Field Notes: A sea of miracles

Could a new seaweed Lush product help a Japanese fishing community avert the looming threat of a nuclear power station on their doorstep and all the damage that will bring, including lost livelihoods? Head of the ethical buying team, Simon Constantine, has high hopes.

A quiet fishing village offers the perfect slice of traditional Japan. A million miles away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s sprawling urban web, Kaminoseki is quintessentially Japanese: with an ageing population made up of predominantly veteran fishing families. The crystal waters which lap at their boats is that of the Seto inland sea and is so vigorous with life you can almost reach in with your bare hand and pick fish out of the water. It’s an idyll of tranquility with lush green islands and beaches hidden in coves and inlets.


However, as always seems to be the case, this pristine corner of the world is under threat. For the last three decades, there have been plans for two new nuclear power stations to be positioned here. In 2011 plans were already underway; a large concrete platform marked ground zero for the plant and then the earthquake and tsunami shook the confidence of the engineers and politicians. As they watched news of the Fukushima plant in meltdown, the plans for Kaminosekis plants were paused. The concrete platform remains and so do those ominous plans - yet to be abandoned by the local authorities.


We arrive in Kaminoskei direct from Hiroshima. The day before, we had picnicked near the atomic dome, a colonial-style performance hall that was hollowed out when the infamous atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima detonated 600 metres above the building. As it set the sky on fire - and burned 200,000 people alive - almost every other building was flattened. The fact that the dome survived was a miracle and in the end, it was decided to leave it as a reminder of the horrors of nuclear war. Now, three hours’ drive away, we are on the edge of the Sea of Miracles: An inland sea so diverse and rich with life that it provides sanctuary to many endangered marine species.


The weather is glorious, clear skies and brilliant sunshine and my wife, Vicky, takes our daughters  down to the beach to snorkel. I’m jealous as I sit in the recently refurbished guest house of Midori Takashima who is the director of the Kaminoseki Nature Conservation Association. But soon, we are working our way through a presentation of the endangered and specialist species which grace this part of the world. Everything from Gastropods to Ospreys call this area home.


The larger Seto inland sea has been largely destroyed or disrupted due to various development programmes including sand dredging and pollution. So this is - literally - the last port of call for species such as the finless porpoise (actually a small whale) and streaked shearwaters (their breeding grounds still unknown in the area). With all this at stake, it seems crazy that a proposal for a nuclear power plant should ever have been entertained - let alone allowed to break ground on construction. Yet that’s exactly what happened in 2010.


Casting a long shadow


Chagura power company began the laborious task of filling in a quiet bay with rubble and concrete. The site is home to a gastropod found nowhere else on earth, yet the construction is due to rip down a huge piece of the green hillsides of this peninsula, using this to back fill the inlet and to build at least one nuclear station on, if not two. It was a done deal; plans that had already been in the works for over 20 years after the Grandfather of the current prime minister of Japan had decided to use his connections in the area to create this political power station. Then the tragedy of Fukushima’s infamous meltdown struck and plans halted as the nation’s nuclear plans were rolled back.


Now, on paper, the plans still cast a long shadow across the area where they have already fractured the small fishing communities. For some of those sharing fishing grounds that are earmarked in the plans to become either intakes for cooling waters of the reactors or a dumping ground for the heated discharge (raising the bay’s temperatures by seven degrees centigrade), compensation has been offered: As much as £400,000 for each family member in some cases. A persuading argument to accept the proposal that accompanies the fact the villages are dying off as lack of opportunities and a shrinking population make life here less attractive.

However, there are those who remain vehemently opposed to the plans. And just as we hear from the experts, such as Nature Conservation Society of Japan, about the precious wildlife in the area, we also hear from those whose lives are intimately intertwined with the survival of those species.


One fisherman talks of his initial support of the power plant, thinking that the money would be a true windfall. In his fantasies, he began to spend it until he realised just what he’d be giving up. He has grandchildren now and knows their true inheritance won’t be the financial reward of the power company but the preservation of the waters which bring him an abundant catch of bream and octopus every week. Later that evening, he prepares a feast of the fish he and his friends have hauled from the waters here. I am usually vegetarian but this is a fishing town in Japan, so there’s no way of refusing this hospitality without causing offence and so soon, fresh sashimi, fried fish and vegetables festoon the table. The community members we meet live and love this area. They don’t want to live in the shadow of a potential disaster; they don’t want to watch as their mountains are pulled down to make hard standing or watch as their waters become uninhabitable.


An alternative to the nuclear proposal?


The following day we venture out onto those clear waters, spending time circling the islands where ospreys soar from hidden perches like crows from rooftops. I’ve never seen so many and I hear that conditions here are so favourable the birds here don’t leave for winter, instead spending their year here fishing, breeding and frolicking.


Knowing about the reintroduction attempts that are happening in my home town of Poole (UK), where earlier this year six osprey chicks died due to an extraordinary heatwave, in an effort to encourage breeding again, I know first-hand how precious they are. We pass by the proposed site for the power station: It’s abuzz with wildlife and we discuss alternative economies for the communities, peering through water visors into the crystal waters we can see seaweeds for bath products. Maybe this could be a lifeline, an alternative to a nuclear vision?


Later we disembark on a perfect beach and snorkel, watching fish dart into crevices where sea urchins sprout their black spines. I’m sure I even see a fugu pufferfish and the girls spout excitingly through their snorkels when they see signs of any life. It brings home just what is at stake.


As we leave later that day we are sun-blushed and glowing from the hospitality. That lingering sense of dread for the future area has been replaced, almost entirely, by the warmth of hospitality. However, I have to remember, this still swings in the balance and the threat has not abated...yet.



Boat trip Kaminoseki
Fishing boat in Kaminoseki

On paper, the plans to build one, maybe two nuclear power stations within this idyllic part of the Japanese coast still cast a long shadow across the area

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