Tide Change in Saga, Japan

Coastal defenses in Western Japan were threatened in late August by a ferocious storm, typhoon no. 16, that happened to coincide with the highest tide of the year. At the same time, a remarkable judgment, more startling and possibly more devastating than the typhoon, emerged from a court in Saga in Kyushu. The tide of Japan‘s civil society protest against the corruption, waste, and destruction wrought in the name of “public works” has long been rising. It is here that flotillas of hundreds of fishing boats have from time to time blockaded the government’s reclamation works at Isahaya Bay, drums beating and flags flying as in the righteous uprisings of feudal times, till now always beaten back by the authorities. This unexpected judicial intervention had the potential to raise the tide to the point of threatening, or even breaching, the dikes surrounding Japan‘s infamous construction state (or doken kokka).


Accepting the arguments of a group of local fishermen, the Saga District Court criticized the national government for not implementing the medium and long-term reviews prescribed by a committee it had itself appointed, overruled the objections of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, and ordered the Isahaya Tidal Wetlands Reclamation works suspended pending a review of the whole project, even though by then it was 90 percent complete.1 The final outcome remains impossible to predict. The national government announced that it would appeal against the Saga court’s decision. Still, no Japanese court had ever before issued an explicit “stop” order on a government-directed public works project. The bureaucrats, politicians and construction companies that together make up the “iron triangle” of the “construction state” were at last on the defensive.


The Isahaya Tidal Wetlands Reclamation project represents in concentrated form the essence of the construction state, the developmental state that helped drive Japan‘s economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s but then contributed to its implosion in the 1990s and still has the power to impose economically irrational and environmentally devastating projects.2 Despite Prime Minister Koizumi’s often-reiterated promise since he took office in April 2001 to “reform without sanctuaries,” it seems that no sanctuary is more sacred than that of the construction state. No project has been more characteristic of the construction state and more contentious than Isahaya, yet till 26 August none had seemed more impervious to criticism or more impossible to block.


The bay is the largest wetland component of the Ariake Sea and the most important surviving tidal wetland in Japan. Its shallow expanse is swept by a five to eight meter tide, and its silt, rich in nutrients, small organisms and oxygen, is constantly replenished by the flow of nutrient from adjacent rivers and circulated by intense marine activity.3 Such mudflat sites lack the dramatic beauty of the coral reef or the tropical forest, yet rival them in biodiversity. Life itself, in its myriad higher forms, is sometimes thought to have originated in just such primeval slime. The nitrogen and phosphate of rotting and decaying marine life but also of household waste, sewage and other detritus, is broken down, eutriphication suppressed, and new life created in the form of micro algae or benthic microorganisms, which are in turn then eaten by other tiny creatures such as lugworms, which in turn are food for larger creatures such as crabs, shellfish and mudskippers, upon which humans, at the top of the food chain, could then feast. Such sites are precious. Isahaya came to be known among fishermen as the “womb” or “cradle” of the Ariake Sea.


The bay used to teem with fish. Fishermen, and local residents, from children to old folk, skated over its muddy surface on wooden sleds, occasionally dipping their arms into the mud to pull out shellfish, eels, seaweed or fish, including many unique species and sub-species. Most remarkable of the 200 varieties of fish that inhabited the Bay is the bulging-eyed mutsugoro or “mudskipper,” a local variety of goby. The mutsugoro buries itself deep in the mud to hibernate during winter months, not stirring until April, and its English name derives from its habit of “surfing” along the mud with the receding tide. There are also forty-two kinds of shrimp, ninety-six of crab, three of octopus, two hundred and fourteen of shellfish, and at least three hundred different kinds of benthos (flora and fauna of the sea bottom), including some unknown till a 1994-6 survey, and eighty different kinds of lug-worm, many of them too previously unknown.4 A single square kilometer of tidal wetlands can produce 22.6 tons of fish-shellfish/year.5 Alternatively, all life-forms included, it can sustain a maximum of four kilograms of biota to each cubic meter of water, which places it on a par with coral reef.6 For migratory shore birds that breed in Siberia or Alaska, Isahaya is the sole stopping point for feeding and rest on the long flight to winter in South China, Southeast Asia, Australia, or New Zealand. The Showa Emperor, Hirohito, himself a marine biologist, once wrote a poem expressing the sentiment that it would be nice if somehow the myriad creatures of the Ariake Sea could be protected from the wave of development.7 It is a plea to which, until the judgment on 26 August, the Japanese state had turned deaf ears.


The idea of draining and reclaiming the bay was born more than a half century ago, with grandiose visions of blocking off the sea at its mouth, which is about 12 kms across, and reclaiming the whole expanse, which is roughly 17 kms deep and 76.6 kms2 in area. It looked easy enough to do. The plan, however, has had three distinct rationales, successively promoted or abandoned at bureaucratic whim while only one fundamental principle has stood firm: that the work would be done.


The first detailed plan was simply to build a huge dike and drain the whole of the bay, to create a vast stretch of new farmland.8 That idea, however, was blocked by fishermen, and it lost bureaucratic favor as the design for Japanese agriculture itself underwent drastic change, a mountain of surplus rice grew, and farmers were pressed to take their rice fields out of production. This plan was abandoned in 1970. The lands would still be created, but only as a by-product, so to speak, rather than as principal purpose of the reclamation.


In slightly different guise, the plan next was promoted as the “Comprehensive Regional Development Plan for Southern Nagasaki,” its rationale transformed into “multi-purpose,” but with especial weight attaching to the provision of fresh water for industrial and urban consumption. In 1982, this second version too was cancelled. The creation of large quantities of water for industry made no sense both because there was no such demand (as high-growth tapered off and grandiose regional industrialization plans collapsed) and because the continual flow of household wastewater turned the “freshwater” reservoir into a polluted pond whose quality was well below the level required for licensing for irrigation.

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