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RURAL JAPAN BIDDING `SAYONARA’ TO TRADITIONS

SHARE RURAL JAPAN BIDDING `SAYONARA’ TO TRADITIONS

Far from the crowded urban masses, the pattern of rural Japanese life has barely changed in centuries.

The sun, the wind, the rain and the sea still dominate the lives of the men and women who fish along Japan's craggy coastline and tend its cornfields and rice paddies."Life here is still good," said a fisherman in his 50s. "I've visited Osaka and Tokyo, but I've never lived anywhere but here, and I never will," he said, watching his grandchildren launch fireworks into a starlit sky from a quayside in Sumiyoshi, a fishing village 560 miles southwest of Tokyo.

But while bright lights and big cities hold little allure for Japan's mainly elderly fishermen and farmers, they mesmerize their children.

On finishing school most young people have for years left for nearby cities. Few have returned, and, as their parents one after another hang up their nets and turn in their hoes, Japan is slowly losing its ancient fishing and farming heritage.

Sumiyoshi sits on the northwest coast of Tanega-shima, a subtropical island paradise of sandy beaches, coral reefs, craggy coves, rolling hills and tenacious mosquitoes.

Local people are not sure when the island was first inhabited. But on Yakushima, an island visible from Sumiyoshi, archaelogists have uncovered remains 3,000 years old.

At any rate, Tanega-shima's fishing and farming communities were well established by 1654 when a Portugese ship was wrecked on the southern tip of the island during one of the vicious typhoons that pound southern Japan every autumn.

The first Europeans to land in Japan, the Portugese adventurers were also the first to introduce guns to its sword-carrying citizens, a fact recorded in Japan's high-school history books.

Today, 40,000 people, most of them elderly, live on the island.

"All my classmates have gone to Kagoshima or Fukuoka to find work," said Tamami Uragami, 21, naming two nearby cities.

"It's because there's hardly anything to do here apart from fishing and farming, and they're backbreaking," said Uragami, who stayed to surf at the island's many breaks and work at its only golf course.

The Sumiyoshi fisherman said work had become tougher since he cast and pulled in his first net nearly 40 years ago.

"Big fishing fleets have exhausted the fish supplies along most of the coast of southern Japan, and now they come here to fish, leaving less for us," he said.

But Yutan Yamanoishi, 36, a bar owner who occasionally works on fishing boats for a little extra money, said fishing for a living was always tough.

"The first time you go out in a boat in rough seas you spend most of the time throwing up and thinking it's going to topple and you're going to drown," said Yamanoishi.

Life for the island's farmers isn't easy either.

They grow one of Japan's most expensive and popular varieties of rice, Koshihikari. But the richer Japan has grown, the less rice it has eaten.

"Years ago everybody grew two crops a year, so it was easy enough to make ends meet," said one farmer in his fifties waiting to catch a ferry. "But these days people don't eat as much rice, and the government won't let you grow a second crop because it sits in warehouses and spoils," the man said.

Local authorities seem resigned to the loss of the island's ancient traditions.

Far from seeking to preserve them, they are trying to create the types of jobs that might slow the continuing exodus of young people to nearby cities.

Following the example of Okinawa, an island 125 miles south, they are trying to turn Tanega-shima into a tourist destination.

They have already let developers build one resort on the island's isolated southern coast close to where the Portugese adventurers were shipwrecked 400 years ago.

Authorities also plan a new airport large enough to take the commercial jets that carry hundreds of thousands of tourists to Okinawa each year.

But while tourism jobs and a new airport might persuade more young people to settle on the island, they could also increase the erosion of its heritage.

From the existing airport just four propeller-powered 40-seaters take off and land each day. But even they are a headache for the island's fisherman.

"They fly low across the sea when they land and take off and frighten away the d--- fish," the Sumiyoshi fisherman said, adding that he didn't want to think about the impact of a bigger airport.