Nagoya Writes

February 14, 2008

Death of a Tidal Flat by Ian Harnett

Filed under: Harnett,Issue: 2004,Prose — usbengoshi @ 4:32 pm

It began with an email from a stranger. ‘The sluice gates have just been shut at Isahaya Bay. Alert the World,’ it read. In the Japan Times the next day I saw the dramatic photograph of the sluice gates dropping like a guillotine across the mouth of Isahaya Bay. Then I saw the replays of the sluice closure on the televison news, the massive gates rattling shut like falling dominos in a demonstration of mighty industrial power. The stranger’s email was sent on. It was April 1997. I was in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, on the main island of Honshu, Central Japan. Isahaya Bay is on the southern coast of the southern island of Kyushu on the shores of the Ariake Sea. I was working at three universities, finishing a Ph. D., had a full schedule working with local environmental groups, and had very little money. There was no chance that I would become involved in the struggle to save Isahaya Bay.

The sight of the falling sluice gates sealing off Isahaya Bay from the Ariake Sea was shocking. Japan was a signatory to the RAMSAR Convention, an international convention protecting tidal flats of international significance in relation to the survival and sustenance of migratory birds, and had hosted the last RAMSAR conference in Hokkaido, 1994. Isahaya Bay was a rich fishing and shellfish resource yet the mighty dam to destroy it had been commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries. And shortly, in June 1997, the Bureau of International Exhibitions would be meeting in Monaco to vote on which country and city would be hosting the 2005 World Exposition, the first ‘Expo’ to be devoted to environmental protection. Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, was competing with Calgary, Canada, for the right to provide a showcase to the world of ecological models of sustainable development for the 21sst century.

It was Spring. Isahaya Bay, the first of the great tidal flats in the chain of tidal flats that carry migratory birds from the Southern hemisphere through Japan to Northern China, Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and the Arctic Circle; the jewel in the biological crown, the greatest, loveliest, and most precious of the remaining tidal flats in Japan, would not bewelcoming the world’s incoming flights of migratory birds this year, or the next year.

Most of the great tidal flats in Japan had already been virtually destroyed, Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo. I wrote to the BIE, Bureau of International Exhibitions, in Paris pointing out that the closure of the sluice gates at Isahaya Bay by the Japanese Government violated the principles of the 2005 World Expo. I also wrote to the RAMSAR Bureau in Switzerland.

At the Fujimae Festival of April 1997, I wandered away east from the tents, the music, and the viewing telescopes towards Highway 23. The Save Fujimae Association holds two festivals each year, one in spring to welcome migratory birds to Nagoya and one in autumn to say farewell. In a city of 2.2 million people and a prefecture of 6.7 million people, about 300 turn up to each festival, usually bird enthusiasts, camera enthusiasts, and young families. The festival is coordinated to tidal movements. After the birds have finished foraging behind the retreating tide, festival goers have the opportunity to walk out onto the tidal flat. For many Japanese children in Aichi, the tidal flat of Fujimae provides one of the few chances they will ever have to experience bare feet out in the natural world and to feel the caress of soft, velvet mud oozing around their ankles in a sensuous embrace.

A large wall of concrete jackthorns are piled in a tumble along the eastern edge of Fujimae. Their alleged function is storm protection from sea surge. Behind the concrete tripod thorn wall, the detritus and debris of modern Japanse industrial society collects, a thick litter several hundred metres long of plastics, polystyrenes, and resins. If it is sold in a shop or a supermarket, or is in a house in Japan, a sample of the selling or buying mania will be washed up here selected, sorted, and sieved by the tidal forces. Bottles, baskets, baseballs, basketballs, ropes, lunch-boxes, school bags, shoes — a fossil bed of consumer society, a type of modern midden in the making.

