After the rubber bands binding its long legs are removed, the Japanese spider crab unfolds them and stretches them out. They must be close to a meter in length.
Koji Ishigaki grabs its torso from behind and gently places it in a water tank as its pincers and legs flail away, then repeats the exercise with another crab, and another.
“It's more or less the way I envisioned it,” he says. He checks to see how the lively giant crustacean is doing, and the smile returns to his face.
Ishigaki, 45, is the first-ever director of the Numazu Deep Sea Aquarium in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, which opened in December 2011.
The waters of Suruga Bay have a maximum depth of 2,500 meters, and are home to many deep sea fish that can only be found here. Making the most of the local bounty and limiting its focus to the deep sea, the aquarium displays around 3,000 creatures of 200 varieties in a building about the size of a gymnasium. On weekends, it bustles with visiting families and couples.
When Ishigaki hears that a rare fish has been discovered, he immediately drives to the Numazu fish market to see it with his own eyes. On some occasions, he charters a fishing boat and heads out to capture his quarry.
Many deep sea fish have short life spans, so the stock on display must be replenished frequently. However, bottom trawling in Suruga Bay is banned for around four months from mid-May each year. How can the aquarium continue to capture the imaginations of visitors during this time when new fish are unavailable? The answer Ishigaki came up with before summer, its busiest time of the year, was locally caught Japanese spider crabs.
Simply putting the crabs on display would not be particularly attention-generating in itself, so a Tasmanian king crab, the heaviest in the world, was brought in from Australia. Its rotund torso resembles a rock, and it can weigh up to 15 kilograms. The exhibit was dubbed “a showdown between the biggest crabs in the world.”
“Whatever we do, it has to have a story to it,” says Ishigaki with a mischievous smile.
A LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION AS PAYBACK FOR A COURTESY
He travels the world to acquire saltwater fish, and sells them wholesale to aquariums and pet shops in Japan and abroad. "Marine procurer" is another of his occupations. His own company has 10 staff members and handles around 3,500 varieties of fish. He works as director of the aquarium three times a week, balancing both occupations.
Ishigaki was once an office worker.
He dreamed of living overseas, and found a job with mid-level supermarket chain Yaohan Japan (now Maxvalu Tokai), which was actively pursuing overseas expansion. He worked in sales for three years, but was troubled by his lack of enthusiasm for the products he was selling. Around that time, he spotted a flier in a newspaper recruiting divers. The position involved acquiring tropical fish overseas and selling them to pet shops and other clients.
Ishigaki had no specialist knowledge of fish, but having been born in Shimoda city in the south of the Izu Peninsula, he had a familiarity with the sea. When he was in elementary school, he would go diving and catch octopuses with his bare hands that he would sell to restaurants, earning pocket money. This marine procurer had no qualms about trying his luck abroad. He was 25 years old.
Ishigaki set up his company eight years ago, and it was a bumpy ride right from the outset.
No distribution channel existed for domestic pet shops. He sought new opportunities with overseas aquariums, but their quality control standards were more exacting than pet shops. If the fish he brought to them were deemed unfit for display, he generated zero earnings. His take-home income sank below 10,000 yen ($127) a month, which was not even enough to pay for his children's school lunches. He began to chip away at his savings.
Ishigaki's wife, Akiko, 45, supported the family by working as a dental assistant as well as other part-time jobs. They took turns taking care of their son, who was in his first year of elementary school and their kindergarten-age daughter.
“I used to be happy that I married a salaried worker,” says Akiko. “My husband always tells me things after the fact. Once he makes up his mind, he won't listen to my objections.”
Two years after Ishigaki had struck out on his own, a huge volume of orders from major aquariums in the United States suddenly began to fall into his lap. When he asked them what had brought this about, he was told that he had been registered in the United States as a top-rated supplier. It seemed that someone had done him the favor of writing a letter of recommendation in his behalf to the U.S. Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Quite a while before that, Ishigaki had the bitter experience of seeing four fish that he supplied to an American aquarium die within a week. Each cost 400,000 yen. He was no longer liable for their loss, but a staff member at the aquarium pleaded with him to help so that they could avoid an imminent dismissal. “It was partly my responsibility for not adequately explaining how the fish should be kept,” says Ishigaki. He bore the entire cost himself.
