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Japan’s Bountiful Ocean

Akashi Bridge_Kuruman
Written by Life in Kansai

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Ebisu and fishermen with a big catch. 19th century.

On Marine Day contemplate the vast expanse of water that surrounds Japan’s shores, or just spend the day splashing around in the surf.

It seems entirely fitting that the island nation of Japan should have a national holiday in celebration of the sea. A welcome break in the heat of the summer, Marine Day, known as 海の日 (umi no hi), falls on the third Monday of July, which this year is July 18th. Intended as a day for people to reflect on the ocean’s importance and appreciate its abundant gifts, Marine Day is a fairly recent addition to the Japanese holiday calendar. Although a ‘Marine Memorial Day’ has existed since 1941, it only became an official holiday in the mid-1990s, changing its name to ‘Marine Day’ in 1996.

So what role does the sea play in Japan’s daily existence? Perhaps a less significant one in the modern world than it did in the past. Yet it still has considerable effects on dietary habits, people’s livelihoods, trade and travel, as well as, for many people, recreational activities. It’s not so surprising, then, that several Japa-nese deities have a connection with the ocean. The benevolent Shinto water god, Suijin (水神), protects fishermen and is also worshipped for fertility, childbirth and motherhood. Shrines to Suijin are known as Suitengu shrines, and can be found all over Japan, including in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market. Powerful Shinto god of the sea and storms is Susano-o (須佐之男), prone to fits of rage. The story goes that he was exiled from Heaven after fighting with his sister, Amaterasu. Ryujin (龍神), dragon god and protector of the sea in Japanese mythology, is said to be one of the ancestors of the imperial dynasty. And then there’s Ebisu (恵比須), god of fishermen and luck, often shown in illustrations holding a fishing rod and a large fish such as a sea bream or sea bass.

Fishing boats_Chi King

Squid fishing boats. Image: Chi King, Flickr

Teeming with life, the oceans around Japan have for thousands of years provided this archipelago with an unfailing fountain of nourishment. Fish and seafood, not meat, are Japan’s traditional sources of protein, supplemented with various kinds of nutrient-rich seaweed such as kelp. These foods still underpin the Japanese diet today – just think about the wakame in your miso soup or the dashi, made from bonito flakes, that features in a vast array of dishes. And of course, Japan is world-famous for its sushi and sashimi – the ultimate way to enjoy the freshest fish and seafood. Without the influence of the sea, Japanese cuisine as we know it simply couldn’t exist.

The regular need to haul in all this sea life has ensured that fishermen and ports have played a huge role in Japanese communities over the centuries. Today, while large, well-known ports such as Kobe serve both fishing and overseas trade needs, the thousands of traditional, small-town ports with their daily auctions are now dying, the little fishing boats replaced by big commercial operations that trawl the seas. Standing in Tokyo’s Tsukiji or even the much smaller Osaka Central Fish Market, the sheer quantity of fish and seafood dragged in from the ocean on a daily basis is overwhelming. And it’s not only to feed the Japanese population. As people’s eating habits have been gradually shifting towards meat, Japan’s fish and seafood exports have been increasing, even riding out the storm of international concern over the safety of Japan’s sea life following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011.

Tuna_Stewart Butterfield

Tuna for auction. Image: Stewart Butterfield, Flickr

Around the Kansai area the sea remains an important influence. One local centre for fish and seafood is the city of Akashi in Hyogo Prefecture, with specialities such as sea bream, octopus and conger eel. Akashi also boasts the Uonotana Shotengai, an arcade of around one hundred fish and marine product stores. And a little way up the coast towards Kobe you’ll find Suma, with its famous golden sands. Suma is one of many beaches in Kansai that open for sunbathing and swimming during the summer months of July and August – usually from around Marine Day onwards. What about the rest of the year? Well, swim in the sea after the end of August and you risk falling prey to jellyfish – though stings can also happen in the height of summer!

You may choose to celebrate Marine Day with an enormous plate of sushi or by heading straight for your nearest shoreline, swimsuit in hand. But even if your plans aren’t ocean-themed, spare a thought on July 18th for the fundamental effects Japan’s seas have had on the culture and society of this unique country.

By Life in Kansai


Akashi Bridge_Kuruman

Akashi Kaikyo Bridge. Image: Kuruman, Flickr

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