I stood beneath Highway 23 beyond the tripod thorn wall looking back towards the festival framed by the Nagoya Incinerator and its stacks. Nagoya and Aichi politicians are fully commited to making Fujimae tidal flat the dumping ground for ash residue from the Nagoya Incinerator. The struggle to save Fujimae has been running for about ten years. I have been involved for more than five years. Fujimae is the last remnant of viable tidal flat remaining in Nagoya. Once far from land, this viable remnant of tidal flat is now far inland embedded and lost in a circuit board of industrial madness.

Matsuo Basho, in The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton, returning from Kyoto in 1684 to his broken home on the river Sumida, Edo, now Tokyo, journeyed by boat between Kuwana in Mie prefecture and Atsuta Shrine in Aichi prefecture. At that time Atsuta Shrine, the shrine of the Kusanagi sword , one of the three sacred Shinto treasures of Japan, was situated on the seaside on the edge of a vast expanse of tidal flat. It had been reduced to utter ruins. Now, fully restored, it lay far inland from Fujimae. I could be standing on the spot over which Basho sailed more than 300 years ago.

Suddenly, from Nowhere a voice commanded me to go to Isahaya Bay. Startled, I look around. I am completely alone save for a pair of whimbrels feeding in the distance. ‘Go to Isahaya Bay’ the voice commands again. Stories of Jean of Arc, Dick Whittington, and the Children of Lourdes flash through my mind. This is ridiculous. Feeling foolish I answer that Isahaya Bay is too far, I have neither the time nor the money. ‘Go to Isahaya Bay’ the voice commands again for the third time completely oblivious to my reasoning and situation.

Behind me on Highway 23 a noisy metal phalanx of trucks roars like never-ending thunder. Transecting Fujimae Bay, narrow and overcrowded, Highway 23 is one of the main arterial routes from Aichi prefecture to Mie prefecture. In front of me pollution of burning garbage pours steadily from the smoke stacks of the Nagoya Incinerator. Perhaps it is Basho speaking to me. Suddenly, as if devoured by a hallucinatory nightmare I see thousands of crabs all waving their claws at me in unison and crying in English ‘Go to Isahaya Bay.’

From the base of Highway 23 a broad, gently sloping platform of concrete extends out into Fujimae Bay where it is covered by a thin film of mud. In the heat of the Spring sun, the crabs, unable to burrow deeper, have surfaced to cool themselves by waving their claws. English-speaking Japanese crabs are an unlikely hallucination. But for an instant I have comprehended the full horror of Isahaya Bay.

The next week passes in a flurry. I begin rising at 4.30 am every day and work through until after midnight, often having breakfast in the afternoon, a habit that will last for years, to write letters to The Honourable Takao Fujimoto, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, the President of the BIE, the Secretary-General of the RAMSAR Bureau, the Governor of Aichi, the Mayor of Nagoya, and to the Ambassadors and Consulates in Japan of countries affiliated to the BIE and the RAMSAR Bureau. It is a mammoth undertaking.

Thursday, 8 May 1997, I had a 3.30 am awakening, left a woman sleeping, walked home in a light rain through quiet Nagoya streets, placed video camera batteries on charge, house-cleaned, washed clothes, sent four emails, packed camera bag, hat, sunscreen. As I was walking out the door to go to work the telephone rang. It was Maggie Suzuki, one of Japan’s leading foreign environmentalist activists, responding to an email. She gave me directions on how to find Isahaya Bay.

4.30 pm, the Meitetsu bus from Kurogawa drops me off at Komaki, Nagoya’s Airport. I check in at the ANA flight desk for the Nagoya-Nagasaki flight. The terminal is crowded thick with the cigarette smoke of businessmen who talk constantly into their mobile telephones. Happy electronic people on TV consoles laugh contentedly, chirping excitedly like birds over cup noodles in polystyrene containers. Loudspeakers announce ‘We apologize for the delay in departure and we hope that it has not cost you too much inconvenience.’ All flights are being delayed eight years before EXPO 2005. The delay in the flight pumps the economy as people crowd the cigarette and coffee vending machines.

