Manufacturers of canned fish in eastern and northeastern Japan that was devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster have been offering the protein-rich items to feed school children in developing countries in gratitude for reconstruction aid given to them.

Photo taken on March 1, 2021, in Tokyo shows canned mackerel sent to developing countries via the World Food Program as part of Japan's foreign aid. (Kyodo)

Ahead of the 10th anniversary of the March 11 catastrophe next week, president of Iwate Canning Co., a maker of canned sardines and mackerel, said the last decade has been about how to repay people for the various support the disaster-hit areas have received, including from the Japanese government and other countries.

"Knowing that our canned fish are of help to children overseas, our factory members feel the great significance of the project. For the last 10 years, we have continuously pondered how to repay (people)," said the president Sumiaki Yamashita.

Iwate Canning and six other companies from Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Ibaraki and Chiba prefectures -- all hit by the earthquake and tsunami disaster -- have sent from 800 to 1,000 tons of canned fish every year to African and Asian countries via the World Food Program.

The aid project was funded by a Japanese grant aid totaling some 5 billion yen ($46.8 million) that covers the 10 years from fiscal 2011 to help reconstruction efforts in areas hit by the disaster.

Recipient countries of the foreign aid include Burundi, Cambodia, the Republic of Congo, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Laos and Lesotho.

Canned mackerel sent to Laos via the World Food Program as part of Japan's foreign aid. (Photo courtesy of WFP/Vilakhone Sipaseuth)(Kyodo)

Some of such countries offered aid to Japan in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, including Sri Lanka, which donated cash of $1 million and 3 million tea bags and also sent a team to help recovery efforts such as removal of debris.

"I have learned that international aid is not just one-way. We are of course benefitting from financing by the reconstruction-related budget but children in developing countries are also gaining valuable nutrition," said Yamashita.

He saw two of his factories in Miyako and Ofunato in Iwate Prefecture forced to close down by the tsunami. "I hope to continue this mutual support," the president added.

Staff work on a mackerel canning line at Iwate Canning Co.'s factory in Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture on Sept. 28, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Iwate Canning Co.)(Kyodo)

The canned fish help meet the protein needs of children in developing countries and also contribute to improving their livelihoods and communities, according to Japan Suisankanzume Packers Association, an industry group of canned fish makers which organizes the project with the Foreign Ministry and the WFP.

"Canned mackerel and sardines are being used in school meals. This meal service is giving children motivation to come to school and study," said Tsutomu Matsuura, the association's managing director.

Local farmers are also being encouraged to make vegetables for the school meals, which has contributed to reinvigorating the local economy, he said.