It turned out that the letter of recommendation had been written by the aquarium staff member as a way of thanking Ishigaki for his courtesy. It injected new life into his flagging business, and his client aquariums expanded to 173 in 26 countries.
A QUEST FOR RARE FISH
In September 2010, Ishigaki met Shinichiro Sato, 35, a senior managing director of Numazu fisheries company Samasa Suisan. He was looking for ways to restore vitality to the fishing port town and its graying population. Sato had been racking his brain for a solution, so Ishigaki suggested that they build an aquarium.
There are approximately 100 aquariums in Japan of varying sizes. How could they make theirs stand out from the rest? Sato put his faith in Ishigaki's experience as a marine procurer and left the management of the aquarium in his hands, including its exhibits.
They are brimming with creative thinking. For example, one display featuring lantern-eye fish has them swimming in a curved and darkened tank in which they emanate white light like fireflies. The luminescence is generated by parasites in their eyes. Ishigaki first saw the fish in the Philippines four years ago, and this display is his attempt to recreate that unforgettable sight.
“On a night with a new moon, light came bobbing, bobbing up from beneath the sea. Eventually, a school of light formed that looked like the Milky Way. I wanted to share that experience at the aquarium.”
Not all of Ishigaki's ideas come to fruition. Deputy aquarium director Tadashi Yasunaga, 55, a former director of the Sunshine Aquarium in Tokyo's Ikebukuro, rejects Ishigaki's more outlandish proposals such as stacking tanks one on top of another like some kind of playground apparatus in imitation of a toy box, and having fish swim in circles in a custom-made tank to race them.
“I suppose my role is to draw a stop sign in front of him when he focuses too much on entertainment value and goes overboard,” says Yasunaga.
Eight months have passed since the aquarium's opening. It has already exceeded its visitor target of 150,000, and business is good.
“What kind of fish will I encounter? What kind of experience will I have? I want to recreate the kind of excitement I've felt.”
For Ishigaki, his quest for rare fish that he has yet to discover is nothing less than an adventure that takes him deep down into the ocean's azure depths.
* * *
Born in 1967 in Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture. Graduated from the Nihon University College of International Relations, then joined Yaohan Japan (now Maxvalu Tokai). Began working for its department store division as a salesman in Nagoya, but resigned after three years. Subsequently found a position with a fisheries company in his hometown selling saltwater fish wholesale to aquariums and pet shops. Went freelance in 2000. Became the inspiration for the fish-procuring character Tenpei Kurata in the manga “Tsuri Baka Nisshi.” Became the first-ever director of the Numazu Deep Sea Aquarium that opened in December 2011, and also continues to run his own business supplying saltwater fish to aquariums and other clients around the world.
Soccer fan: Ishigaki usually answers his cellphone at all times, even during meals or while in the toilet, but the exception is when the Japanese national soccer team is playing. His family call him “coach.” “It's just like him to praise players who make the pass leading to a goal rather than the ones who score,” says his wife, Akiko.
Coelacanth: One of the Numazu Deep Sea Aquarium's main attractions is its collection of five frozen and stuffed specimens of these big fish, thought to have been extinct 65 million years, but rediscovered off the South African coast in 1938. The commercial trade of coelacanths is banned by the Washington Convention, with only about 1,000 estimated to be in the seas, so each of the specimens were donated by owners within Japan.
Sakana-kun: Ishigaki met television personality and marine expert Sakana-kun over a decade ago when he was studying at an aquarium before he rose to fame, and he remains a close family friend. They sometimes go diving together in the sea, and Ishigaki passes on fish breeding methods. Of Ishigaki, Sakana-kun says: “He knows how to display fish in a way that can bring joy to many people.”
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