Exiting Nagasaki Airport in the rain, bus stop no. 2 and 570 yen take me to Isahaya City. The bus driver is apologetic. There will be a delay. A Buddhist stupa on a hill glides past on the right. Pachinko parlours, Fun Clubs, Komeda coffee shops, all glide past in the cool damp evening of 8 May 1997.

A taxi delivers me, a stranger, to the house on the hill of Yamashita, the President of JAWAN (Japan Wetlands Action Network). I climb the twenty-three steps of no.. 58 ONO 11000-15 and enter the Council Meeting of Volunteers fighting to save the dying tidal flat. The Persian carpet is red and faded. Books, microscopes, specimen bottles, cassettes, floppies, and maps line the walls. Born in Nagasaki in 1934, trained as a biologist, organiser of the protests against the berthing of the USS Enterprise at Sasebo in defence of the Japanese Constitution written by the Americans, Yamashita at the age of sixty-three is now engaged in the biggest political fight of his life, the survival of 3,000 hectares of tidal flat at Isahaya Bay. The telephone rings constantly, fax machines chatter, volunteers drop in food, drinks, money, information. This is the command centre for the fight to save Japan’s most beautiful tidal flat which I can sense lies somewhere outside in the damp darkness.

Tominaga, photographer and writer, gives me a signed copy of his book, The Ariake Sea. I see my first Mutsugoro, a mudskipper, in black and white staring at me from the pages. I sleep the night at the house of Murayama, ecologist, marine biologist, curator of the town museum of Moriyama on the shores of Tachibana Bay. Murayama, born in Chiba near Tokyo, is an expert on benthos, marine snails, seaworms and bivalves. He is adamant that the gates must be opened rapidly before the environment and the local culture of tidal flats, estuaries, and ocean are lost in Isahaya Bay. All the marine scientists at at the Amakusa Marine Biology Laboratory, he informs me, are against the reclamation of Isahaya Bay. We stop for him to show me fireflies. Once there were myriads. Now their numbers are few. We see three.

Friday, 9 May 1997, I wake in the morning with a red crab sleeping beside me on the futon in the house of Murayama, ecologist. A normal impulse might have been to grab one of the large books on the tatami to pound the crab to a pulp. One such book would have been Aquatic Insect Ecology (1) Biology and Habitat by J. S. Ward published by John Wiley and Sons (1992), the other might have been Our Ecology, Individuals, Populations, and Communities by Begon, Harper, and Townsend by Blackwell Scientific Publications (1986). Assuming the crab had escaped from a specimen holding tank before being placed in a pickling jar I place the crab in a bowl of water plotting to help it escape to the sea. Instantly, the crab became an alert machine of an incredibly intricate design.

Tachibana Bay lies a few hundred metres away through the forest. Murayama, ecologist and marine biologist, proudly shows me Tachibana Bay. It is an open beach with a steep, boulder foreshore. White fishing boats dot and dance like daisies upon the open blue sea. The Amakusa Marine Biology Laboratory is on the blue horizon. The red forest crab only returns to the sea for larvae, Murayama informs me. Forest-dwelling crabs are a new and unbelievable concept for me. I instantly fall in love with ‘Sarawagani.’ My sleeping companion has not escaped from a specimen holding tank but has wandered into the house from the forest like an ant or housefly or lizard or frog or rat. The next night we will return the red crab to the forest.

On the way to the meeting spot with Yamashita we pass a small flatland growing potatoes and being mined for peat. Two hundred years ago it was still ponds. Now there are only springs there. Before it was a lake. It used to harbour a fleet of small fishing boats. Six thousand years ago it was open sea.

The early rice is turning golden in the mid-morning May sun as we approach the edge of Isahaya Bay. All this was once tidal flat. Reclamation has been occurring here for centuries. The original coastline is easy to trace out against the base of the snaking mountains. I estimate that between 50,000 and 100,000 hectares of tidal flat have vanished during the past three centuries. We stop at a former dyke system built thirty years ago. People leap from their cars with cameras for a quick urgent briefing. Professor Tokuoka of Shimane University is there with his students. On the far horizon a long line of mechanical cranes work along the wall of death. A Hi-ace van pulls up full of young people. The wind tears the cap from my head. The van departs. Volunteers or ghouls, who can say?

