Not Another Brick in the Seawall

In a beach village in Japan, surfers and scientists oppose a proposed seawall that would threaten an important coastal ecosystem.

“I saw all kinds of frogs and Habu snakes on the road, and heard lots of bird and insect sounds,” says Jean-Marc Takaki, a surfer and resident of Amami-Oshima, an island 1,300 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, describing his first impressions of the village of Katoku in the southeastern corner of the island. “But what I had a hard time believing is that, unlike all the other beach-villages in Amami (and Japan), it didn’t have a seawall. Instead, it had a dune and a thick layer of pandanus (screw pine shrub) vegetation.”

Katoku Beach on the Japanese island of Amami-Oshima is a dynamic ecosystem home to endangered species like the Amami black rabbit and Ishikawa’s frog. Developers are threatening this beach with a six-meter tall concrete seawall. All photos courtesy of ACARFCE.

Today, ten years after Takaki first visited Katoku, frogs and snakes continue to roam the island’s rainforest. The sound of birds and insects still bring the lush-green valley to life. But this biodiversity contrasts with the grunts of tractors and bulldozers.

The pandanus forest still stands — partially. In October 2014, a typhoon damaged the coast where a series of river diversion works had disrupted the natural sandbank. In response, the local government decided to replace the vegetation with sandbags, with plans to protect the coastline from further erosion by constructing a seawall. Katoku is one of the last coastal villages in Japan without a seawall. Now a $5.5 million, six-meter tall and 180-meter long concrete rampart threatens to change its future — unless surfers like Takaki can protect this unblemished coastline.

This scenario is yet another reflection of the Nipponese modus operandi. Japan has been promoting large-scale construction works like dams, harbors, tunnels, and seawalls since the 1950s, when the nation’s post-war development model promised a modernized economy through civil engineering projects. Amami-Oshima still falls within reach of the nation’s pro-development policies: The Special Measure Law for the Reconstruction of the Amami Islands, known as the Amashin Law, has allocated the same chunk (around 80 percent) of the island’s annual 30 billion yen (roughly $277 million) budget to civil engineering projects every year since the law was passed in 1954.

Takaki grew up in Paris. His yearly childhood trips to Japan’s beaches with family introduced him to surfing. During this time, he began to witness first-hand the repercussions of Japan’s “concrete addiction” and its impacts on the country’s coastal landscape, wildlife, and cultural identity.

“I used to love this beach called Takahama [in Kumamoto Prefecture],” he recalls. “I went there after more than eight months away. What I saw shocked me to the core. They were covering the beach in concrete, and there was not an inch of it left in front of the structure. Half of the beach length inside the bay was already gone and waves were dangerously hitting the concrete.”

For Takaki, finding a place like Katoku — a place so pristine it has been nicknamed “Jurassic Beach” — was a miracle. Takaki’s partner, Hisami Take, a former bodyboarding champion, also shares a passion for the ocean and surfing. She too, is sad and frustrated about the plan to build a three-story-high seawall on Amami-Oshima’s last non-concreted, accessible surf spot. Take grew up in Amami and lived through the byproducts of the Amashin Law. She recalls how elders talked about entire forests being cut down. The government “continued to build things it didn’t need and many of the islands’ original scenery disappeared,” she says.

Take also highlights how politicians lobby oft-improvident public works, guaranteeing jobs for locals and votes for themselves — consequently setting the pace for a collective detachment from the island’s ecology. “Amami became an island of construction as a result of reliance on public works,” says Take. “People involved in civil engineering have become a society where it is difficult to speak out about problems. Many are indifferent to local issues despite enjoying the wonderful nature of the island.”

In Amami-Oshima, politicians lobby oft-improvident public works, setting the pace for a collective detachment from the island’s ecology. “Amami became an island of construction as a result of reliance on public works,” says Take.

Since 2015, volunteers have organized press conferences, petitions, and restoration projects, including planting pandanus shoots and erecting signs urging the ecosystem’s protection (pictured).

For Takaki and other surfers, finding a place like Katoku — a place so pristine it has been nicknamed “Jurassic Beach” — was a miracle. The goal now is to reconnect people with Amami’s ecosystems, and protect this beach in the process.

In 2015, Takaki and Take set up the Association for the Conservation of Amami’s Forests, Rivers and Coastal Ecosystems (ACARFCE) to kickstart opposition to the seawall and other development projects. “I feel that people’s minds have changed in recent years when they have come to realize that the original form of nature has been lost,” says Take. “At ACARFCE, we would like to continue this initiative and create a place where each individual can speak and act and discuss future issues.”

