fish for his sushi chain, during which time he discovered that no fishing operations would dare to venture close to Somalia.
This, of course, had to do with Somalia’s notorious reputation for piracy. Even so, Kimura had realized that the country’s waters possessed a healthy supply of fish – yellowfin tuna in particular. And this knowledge led the sushi CEO to subsequently decide to investigate the problem for himself; Yahoo! News has speculated that he began visiting Somalia sometime in 2012.
Fortunately for Kimura, he had plenty of connections, so he was able to set up a face-to-face meeting with the Somali pirate community. In particular, he wanted to learn exactly why the country had no fishing industry in spite of its many resources. And in turn, Kimura found out some surprising things about the pirates’ lives.
According to the website Grape Japan, the Tuna King learned that the Somalis didn’t “do piracy because [they wanted] to.” Instead, desperation in the midst of a civil war had led them to lives of crime. And as many had both their homes and sources of employment taken away from them during the conflict, their plights left them having to provide for their families by any means necessary.
After hearing this, though, Kimura came up with an idea: he reportedly advised the pirates to start using the Somali seas to their advantage in a new way. Yes, he thought that the pirates could return to their fishing roots and start catching the tuna that lived in their waters rather than earning riches by hijacking foreign ships.
But Kimura did more than just suggest a reboot for the Somali fishing industry; he also gave the former pirates the tools they needed to make the attempt a success. The sushi CEO funded the training they required to fish for tuna, helped them to sign up to an important trade organization and purchased specialized ships for them to use.
On top of that, Kimura bolstered the industry with his money. Because he helped Somalian fishermen to gain admission to the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, they could start exporting the fish they caught. And with his preferred type of fish on offer, the Tuna King began to buy from the Somali fishermen in order to stock his sushi restaurants.
Obviously, all of this required Kimura to make a huge investment in the Somali fishing community – not least through purchasing both the equipment and the licensing they needed. But according to a 2016 report in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, he felt confident that the money would come back to him in a big way.
For one thing, Kimura would continue to purchase the yellowfin tuna caught in Somalia. Not only that, but he also believed the fish from Africa would afford him a unique selling proposition for his sushi: in short, he could tell his customers that they were eating from a catch landed by a team of ex-pirates.
Only time would tell, though, if Kimura’s plan to fight piracy by boosting fishing exports would work. For reference, in the years leading up to the Tuna King’s initial visit to Somalia – 2009 to 2011 – the country’s waters had witnessed more than 200 attacks by pirate gangs.
However, after Kimura made his first trip to Somalia – likely in 2012 – he set the ball rolling on the ship purchases, training and licensing that he bankrolled. And from that year until 2015, the number of pirate-related incidents started to fall – until it finally hit zero.
It’s important to remember, though, that other factors were at play besides Kimura’s fishing project. For example, the United Nations had set up their patrols with NATO and world nations’ naval ships. And the threat of a response from a military vessel or aircraft was reportedly often enough to scare the pirates into dispersing before they hijacked any traveling boats.
To that end, many of the civilian ships that had to pass by Somalia started to come through under the protection of these patrol boats. They formed coalitions with the troops, in fact, which meant they often traveled with protective escorts. And clearly this practice may also have helped to cut down on the number of pirating incidents in Somali waters.
It’s impossible, then, to credit all of the changes in Somalia to Kimura’s fishing plan; the added security provided by naval ships undoubtedly also played a part. But the Tuna King did nonetheless earn plenty of accolades for his hard work. In 2013 the government of Djibouti even decorated Kimura with a medal in recognition of his anti-piracy efforts.
In addition, Kimura did something that other organizations didn’t: he listened to the pirates’ concerns and came up with a way to help them in a mutually beneficial manner. This isn’t a typical approach for business owners, who tend to avoid countries disrupted by war until stability has returned.
Since then, moreover, things have remained relatively quiet on the pirating front. With that in mind, an oil tanker traveling from Djibouti to the Somali capital of Mogadishu in March 2017 did have some unwanted visitors. At that time, pirates reportedly took over the vessel – although they apparently left without a ransom when they found out that Somalis had hired the craft.
Then, just a week later, pirates struck again. This time, they targeted a fishing boat, successfully commandeered it and ditched the ship’s Yemeni crew on dry land. The Somalis also chose to hold onto the ship that they had stolen – presumably because it would allow them to attempt to hijack larger vessels down the line.
And in October 2018, yet another incident saw a quartet of pirates try to infiltrate the MV KSL Sydney as it traveled close by Mogadishu. The men decided to fire onto the bulk carrier, although security personnel on board launched a counter-offensive – and in this way, the crew successfully avoided a hijacking.
After that, the EU’s Naval Force found the vessel belonging to those pirates and dismantled it. But the failed attempt was still a sign that pirating has continued in Somalia. In addition, it likely encouraged the United Nations to make its next move: in November 2018, you see, the organization prolonged its security activities in Somali waters.
But, naturally, the Somali pirates may have another option for work in the form of Kimura’s fishing operation. Indeed, his program to create jobs and boost the country’s fishing industry has shown a new way in which businesses can provide locals with a chance to rebuild their lives.
And it’s also worth noting that the Somali government has similarly come up with ways to protect the nation’s fishing resources. In December 2018, you see, authorities outsourced some fishing licenses to China. This step was taken in the hope that it will further strengthen Somalia’s legal fishing industry – and perhaps provide more hope for the troubled African country’s future.