On the dying 3,000 hectare flat a feeding white egret flutters away from the expanding realm of death. Small boats lie trapped in the mud. A sharp sea breeze flows inwards tugging at my cap which protects me against the UV rays. Women wander out onto the tidal flat with baskets to gather shellfish for the last time. I sense this is the end of the Neolithic. A crow flaps by. The wind flutters and flutters against my face like the flags flutter in Nagoya proudly proclaiming the EXPO 2005, one of the greatest lies on Earth. I see my first Mutsogoro. It peers at me from its burrow in the mud with large eyes asking me why the tide is not returning.

We stop briefly beside a small ancient shrine on a small hill beside the dying tidal flat. I climb the hill to the little stone shrine to find two turtle shells pecked clean by the crows at the base of the shrine overlooking the dying tidal flat.

I walk out onto the tidal flat. Already the green and yellow moulds and fungi of death are spreading out across the velvet mud and seeds are settling and germinating. Everywhere sea life is scurrying from pool to pool or from burrow to burrow waiting for the sea to return. I know I have seen this scene before. In the Cambrian sandstone mountains of the Flinders, South Australia, 550 million years ago, the eroding strata record the advance and retreat of sand and mud and in the mud are recorded the wriggles of early worm organisms. Overhead, the sun blazes down upon the former seabed like ten thousand suns, evoking heat of the nuclear warhead over Nagasaki fifty-two years before. I am witness to a massive slaughter of marine life in Isahaya Bay, a slaughter organized by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forest, and Fisheries.

Saturday,10 May 1997, Murayama and I drive to Nagasaki Airport. He is off to Tokyo for a wedding. We drive past the former sea, once a lake, then lagoons, and now a potato and peat mine. A pheasant stands in a rice field. ‘Male’ says Murayama. ‘There are four species living around here. This road has three male pheasant territories.’

A hare exits the forest and begins to loop ungainly along the white dotted line of the highway in front of our car. Kilometres pass, zig-zagging from left to right the hare is unable to break from the fatal attraction of the white dotted line. Two women out for an early May morning stroll look up in surprise as the hare loops by, visibly fatigued in front of our slow rolling car. Each corner we approach we expect an oncoming car to transform the hare into pulp. But it is early and we meet no opposing traffic. The hare runs on and on like the Japanese economy unable to deviate from the white dotted line. Finally, a car approaches, stops. Murayama stops. Trapped between two opposing forces the hare is knocked from its attractor path into the forest from which it had emerged many kilometres before.

Leaving the forest behind us we drive over former tidal flats. Pachinko Parlours, Panasonic, Mistubishi, Honda, Nissan, Suzuki, Mos Burgers, Joy Fun restaurants, and coffee shops reign here now instead of fish, mudskippers, crabs, worms, and seabirds. At Washizaki village, near the Foggy Villa, hundreds of crows, mostly juveniles, line the powerlines. ‘The news of the feast at Isahaya Bay hasn’t reached the crows of Washizaki,’ I think to myself. In the waiting lounge the flight board is advising ‘Now Check In.’ On the large JVN entertainment screen an evil electronic crow raucously claws at electronic sheep grazing like daisies strewn across electronic grass. The farmer looks on helplessly but suddenly he has the crow by the neck and an electronic tear falls from the digital eye of the digital crow. The sheep graze on.

I board ANA flight 372, the 9:40 AM flight from Nagasaki to Nagoya, with mud encrusted shoes and a backpack with meshi, two copies of The Ariake Sea, two turtle shells, exhausted video camera batteries, and three cassettes, and sink into the blue and white seat. The flight climbs steadily into the petrochemical haze over the Nagasaki Peninsula. The sea shimmers golden below me as if covered in a fine gossamer fabric broken here and there by rivers and rivulets of blue. Massive General Electric motors thrust ANA flight 372 towards Nagoya on a petrochemical trail of power. On the in-flight screen a man tees up confidently on a green swath cut through a forest. His legs twist with professional ease, the club strikes the daisy white ball which then sails towards banners fluttering brightly over a hole in a green. The daisy white ball stops short of a sand bunker. Again his legs twist with professional ease, the club strikes the daisy which sails away in a beautiful parabola. He strides confidently into the future towards the Japanese flag which flutters above the hole in a green. Below us Isahaya Bay is dying and on ANA flight 372 an electronic golf buggy and a white digital daisy ball rolls on and on.

