April 30, 2004



Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.20 (April 2004)
"Initiatives and Achievements of Local Governments in Japan" Article Series No.5

Natural sandy beaches have been steadily disappearing in Japan. This is mainly because of a decreasing natural supply of soil and sand from the inland to the coast due to the construction of dams, wavebreaks and breakwaters. With embankments built to prevent disasters from tsunamis and abnormally high tides, many shores have been covered with numerous concrete blocks.

At the end of 2003, however, a small town in the Tohoku region, in the northern part of Japan, successfully restored its shoreline to its scenic original conditions. This was the result of the efforts of a group of locals who started to patiently listen to other citizens' views, which eventually led to the shoreline restoration, through many repeated attempts.

The Start was the Squid Culture Forum in Ohata

Ohata Town in Aomori Prefecture is a small town facing the Tsugaru Strait on the northern shore of the Shimokita Peninsula at the north end of Honshu, the main island of Japan. The town has a population of about 9,700 and 95% of the town's land area is covered in forests of the Osore and other mountain ranges in the south, ranging from 300 to 900 meters high. The forests of the town, most of which are national forests, were once famous for the production of Aomori cypress, one of the three premium types of timber in Japan, used mainly for furniture and housings.

Ohata Town once thrived on squid fishing as well. In 1994, the "Squid Culture Forum" was held, with squids as the main theme. At the time, the town was losing its vibrancy because of the stagnation of its major industries--forestry and fisheries.

Squid specialists attended from both Japan and abroad, and with 500 participants, the Forum ultimately led to success in spurring the local economic recovery. The Forum was organized by a group of the residents, who established an organization named '94 Forum In Ohata. They researched the squid fishery and marine environment of the town and discussed issues extensively. For the people of Ohata, the whole process was an exploration of the history and culture of their hometown.

Through the study of the squid fishery, the group found serious problems. Despite large investments in the harbors to accommodate ever-larger squid-fishing vessels, and the construction of breakwaters and seafood processing factories, the squid fishing industry at the heart of the town's economy went into a slump. In the process of these modifications, the natural shorelines were also lost. Fishermen who used stationary nets complained about decreased fish catches and soiled nets.

It was found that the Ohata River was a cause of the soiled nets. It had been straightened to prevent floods and function as a useful waterway. The source of the mud on the nets was the forests upstream, which had lost their water-retaining capacity. Loggers had previously cut down the cypress trees, even in remote forests, built logging roads, excavated the mountains and filled in streams, in order to speed up the transport of lumber. As a result, even light rain caused the mud to be carried down the river to the sea.

Forest and River Restoration Leads to Coast Restoration

In order to restore the forests, the fshermen's cooperative association, farmers, fishermen and foresters began planting trees in around 1994. In 1998, these activities evolved into the Ohata Town Planting Festival, an annual town event for local residents, including primary and high school students.

In 1996, one of the residents hapened to find a newspaper article about "close-to-nature construction methods," which led to the start of restoration works for the Ohata River in July the following year. The methods, which originated in Switzerland and Germany, aim at promoting the restoration of ecosystems in and around rivers by controlling the flow of water using rockworks and other techniques.

In time, the mud that had accumulated at the bottom of the river washed away, and young "ayu" (sweetfish, a type of fish that only live in clean water) returned to the river. Residents who witnessed their comeback began to think that applying the methods and approaches to the whole town would be the key to its survival.

The Kinoppu Beach in the town used to have manmade vertical seawalls, which prevented people from going down to the sea. With a subsidy from the Japanese government, the seawalls were reconstructed to have a sloped embankment in the early 1990s. This new embankment, however, was unpopular among local residents because it was jutting into the sea, ruining the landscape.

In 1999, Aomori Prefecture launched a project, with the participation of the residents, for improving the coast. By 2001, they held more than ten gatherings to make plans for restoring the scenery of the coast, remembering the days of the past when the sea was more productive for the town. The slope embankment was demolished in 2001, and concrete blocks removed from the embankment were relocated offshore to dissipate waves. Unfortunately, with the blocks placed in an orderly array, the scenery was far from what the residents had expected.

Six months later, the prefecture listened to the residents' requests and carried out further work. Eventually, with the big blocks scattered in the shallows, the original coastal scenery has been restored. People can now find crabs, seashells and seaweed returning to the waters, and the new arrangement also helps to dissipate the force of waves.

Revisions of Related Laws and Regulations

The driving force behind Ohata Town's efforts was the local residents who sensed a serious crisis for the future of the community. They held many study meetings and symposiums, inviting experts from outside the town. They also set up a nonprofit organization named Sustainable Community Research Institute (SCR) in 2000. The SCR is deeply involved in developing Ohata Town's master plan, which aims to build "a town where humans are nurtured in nature."

The revisions of national laws concerning water management were also major factors in completing the improvement works for the Ohata River and the Kinoppu Beach within a short period of time. Revisions to the River Law in 1997 and the Seashore Law in 1999 put emphasis on not only the disaster prevention, but also the preservation of the environment and on the voices of the community. After the outline of the national project, "Beautiful Japan," was issued in July 2003, nationwide efforts were started to revive beautiful landscapes and to develop the country in a more environmentally friendly way.

The ecosystems destroyed by people still have a power to regain rich nature with a little help from people. Today there are various options on the path to achieve sustainable development, and Ohata Town shows one example about how to coexist with nature and develop our community.

(Staff Writer Kazumi Yagi)