Caring through Concrete? – Katoku’s Divisive Sea Wall (Li Shan and Joshua)

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Katoku Beach, one of the few remaining concrete-free beaches in Japan, was recently minted as a UNESCO heritage site. However, shortly after, a sea wall project was implemented to protect the beach and village there from natural disasters. This concretization project has divided local and international actors into various camps. The article links Katoku’s concretization to the broader conflict surrounding the concretization of natural spaces in Japan, shedding light on the actors and agendas involved in this discourse, as well as the diverse range of attitudes towards nature even within the same scales.

The article represents Japan as a country that “confront(s) nature with concrete”, placing economic and practical concerns above nostalgic sentiment in policy-making. Similar to Waley’s paper on the concretization of rivers due to floods (Waley, 2000), the main justification for Katoku’s concretization is also risk posed by natural disasters like typhoons. Interestingly, even opponents of the construction of the seawall also prioritise economic concerns, as the beach is Katoku’s most valuable asset. Overall, local actors prioritise an anthropocentric approach that favours human interpretations of human needs (Kalland & Asquith, 1997). Ultimately, both proponents and opponents of the seawall prioritise human needs, whether it be safety, economic concerns, or nostalgic sentiments “of a pastoral existence”.

The article also touches on the role of an underlying political economy that has superseded risk as a concern in the concretization of Japan. While analysts concluded that the concrete sea berm could accelerate sand loss, thereby increasing risk, non-traditional ‘greener’ solutions were not considered. Activist Sono suggests that this dominant reliance on concrete is politically driven by politicians and residents with industry ties rather than for protective reasons – one that favours those with vested interests, at the expense of the local populace (Robbins, 2007).

The idea of political ecology is especially salient here, where differences in power amongst the various actors involved shape the nature-society relations in Katoku at different scales (Robbins, 2007). Many different stakeholders, with different agendas and levels of authority, compete for control over the limited beach space (Rots, 2019). However, such agendas are multifaceted and can vary considerably even within the same scale. Mayor Kamada, as both official and resident, advocates for the seawall for the proven safety it provides; a view shared by resident Hajime who sees it as a necessity despite his general opposition to construction. In contrast, residents like Ms Yoshikawa oppose the project but fear speaking up due to the minority position they hold. Thus, while power relations do mediate environmental attitudes, nuances in an individual’s positionality can ultimately influence their stance regardless of the scale they operate at. These individual stances can be shaped by larger, global forces – some residents who formerly opposed the seawall project changed positions after experiencing typhoons exacerbated by climate change. Aging populations and the hollowing-out of small towns similarly incentivised Sono’s advocacy for preserving the beach.

These polarising positions can also be attributed to a spectrum of attitudes towards nature. The preference for a controlled form of nature on one hand, is taken to an extreme when safety and economic concerns are prioritized by the residents whose livelihoods are at stake (Kalland & Asquith, 1997). Alternatively, activists like Takaki hold a romanticized perspective towards the unadulterated form of the rural, island landscape. Katoku beach embodies the nostalgic countryside and “exotic otherness” of Okinawa (McMorran, 2014; Rots, 2019) that mainlanders and foreigners alike aim to protect. These conflicting views reflect not only the clash between foreign interference and Okinawan self-determination (Rots, 2019), but also how nature is defined and managed by each stakeholder in different ways.

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Asquith, P. J., & Kalland, A. (1997). Japanese Images of Nature: Cultural Perspectives. Curzon Press.

Dooley, B., & Ueno, H. (2021, October 13). This Pristine Beach Is One of Japan’s Last. Soon It Will Be Filled With Concrete. New York Times.

McMorran, C. (2014). A Landscape of “Undesigned Design” in Rural Japan. Landscape Journal, 33(1), 1–16.

Robbins, P. (2019). Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. Blackwell Publishing.

Rots, A. P. (2019). “This Is Not a Powerspot”: Heritage Tourism, Sacred Space, and Conflicts of Authority at Sēfa Utaki. Asian Ethnology, 78(1), 155–180.

Waley, P. (2000). Following the flow of Japan’s river culture. Japan Forum, 12(2), 199–217.

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