The sea, food and local identity on the Fukushima coast

For nearly all of January I was in Japan, where I was based at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology as a Visiting Researcher. When we put together our ESRC UK-Japan Social Science and Humanities Connections proposal last year, one of the activities we proposed was that I would have a visiting position at TUMSAT. The thinking was that this would give me space and time to get to know researchers from across the university, and also to make connections with other organisations in Japan, so that we have the relationships in place for inter- and transdisciplinary research projects as and when funding calls come up in the future. As part of this, with my collaborators and with my PhD student Yi-Chen Huang – who also took up a Visiting Researcher position at TUMSAT – we did some site visits to coastal communities in Hokkaido and Fukushima.

Now, it is no big secret that one of the perks of doing marine social science research in Japan is that you get to travel to places that serve delicious seafood and produce grown in the coastal zone. But during this visit, I learned much more about the role that food – and especially the places it is consumed – have in re-establishing and/or sustaining resilient coastal communities in Fukushima. So in this post I’d like to talk about some of the places I went on the Fukushima coast and what I learned when I was there.

TAIRA

Taira is the name given to the central, more urbanised part of Iwaki City on the south Fukushima coast. It has been two years since I last came to Iwaki, and three since I went inland to Taira. What is really noticeable now is the number of shops and restaurants proudly flying the white, red and blue flags which mean they sell Joban-Mono, or locally-caught fish. Since fisheries were resumed in Iwaki on a trial basis, the municipal government (with the support of the prefectural government) has been developing the Joban-Mono brand emphasising the quality of Iwaki seafood. There is a very strong effort here to link the catching and eating of fish with the local identity of Iwaki. Some of their most famous produce include mehikari (round greeneye); bonito; and Pacific saury.

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WAKA AND THE YOAKE ICHIBA

Of course, we need somewhere to eat Iwaki seafood. Restaurants trading in local produce have become focal points for the community along the Fukushima coast. One such gathering point is the Yoake Ichiba (evening market) in front of Iwaki station, and in particular the Waka bar. It was thanks to a previous visit to Waka in 2017 that I learned how interconnected everyone on the Fukushima coast is, when fellow patrons spread news of a Scottish researcher studying Iwaki fisheries across social media like wildfire (a story that has since become a staple of my research ethics teaching). This time I was able to try grilled greeneye, and also had a good conversation with the owner about the stringent monitoring and screening processes she has to go through to be able to serve a wide array of vegetables – which she grows in her own garden – to customers.

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TSUKIMITEI

Tsukimitei is a cafe and space located in Nakanosaku fishing port, one of a number of tiny harbours along the southern Fukushima coast. An empty building on the hillside overlooking the harbour and out to the northwest Pacific ocean has been renovated and repurposed as a café, with a small field next door in which vegetables are grown. A crucial challenge has been to bring life, energy and especially youth back to places which were hit by the 2011 tsunami, and there are a number of community organisations – like the not-for-profit Nakanosaku Project, who manage Tsukimitei – trying various strategies to revitalise local communities. Nakanosaku is a little bit out of the way if you don’t have a car, taking a 40-minute bus ride from central Iwaki to reach, but judging by how busy the place was on a weekday the Tsukimitei initiative is certainly succeeding in bringing people to this quiet little fishing port.

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NARAHA

20200126_123253Something that has really struck me, in both my field visits to coastal Fukushima and also my interactions with people online, is just how important the performance of consuming food is to local citizens as a marker of pride, identity and recovery following the 2011 disasters. This is especially so in areas which were more heavily affected by radioactive contamination, such as Naraha Town. Naraha was subject to an evacuation order from 2011 to 2015, but since the evacuation order was lifted a number of local eateries have popped up. While there I was taken to the Windy Land ice cream shop, so called because Naraha’s geography means the winds is always strong, and fed (twice) by Toki-san, a local legend who has gathered fame through her regular cookery slots on YouTube. As above, what is striking is how local citizens – and also supporters of recovery from further afield – have harnessed social media to create positive impressions of the locality based on food.

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Toki’s breakfast, Naraha

NAMIE YAKISOBA AND UKEDON

One interesting point about the Fukushima coast is that the central Fukushima coast – Futaba County – has a far less intimate relationship with the sea than Iwaki to the south and Soma to the north. This is not just because of the nuclear accident, either. The coastline around here is more rugged with cliffs, meaning there are fewer fishing ports and thus less of a connection with the sea. Nonetheless, Namie Town does have Ukedo Fishing Port, which has been completely reconstructed since the tsunami. Ukedo also gives its name to Ukedon, a cartoon version of fish and fish eggs in a rice bowl who acts as Namie’s town mascot. After the evacuation order was lifted (in Namie’s case, this was spring 2017), one of the first priorities was again to get the local food going again. Accordingly, at the tiny Machi Nami Marche arcade, officials from the adjacent local government office and contractors on their way to and from the nuclear plant flock to devour Namie’s famous yakisoba fried noodles. As a Scot, I was somehow comforted and reassured by how unhealthy these are.

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Namie Yakisoba (large portion)

It has become apparent to me that the consumption of food has become a big part of residents’ attempts to ‘bounce forwards’ and reestablish a sense of resilience since 2011. I don’t think this is just about a desire to demonstrate local produce is safe, either. Rather, the places where people gather to eat – like Waka – act as focal points where people can look out for each other and keep in touch. In the case of places which have been evacuated or more severely disrupted, spaces and practices of eating and drinking also help to reconnect people in the absence or limitation of more formal instances for interaction. Lastly, with the strong marine identity that many places on the Fukushima coast have, revitalisation of fisheries can perhaps come to stand for revitalisation of local coastal communities and societies more widely against a continuing backdrop of social and economic change.

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Trawler in Onahama, Iwaki

My visit to TUMSAT was supported by Economic and Social Research Council-Arts and Humanities Research Council UK-Japan Social Sciences and Humanities Connections Grant ES/S013296/1, ‘Building social resilience to environmental change in marginalised coastal communities.’ 

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