Initially, Takaki and Take worked alone. Their first ally was Abe Mariko, a biologist from the Nature Conservation Society of Japan (NACS-J), who helped discontinue a government river diversion project in 2017. The team was later joined by five environmental lawyers from the Japan Environmental Lawyers Federation, who helped them mount a legal case against the Kagoshima Prefecture on the grounds of misappropriated public funds — and legitimize their cause in the eyes of the public.

Another key player is Giovanni Masucci, an Italian marine biologist who studies Japan’s coastal ecosystems at the University of the Ryukyus. Masucci has published studies on the relationship between coastal armoring and shrinking beaches, so ACARFCE invited him to Katoku to assess the situation. According to Masucci, a fundamental mistake when considering seawalls is thinking of beaches as fixed environments. Rather, beaches are dynamic environments that disappear, reappear, and expand with time. “If we fix the coastline with hard structures, the beach is not free to shift backwards or forward, and this leads, in many cases, to beach disappearance,” says Masucci, referring to a process known as passive erosion.

In Katoku, this type of erosion would be only one of the downsides with a seawall placed 10 meters seaward from the dune and near the river channel. According to a study on the impacts of coastal armoring, this type of seawall could also cause the loss of sand supply from neighboring rivers, reduction of beach access, and active erosion. Masucci explains that if the communication between the dune and seaward area of the beach is interrupted, the beach “shrinks until it’s not there anymore, which can be detrimental to those marine creatures that depend on the beach.”

In other words, the seawall threatens endemic and endangered species like the Amami black rabbit and the Ishikawa’s frog. It will also impede the local sea turtle population, which returns to the beach each year to lay eggs. The critically endangered West Pacific leatherback has chosen Katoku as its sole breeding ground in Japan.

Since 2015, Takaki, Take, and their team have organized press conferences, symposiums, a petition campaign (with currently over 30,000 signatories). They have submitted reports by NACS-J and other local associations, as well as by independent scientists and researchers. ACARFCE now consists of 4 member-plaintiffs, 9 environmental lawyers, and several volunteers who carry out bimonthly beach surveys and restoration projects, including planting pandanus shoots. “The idea is to help nature recover quickly and do as the people of Amami have traditionally done in times past for erosion control and to block winds, sandblasts, and sea spray during typhoons,” Takaki says.

In August 2020, the team at ACARFCE had a court hearing in Kagoshima City, where the lawyers presented a 50-page report and talked about the negligence of the seawall project. The report debunked a claim by the prefecture that the structure would protect the village from erosion, which is a prerequisite for disaster prevention and erosion control public works projects. According to data dating back to 1946, however, there has been no sign or evidence of the village ever being in danger. A consulting firm hired by the prefecture had used outdated land survey information, asserting that the village was five meters above sea level — and thus susceptible to tsunami action — whereas most houses lay at seven to ten meters.

Even in light of these findings, there has been no discussion on the potential impacts of climate change because, as Takaki points out, “there is zero long-term vision.” Nevertheless, it is a well-known fact among scientists (and one of ACARFCE main arguments) that, in face of sea level rise, concrete structures block the sand and dunes from receding inland, thus leading to beach disappearance and infrastructure damage, whereas natural modes of defense like planting pandanus trees allow the beach to flow naturally, adapting to sea action as opposed to fighting it.

“During the trial, the prefecture had no answer to the arguments we provided the court,” Takaki wrote on a summary of the hearing. “They asked for three more months to come up with counter-arguments. However, the judge did not issue any court order to stop the construction while the prefecture attempts to justify its claims and refute our science-based analysis.”

The judge granted the prefecture more time at a second hearing in November. ACARFCE is preparing new documents for the next hearing, scheduled for February. In the meantime, construction continues at a fast pace at two sites along the Katoku River, one of which borders an area that’s currently a candidate to become a World Natural Heritage zone. According to Takaki, construction activity has already likely leveled rich habitats for frogs and newts.

Meanwhile, Takaki and Take hope that, rather than the hand-picked committee established by the prefecture, there will be a new platform created for discussion that includes key figures in beach science as well as stakeholders in the preservation and future of Katoku. After all, the symbolic value Katoku holds in being the last beach hamlet in Japan without a seawall also represents a potential turning point in the country’s coastal management policies atavistic to the 1950s. Perhaps then, by shortening the distance between local people and local problems, more citizens will be encouraged to take matters into their own hands, which in the case of Katoku could be a defining act to stop it from becoming another brick in the wall.

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