When I first came to Japan, I was stunned by the beauty of the Seto Inland Sea. Its thousands of peaked islands look as if they’d dropped straight from the sky and settled like gum drops on the water. Stretching 450 kilometers from Osaka to Kyushu, I also soon learned of the infinite varieties of seafood this location offers. It took me a little longer to really get to know the process of how that bounty ends up on my dinner plate.
Up until the mid-20th century, many of Japan’s lakes and other bodies of water were home to itinerant fishermen who rowed from cove to cove and lived on their boats. They fished to feed their families and to earn a meager living.
Those who lived in the Seto Inland Sea had an advantage, though. The briny borders of the islands delivered an abundance of fish straight to the islanders’ doorstep. Whereas a person on the mainland might take up fishing because it was one of the few jobs available to an unskilled laborer, in the Seto Inland Sea, generations of fishermen had refined their avocation into an art form.
Teamwork in the water
More than 350 years ago, fishermen in Hiroshima and Okayama prefectures formed co-operatives to carry out tai-ami, a type of net fishing that involved more than 50 workers per catch. The port town of Tomonoura, Hiroshima Prefecture, celebrates this tradition by re-enacting it annually for the Tai-ami Festival in May.
The method employs two large boats of 20 or so rowers on each. A large net is floated between the two tandem vessels with each securing one side of the net thus forming a scoop in which they could bring the net up from underneath. The men relied on their collective brawn to cinch up the net full of trapped fish.
“Although tai-ami is famous in Tomonoura, this entire area was used for it,” explains Shiraishi Island resident Tadashi Amano, referring to Hiroshima and Okayama prefectures. In those days, fishermen were not limited by fishing boundaries like they are today and often crossed prefectural borders.
The Inland Sea is fed by waters from the Pacific Ocean through two openings: the Kii Channel near Osaka, and the Bungo Channel between Kyushu and Shikoku. In addition, the Kanmon Straits, located between Honshu and Kyushu, brings water in from the Japan Sea. With three straits from which the current rushes in and out, the resulting tide rises and falls up to 4 meters twice a day.
“This area is the exact middle of the Inland Sea, where the waters from the east and west meet,” says 93-year-old Shiraishi local Nakatsuka, who shares only his last name. This area is considered especially fertile as fish seek more somnolent waters to lay their eggs. This abundance of fish is what kept the tai-ami tradition fruitful for so long.
Motors in the mix
With the advent of motorized boats in the 1930s, tai-ami was replaced by kinchaku-ami (referring to the shape of the net: gathered at the top and pulled tight with a cord like a cotton coin purse).
“The way we fished was like this,” explains Nakatsuka, as he put the tips of both his index fingers next to each other on the table, dragging them down in an arc to show how each vessel created a half circle that joined up again at the 180 degree mark. With engines, the boats could quickly surround a school of fish. Once the fish were entrapped, the men would heave the contraption full of fish onto the deck.
The kinchaku-ami nets were shared among different groups of fishermen and marked a very competitive and lively era of fishing. So successful were the Shiraishi fishermen they often appeared in newspapers in the 1950s showing off their record catches of iriko, small sardines (also called niboshi), used in the making of dashi, the Japanese base for soups and sauces.
“Did you just drop the nets anywhere?” I ask Nakatsuka. “Of course not,” he replies in a reprimanding tone. “We had people looking for fish from the top of Takayama.”
“From the top of the mountain?”
Nakatasuka is only too eager to demonstrate.
“One person would stand on top of Mount Takayama with binoculars,” he says, adding that the fishermen were ready with their boats below. “From up there, the observer could look far out and see the movements of the fish. He was looking for a change in the color or surface of the water. A disturbance.”
The watcher held a pair of white flags, one in each hand, and when he spotted a school of fish, he’d signal to the boats by waving the flags. Nakatsuka shoots his hands above his head holding imaginary flags and leans to one side while yelling, “To the left!” He thrusts his arms up again in a semaphoric gesture and hollers, “To the right!” And the chase would begin as the boats headed to that area, constantly looking back to consult their cicerone.
The silvery iriko were transferred from the net, flopping and shimmering in the sunlight, into round wooden taru (casks) that were passed to a smaller third boat to be taken back to shore while the huntsmen continued fishing.
Back on the beach
On the beach, the women, who were mostly fishermen’s wives, were waiting to meet the boats carrying the taru. One of them was Katsuko Nakagawa, 94, who, standing on the beach, can still recall the whole procedure.
“They sure were heavy,” she says referring to the taru. “They were loaded with so much fish, I always wished there were more people to help us carry them.”
Nakagawa and the other women ferried the taru from the boats at the water up to the fishing shacks that dotted the length of the beach. In the shacks, they’d boil the fish and lay them out in the sun to dry.
“The whole beach would be full of straw mats,” Nakagawa says. “If it was raining, though, the fisherman couldn’t go out because the fish wouldn’t be able to dry before they started rotting.”
Each household was awarded a portion of fish based on how many members helped with the catch. The dried iriko were put into bags and sold on the mainland.
A vanishing tradition
At 39, Hiro Nakagawa (no relation to Katsuko) is the youngest fisherman on Shiraishi Island. Dressed in white nagagutsu (rubber boots), waterproof fishing pants and a jacket, he meets me in front of his family’s seafood restaurant where a ceramic tako tsubo (octopus pot) serves as decoration, right next to an old glass fishing float.
“These days the pots are all plastic,” he tells me, adding that they’re also weighted on the bottom so Nakagawa can lay them on the seabed, tied at intervals along a rope like a string of pearls. The octopuses snuggle into the dark crevices of the pots at night, only to be surprised when Nakagawa evicts them the next morning.
“These blue glass floats were used in sashi-ami (gill net fishing),” he tells me, adding that they’ve since been replaced by black plastic ones that can be seen bobbing on the sunlit surface of the Inland Sea.
Nakagawa is one of just a handful of fishermen left on Shiraishi Island. Two trawlers, a few octopus hunters and a couple sashi-ami fishermen now service the entire place. He admits it’s a lonely job these days, and a far cry from the community in which his ancestors combined forces to bring the island both fish and profits.
Amy Chavez is the author of “Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite!” (Stone Bridge Press).