The seawater by Tokyo’s Kasai Rinkai Park is only slightly cooler than body temperature, and its beach contains a mix of tiny gravel and seashell fragments instead of fine white sand.
The beach is far from a perfect summer getaway. The skyline of the metropolis is visible in the distance, and no palm trees are in sight. But for Yuzo Sekiguchi, opening the small strip on Tokyo Bay for swimmers was a dream five decades in the making.
“For the first time in 51 years, beginning this year one can enjoy and swim at the beach without having to leave Tokyo,” Sekiguchi, 65, who played a key role in opening the Kasai Rinkai Park beach, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
“Kids in Tokyo say they visit the ocean during the summer, but in Hawaii or their grandmother’s hometown outside Tokyo. Now, a beach can be found right here,” he said.
Tokyo’s seashore was originally a great leisure spot for its residents. Children would swim in the bay and dig for clams in mud flats in early summer. During the winter, the bay provided rich seaweed.
Sekiguchi said he would often go fishing with friends and capture sea bass during his childhood in the city.
But such activities had been lost for half a century due to the nation’s breakneck industrialization that saw water quality deteriorate. Artificial island and land-extension projects also reshaped Tokyo’s waterfront, forcing beaches in Shinagawa and Omori to shut down in the 1950s. Eventually, all beaches in the capital were closed by 1962.
“As the country grew economically, I felt that we were losing something very important,” Sekiguchi, who works as an architect, said of that time.
What drove the Tokyo native to take action in reviving the beaches was a trip to western Asia when he was 30.
“I traveled through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other parts of the region. The eyes of the people I met shined bright, especially the children,” he said, recalling how they’d gather firewood at night and share it with travelers.
In Japan, most of the children he knew were attending cram schools. They never interacted with nature and instead were focused on getting into elite colleges and obtaining decent jobs.
“I thought something was wrong, and that adults had the responsibility to change such an environment for children,” Sekiguchi said.
Upon returning to Tokyo he launched a nonprofit organization in 1977 that focused on reviving the city’s nature and environment. Its core project was to restore the beaches in Tokyo Bay.
Improving the seawater quality along Tokyo’s shores proved to be a challenge — but not the biggest one, according to Sekiguchi.
“The local government was extremely reluctant to take responsibility for what we were aiming to do. The vertically divided administration was slow in getting anything done,” Sekiguchi said.
“I couldn’t tell what bureaucrats and politicians existed for. It appeared as if they were there to bind the public to their rules,” as his NPO sought ways to reopen the beach, he said.
The opening of Kasai Rinkai Park beach this year is still conditional, with local authorities not taking responsibility.
Swimming is allowed only during weekends between July and August, and visitors are only allowed to enter the water waist deep. Diving is prohibited.
The beach will be closed in the event of rain, poor water clarity, high waves, strong winds or when lightning warnings are issued, the park, managed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, states on its website.
In addition, the metro government also stressed that the beach opening does not fall under its responsibility but rather that of the organizers — Sekiguchi’s NPO.
“It took a lot of effort to reach this point. We had to study the water quality repeatedly and provide data to convince them it was safe,” Sekiguchi said. “It was extremely difficult to get the local government to act. But I think we managed to do that, at least a bit.”
Hints for improving seawater, meanwhile, came from Chesapeake Bay on the U.S. East Coast.
“I read about a project in Chesapeake Bay where locals used oysters to improve water quality. Oysters are known to clean 200 to 400 liters of water every day,” Sekiguchi noted.
His group tested the oyster method first in a river in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo, before applying it to Kasai Rinkai Park.
For decades, seawater by the park was deemed unsafe to swim in. But it improved quickly and the area’s water quality today is at the same level as Inage Beach in Chiba Prefecture. After installing protective offshore fences to prevent rays from entering the swimming area, the beach was ready for visitors.
When Sekiguchi and his group organized a two-day trial beach opening last year, it gathered more than 3,000 people. This year, the beach is welcoming people by the thousands every day.
“This is just the beginning,” Sekiguchi said of his broader project to revive Tokyo’s beaches, explaining that measures taken at Kasai Rinkai Park will be applied to other shores in the city.
Opening one beach took decades. Doing the same for several other locations may take even longer.
“But it’s something that our generation owes our children. We need to leave behind an ocean where the kids can enjoy the taste of summer,” he said.