"The Sea Has a Mind"
As a commercial diver, Shibuya has been engaged in a variety of
underwater engineering work, including the restoration of Kobe
port, damaged by the quake that ravaged in Kobe in January 1995.
Immediately after the quake, Shibuya left for Kobe and has been
there over 50 times since. We conducted an interview with Shibuya
on January 13, 1996, (just after he had completed a scuba dive
near Kobe) to get his impressions and memories of the previous
The interview is divided into three parts followed by a text by Shibuya.
Kobe Immediately following the Quake
Q: What did you do on your first visit to Kobe after the quake?
A: I spent all of my time simply walking around the city and observing the people.
I was told that it was impossible to get around by car, so I took trains, and then I walked around the coastal areas.
But there were so many dead-ends everywhere.
So I looked into the possibility of approaching the coast from the ocean, and fortunately I got a ride on a rescue boat run by the Sakai Fishermen's Co-op, with whom I'd worked on the project "Research for a Clean Sea."
Q: And what did you see?
A: There were many things just drifting in the water, and on the reclaimed land areas people were burning waste.
Flocks of seagulls and crows were looking for food.
At night I could see the crimson flames of the incinerator facilities; against the darkness they illuminated for me the reality of Kobe.
When the wind was up I could see smoke and dust all over the city.
The city had the aura of a mortally injured person, of someone dying.
I could only think of the mindlessness of wars and their victims...people and the sea, ports and towns: all of them dead or injured.
I certainly wanted to help save people, but I also felt very strongly that I had to do something to help save the sea and port facilities.
I wanted to dive into the sea and ask it,
"Are you all right? How does it hurt?"
Q: And how was the port?
A: The Port of Kobe is an important center for cargo distribution.
It is symbolized by its many, many cargo container cranes.
But now they were all bent or their bases broken.
They were like an image of an endangered species, like huge dying dinosaurs that could no longer move and were stuck in these positions.
The port was the result of a drive for cargo facility construction, a drive that had economic efficiency as its top priority.
Cargo distribution is important, of course, but we also have to think about how to build a system for communicating human feelings.
There weren't many people on the newly developed Port Island.
Stacks of containers were scattered all over the place, turned upside down, and the coastal roads, which had been flat, were twisted with holes and gaps in them.
I couldn't stop my tears as I walked about.
I felt completely helpless, and guilty for my idle way of life.
We have to care much more for each other, I kept telling myself.
We have to care much more for the sea.
We must understand nature and the earth more deeply.
Q: After that first visit, you began going to Kobe for professional reasons too, didn't you?
A: About six months after the earthquake, I began to receive assignments concerned with the reconstruction of Kobe.
My group is now involved in more than a dozen marine facility projects in and around Kobe.
Coincidentally perhaps, but the sites where we are working now are in fact those places I visited on my own just after the quake.
It makes me wonder if the sea itself may have a mind.
Perhaps these places recognize people who want to help heal them.
The Restoration of the Sea
Q: What did you find underwater?
A: Rain drainage tunnels and sewerage facilities had been destroyed, and people were concerned that polluted water and other pollutants would flow directly into the sea.
Some 80% of the ferro-concrete port retaining walls had also been destroyed, and sandy debris was coming out of the cracks in the walls.
About two weeks after the earthquake it snowed in Kobe, and the melted snow turned the color of the sea a reddish-black.
In the winter usually, because of the northern winds, the water near the coast is relatively clear.
On the Pacific Ocean side of Japan, polluted water is usually swept away offshore; the phenomenon is called the offshore sweep.
And because the low temperatures inhibit plankton growth, the coastal waters become clear.
But last winter in Kobe, as a direct result of the influx of sewage and pollutants, the coastal seawaters were very dark. Waste and debris must have flowed into the sea along with the melted snow.
Q: Is the situation better now?
A: I cannot tell.
But as repairs to the rainwater drainage system and to the port retaining walls progress, I'm sure that the seawater will get cleaner.
Q: You dove in the sea around Kobe today, almost exactly a year after the earthquake struck. What did you see?
A: I had expected the water to be clearer because it's winter.
In fact, as soon as I entered the water, dredging boats approached and everything became dark!
They were removing the remains of a broken pier to make way for a new one.
There is usually a base or foundation made of rocks which resembles a fortress under piers.
The dredgers were removing these rocks and will lay them anew.
Q: There was much underwater damage, then, from the quake?
A: Oh yes.
And the marine ecosystem must have suffered a lot too, though I am not an expert in that field.
