Closure of Nippon Paper Industries’ Kushiro Mill leaves workers in limbo

Oct. 27
Workers change a Nippon Paper Industries company sign on Oct. 1 in Kushiro, Hokkaido.

Nippon Paper Industries Co. — touted for its high-quality “Kushiro brand” paper used for newspapers and magazines — ended 100 years of production at its paper mill in Kushiro, Hokkaido, in September, shifting its primary business to thermal power generation.

In the aftermath of the decision, out of the roughly 500 workers at the plant, 160 left the company and chose to seek other employment in Kushiro — but most haven’t been able to find a new job. Those who decided to stay on will be transferred to other offices and mills in and out of Hokkaido, uprooting them from their hometown.

While they take pride in having worked at the mill and sustained the production of paper with their skills, they are feeling uneasy about their new lives.

A former employee looks up at the chimney of Nippon Paper Industries' factory in Kushiro, Hokkaido, after its closure.

One of them is a man in his 40s, who worked at the Kushiro plant.

“I can’t help looking up at the chimney even though there is no more smoke coming out of it,” he said, gazing at the mill’s towering chimney in late September, just before the facility closed.

His father and grandfather also worked at the Kushiro Mill.

“Ever since I was a child, I believed I would eventually work at the mill as well,” he said.

And he did, joining Nippon Paper Industries after graduating from high school. He rose to be in charge of boiler management at the Kushiro plant in 2000 after working at a number of mills outside Hokkaido. The smoke from the chimney fluttering in the wind would give him peace of mind — a sign that the boiler was operating normally.

When the company decided to close the plant and told him he would need to transfer out of the town, he was hesitant at first. But in the end, he accepted the offer to move to a branch in the Kanto region, leaving his wife and children behind.

He requested to work in a department not involved in paper production this time, though, given that he had been through a factory shutdown in Osaka in the past.

“I do want to work at a factory, but I don’t want to experience a third shutdown,” he said.

Most of the employees at the Kushiro plant, including those from affiliated companies, are Kushiro natives.

“Everyone has been running the machinery taking pride in working at the plant that supported Kushiro,” said another man in his 40s, who has worked at the plant for about three decades since graduating from high school.

When the firm’s Iwanuma Mill in Miyagi Prefecture halted its production following an earthquake in February, the Kushiro plant beefed up production to make up for production in Miyagi.

The employees had mixed feelings since the Kushiro Mill had already decided to close down and was in the process of transferring machinery to another mill. But in the end, they decided to take up the job, saying, “Let’s show the pride of Kushiro, known for its top quality.”

Clients praised the high quality of the papers produced from the make-up production.

The Kushiro workers inherited skills over the years that no other mill could match, becoming an asset for the plant. Veteran employees, for instance, could tell which newspaper or magazine the paper was for by just touching the paper with their eyes closed.

The Kushiro Mill was renamed Nippon Paper Kushiro Energy Co. on Oct. 1, a company mainly engaged in coal-fired power generation.

The number of employees left in Kushiro, including those at affiliated companies, has shrunk from about 500 to about 90. About half of the remaining 400-plus employees have been transferred to other plants and offices in and outside of Hokkaido, according to sources at the plant.

Others left the company to stay in Kushiro. According to the Kushiro Public Employment Security Office, 161 people had registered as job-seekers by Sept. 28. With only a limited number of jobs that can make use of the experience gained at the Kushiro plant, many worry that it may take more time to find a job.

“We have no choice but to look ahead, but none of us, whether we are staying or leaving Kushiro, are satisfied with our choices,” another man who quit the company said.

Location

Nippon Paper Industries’ Kushiro Mill

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