I remove my mud-stained Born to Win Road Racer cap. A sand buggy driven by a helmeted, goggled, confident driver looms into view over the sand where cactus poles spear into the sky like needles. Honda Clio, the Legend, races down the electronic highway. Nomo pitches for the Dodgers. A blue and white hostess offers me sweets. A Shakespearean gentleman from Tudor England laughs merrily on the the inflight screen. A human chain of dancers glide across the floor. A woman happily shopping buys a leopard skin hat on a fabulous shopping holiday in merry olde England. An English taxi carries her towards a shopping mecca.

Bacon, Halley, Darwin, Faraday, Maxwell, Marconi, Whipple: why were you born at all? Better that you had been untimely ripped from your mothers’ wombs than to have given birth to ANA flight 372 Nagasaki to Nagoya on a bright May morning in 1997. The English taxi drives past the Tower Bridge. Oh More, oh Catholic martyrs, why did your heads turn upon the pikes crawling with flies as your lips turned thick in the sun and your brains and brilliant minds melted into glue? Better that you had sung and danced in the taverns of merry olde England than had given birth to flight 372. Now, in the mirror the woman tries her leopard skin hat on again. The laughing salesman with the jester hat grins and grins. She pulls another dress from the rack. The red London buses carry her away.

Flight 372 banks turning on a landing approach for Nagoya. The petrochemical haze is thickening outside the window. Fields as beautiful as fresh green tatami, factories, expressways, concrete rivers, small remnants of forest, driving schools, golf ranges, baseball fields, pachinko parlours unfold like an integrated circuit through the heat island haze. At 11:15 am I am at a Meitetsu bus stop. Meitetsu buses, red and white, throb by pounding out diesel fumes, proudly bearing the banners bright of EXPO 2005. A garbage truck disappears around the corner. A blue and white helicopter chatters overhead. A cool Nagoya May morning breeze kisses my face as gentle as the fingers of a woman in love.

My journey is not done. At 12 midday on 10 May 1997, I pass through the wicket of Kurogawa station and enter the black river of Nagoya’s underground. I am tiring. I focus on the magic number three, one blue backpack, one grey camera bag, one sheet of paper inside my left pocket bearing the name of my destination. How trivial printing out the address from Tsuji-san’s email message from seemed on 8 May 1997. How important it is now. The train sighs to a halt. The doors open with a whoosh. I have arrived at Takabata station.

Crossing the Shonai, a muddy brown river in May, my blood runs cold. I have invited forty RAMSAR and Bureau Of International Exhibitions’ ambassadors and consuls to attend this Public Hearing to save the Fujimae tidal flat. I exit the taxi wearing the harmless smile of a simpleton and am directed by two men with yellow ribbons towards the Public Hearing. Casually scanning the surroundings I see two burly men with punch perms under the shade of a tree. One wears a shirt with an emblazoned tiger. I recall seeing the Tiger Pachinko parlour at the Isahaya bus station. Inside, on the wall of the foyer of the Public Building hangs the shell of a large turtle. I hear my friends call my name.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] day I saw the dramatic photograph of the sluice gates dropping like a guillotine across the mouth ofhttps://nagoyawrites.wordpress.com/2008/02/14/death-of-a-tidal-flat-by-ian-harnett/Read “Re: Escape from Ironheart (IC)” at Gamma Forum… the top to go plunging into the endless […]

    Pingback by worm climbs a wall 2 feet — July 12, 2008 @ 9:28 am | Reply


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