Captains of fishing boats and fishermen say that before the quake they could easily catch swordfish in the middle water layer, but now they catch none.
Instead, they're catching sole and other fish that live on the sea floor.
I suppose they live in the cracks of the foundation stone.
It's also possible that the water turbulence caused by the quake released a lot of fish feed.
This is an important point. Now we may have to take into consideration the possibility of such chance occurrences when constructing structures for port facilities and the fishing industry.
Q: In what areas of Kobe is your group working?
A: Offshore of Nagata, Nishinomiya, and Ashiya, as well as around Port Island and Rokko.
We currently view Kobe from many different vantage points as we can now get around by car, in addition to diving and travelling by boat.
Kobe is a city that lies on a sharp slope, so you can get a complete view of it from either the mountain tops or from the sea.
Q: Compared with on-land reconstruction work, do you see any delay in the work being done on the port and underwater facilities?
A: No, not at all.
Important underwater facilities are being repaired as quickly as possible.
In the distribution sector, for example, container cranes were a top priority.
Some 80% to 90% of the coastal area was affected by the quake. You can't restore everything at once.
In fact, I'm rather worried about repair operations being hurried.
There is a lot of work to be done, yes, but that is no reason to hire unqualified contractors.
That has to be avoided.
While there is a definite shortage of qualified contractors and engineers, it would be dangerous if the media and public opinion applied pressure for a speedy clean-up.
Earthquakes, Seas and People
Q: Has this experience changed you in any way?
I have come to care more dearly for people.
That is an internal change.
It is presumptuous for me to say this, especially in the face of those many people who suffered from the quake, but it has given me a chance to take a new look at myself, the way I live and work.
I feel that this search will continue and evolve.
Q: What do you mean by a "new look?"
A: I'm in a rather precarious position.
Sometimes I am asked to participate in land reclamation projects.
In other words, I am at the forefront of artificial land development.
This kind of work is my financial life support.
One thing that the earthquake has taught is that our land reclamation strategies have to be redirected.
We need to find a new approach to reclaiming land.
Kobe is a typical case: they quarried the mountains and filled the waters with the displaced earth.
They increased the amount of available land so as to meet residential demand.
But as a matter of principle, if you want to protect the sea you also have to protect the land.
But they did the exact opposite.
The earthquake resulted in the liquification of Kobe's Port Island.
I felt that the eruption of sand and soil was the expression of the land's fury.
We are not maintaining sand and soil in their naturally endowed, proper places.
It may sound far-fetched, but let's put ourselves in the Earth's shoes.
Can't we imagine how it must feel?
Q: You're saying, then, that rampant land transformation has to cease?
A: Yes. Divers especially have to be conscientious about their work.
It's very easy to cheat when you're working in a place where no one can observe you.
For example, once a job is finished it's easy to just leave your tools and equipment on the sea floor where you've been working.
But each of us have to be responsible for cleaning up after ourselves.
Q: Do marine facilities inevitably have a negative impact on the sea?
A: Well, look at the phenomenon that I mentioned earlier whereby fish that usually live on the sea floor had come up to shallower waters after the quake.
We cannot totally deny the possibility that underwater construction may have a positive impact on the ecosystem.
Dredging may temporarily pollute the water, but that stirring up might also do some good for marine life.
At least I want to believe so.
We need to explore how to construct marine facilities that will benefit human life, marine life and the sea.
Q: And how do you think we can do that?
A: We need to understand nature and the sea much better.
With respect to my colleagues, we will continue to work on construction projects, but from now on, I am urging my fellow divers to show more care for each community, for the sea and the ports and the facilities that we work on.
We have to consider how we are all related as a result of the earthquake.
I sometimes fantasize that some day there will be a network of "sea-bound" people, those of us living with and working in the sea.
We have worked fast this time, but never in history has there been a network of sea-bound people who equaled land-based people in scale and efficiency.
Everything is connected to the sea: mountains and cities and the land...the whole universe.
I want to share what I've seen and learned underwater with all people everywhere.
Shibuya's View of the Sea
How We Feel about the Sea
To Whom Do the Seas Belong?
The Connection between the Seas and Rivers
The Sea Is Our Last Fortress
We also give a report on his experience of diving into the Kushiro swamps in Hokkaido.
To register to receive updated information about sensorium, please go to this page.
[Shibuya Dived in the Icy Swamp]
[map page of sensing Japan]
The theme of the sensorium and texts that relate to sensing Japan are in the library of the linked senses. If you are interested in these texts (some are rather long), please click the text icon or the name of the text.
["water" Aquatic Sensibility by Shin'ichi Takemura]