Saturday, March 19, 2011


When I was fifteen, my mother and I decided that living overseas might be the best thing for me, a high school girl tired of the American high school ways. Rotary was kind enough to take me on as an exchange student from the state of Oregon and with the promise that I wouldn’t be “loud,” I was allowed to attend an all girls’ high school in Sendai—Miyagi prefecture’s Third Girls’ High School. I’d requested Japan as my host country because I wanted to live near the sea.

Sure enough, from a window of my first host family’s home, I could strain my neck and (with a telescope!) see the sea. I looked forward to going to the nearby Matsushima, ranked as one of Japan’s “three great views.” Matsushima is comprised of about 260 tiny islands, some of them barely big enough to hold a pine tree.

Matsuo Basho made the Matsushima islands famous through his haiku poem in his Narrow Road to the Deep North (1689). Upon seeing the islands, he claimed to be unable to do anything but repeat the place name:

Oh Matsushima! Matsushima ya
Ah Matsushima! Aa Matsushima ya
Oh Matsushima! Matsushima ya

But the islands, it was reported yesterday, have not remained unscathed. Parts of islands have fallen into the sea. One of the larger five meter arches famous with tourists for the belief that by traveling through it your life will extend by three years, is gone. The smaller islands near it have disappeared. Parts of missing islands have been spotted elsewhere. Kokeshi Island named for the hand-painted armless wooden dolls of Sendai is a quarter of its size. A cynical Japanese blogger suggests that the islands' new shape is only bad news for the tourist industry. Another suggests that the islands can be renamed for their new shapes.

And yet, some of the islands with their sturdy pine trees held tight through the tsunami with their tree roots gripping the earth for all they were worth, tree roots like tough little knuckles popping out of rocky protrusions.

The worst news is that some of the islands are strewn with the tools of aquaculture. An island popular with tourists, Niojima, is wound with one of the many nets from the aquacultural industry loosed by the tsunami. Nets and buoys from the seaweed (nori) aquaculture are caught on the islands.

The beauty of Japan's coastline is at stake not for the damage of the tsunami to nature, but for what humans will do to the remaining natural landscape in its wake. Japan's northeastern coastline is both beautiful and horribly over-engineered. Japan, perhaps understandably, is bound and determined to already begin rebuilding in the wake of the tsunami to assert national control over a devastating disaster. I hope that this time the coastlines, the beautiful sea rocks, the blue of the warm sea can remain unscathed by human development. I hope they don’t rebuild. At least not too close to the sea. Let’s leave the beaches for the shellfish, for the sea urchin, the abalone, the sea cucumber, the surfers, the beachcombers. We're all in this together.