From seaweed to sushi

Competition and the dying appeal of the 'farm' threaten Japan's billion- dollar industry.

Tokiuti Mizuma is asleep at the wheel of his pickup truck, succumbing to exhaustion even as the heavy equipment around him roars with the din of a dozen washing machines.

He snaps awake to return, bleary-eyed, to the dark green slimy stuff piled to overflowing on the back of his truck. Today's load of sopping wet seaweed was freshly cut from its ocean roots before the sun came up over this small fishing village of 22,000.

These are the waning days of the nori season, the September to April stretch when harvesters cultivate, fetch, clean, and produce the crispy seaweed that is wrapped around the world's increasingly trendy sushi rolls.

Nori has made Japanese fast food possible. With convenience stores here selling more onigiri - triangles of rice wrapped in blackish-green seaweed - than other any item, nori is the food staple behind Japan's answer to the sandwich.

And for decades, it has also held together the economy of seaside communities like this one, helping make or break a family's budget. But water pollution, cheaper nori made in China and Korea, and a dearth of young people ready to take over the job from aging harvesters like Mr. Mizuma, have many here worrying whether one of Japan's best gastronomical inventions can survive on its native soil.

This year, Japan's entire nori industry - valued at more than $1 billion a year, according to the Japan Fisheries Agency - hit rough waters as growers some 400 miles from the bounty Mizuma is experiencing found that their nori seeds wouldn't budge. Southwestern Japan near the Ariake Sea, the nation's nori basket - normally the provider of about 40 percent of Japan's annual crop of seaweed - has been shattered by a maritime equivalent of Dustbowl Days.

Angry harvesters there blame it on a government land reclamation project in Isahaya Bay on Kyushu Island, not far from Nagasaki, seen as little more than a pork-barrel politicking scheme of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The government built nearly 300 steel floodgates to shut down a four-mile stretch of sea, damaging fish and algae alike, opponents claim, and causing other environmental problems. Others say the culprit is the weather, a too-warm season that led to a dramatic increase in the plankton that feed on nori.

Good times, at 4 a.m.

And although folks like Mizuma here in the north sympathize with their fellow harvesters down south and worry about pollution's toll, this has been the best nori season Miyagi Prefecture has had in 30 years. In a Japan where economic gloom dominates the news headlines, everyone in this part of the country is, quite literally, rolling in the green.

Nori, once hung out to dry in the sun on laundry lines, used to be considered a delicacy that sold in department stores, boxed for gift-giving in fancy packages. But as the painstaking process of turning the raw pulp into refined, uniform sheets hit the automation revolution, nori became green gold for those willing to dedicate themselves to the round-the-clock rigors of its production.

Here in Shichigahama, it has grown to a particularly desirable shade of dark green, making their nori all the rage with discriminating buyers. It is also making the noriya-san, or harvesters, relatively prosperous, restoring a sense of pride in a line of work that has fallen out of favor with the young generation.

"Usually by this time of year, this nori goes for 3.5 yen a sheet," or about 3 cents, says Mizuma, flipping open a folded packet of nori lying on the passenger seat of his pickup truck.

"Now it's going for 10 yen each. We're talking three times the profits. And no matter what they do in Ariake, it will take tens of years to fix it," says Mizuma, a slight, graying man puffed up by several layers of clothing to protect him from the cold that whips across the sea. Most of the harvesting used to take place in the milder, protected Matsushima Bay. But pollution has forced all but the earliest stages of cultivating of the algae seedlings out to the open sea, where the fresher currents of the Pacific Ocean make it possible for the nori to grow off nets tied to a system of poles that float on the water.

Today, as most mornings, Mizuma has been up since 4 a.m., heading out in a small boat in the dark to trim strands of nori, which grows from their netted roots like hair. He and his wife will be up past midnight, rushing to process and package all the nori they can before the season is over.

The warm weather is on its way, eventually changing the quality of nori from the early season batches, the stuff of Japan's shiniest and strongest, to the end-of-the season gatherings, which start to show holes, or at its worst, yellow spots, twigs, or tiny shrimp. But on this March day, an unusually belated cold snap has brought a thick blanket of snow, giving nori harvesters hope of extending their banner season just a little longer.

"See that! This is the first time I cut it," crows Mizuma, stepping over the snow to show a model of his blackest and most burnished looking nori, which goes for 20 yen a sheet. "And this is the fifth time I cut it," he says, frowning at a different, thinner batch, which goes for just 9 yen a sheet and shows tiny holes when he holds it up to the light.

Usually, it takes only three cuts before the nori is no longer fit for sale. But this year's exceptional yield and surge in prices remind him of the heyday of nori 30 years ago, when a harvester could earn enough in one year to build himself a house.

Few heirs to the business

In between, however, have been many years of hardship. Perhaps that's why, he muses with a furrowed brow, his son has not offered to take over the family business. "Of course, if my kids had thought that it was a good business, they would have wanted to go into it, too. But it wasn't that kind of life," he sighs.

When it leaves his truck, the seaweed is purified, processed, and pulverized into what looks like a giant bathtub of creamed spinach. Then, inside, the green slop is sponge-dried and pressed into squares on imitation bamboo-stalk grids, then baked underneath lamps that mimic the drying rays of the sun. Mizuma's micro-factory has about the best machinery an independent producer can buy: He just upgraded to a seven-row nori processor from his old six-row gear, at a cost of about $250,000.

Through the glass in a tiny, adjacent room, his wife, her head covered with a hairnet, counts the finished products into bundles of 10 and slips them into plastic packages. She is helped by their married daughter, who sometimes comes to help to finish out the season. Mizuma's son works at a hotel in Sendai, the nearest major city.

"I know it's tough work. I'm out there when it's 5 below [Celsius]," Mizuma says. "But I'm the oldest in the family. I was raised to believe that you take over your father's business if it's feasible," he says.

"Now it's just me and my wife going out there to collect the nets," Mizuma says. "It worries me that China and Korea are starting to take away some of our business. But what can I do? I don't even have a successor," Mizuma says. Then he pauses to think about his own profits tripling, while Japan's net worth is sinking, and lets out a bad-good wish for his son's future. "From my perspective, it would be great if my son were laid off, and then came back here to work. If he shows up, I can show him how well I'm doing."

In fact, in this season of unusually handsome profits, some sons of the village have returned. Fifteen of them, to be exact. But that still seems only a trickle when compared with the number of families who have left the business over the years. Thirty years ago, town hall officials counted 804 norimaking families; now there are 105. Some dropped out as the automation equipment got more sophisticated and required ever-more expensive investments. Many quit in a year when the harvest was almost as bad as Ariake's. And others had children who just preferred to become "salarymen" or seek other big-city jobs away from the harsh conditions of the winter nori harvest. Many surviving harvesters reply with the same excuse: A son who stays in the nori business would have difficulties in finding a wife.

Some of the nori harvesters, however, say their lives have recently become a little easier. A group of 10 of them pooled their resources to make one common nori factory, a sort of cooperative in which they share the work and split the profits.

"Having places like this helps younger people come back again," says Kouji Hoshi, the group's director. As a boy, he remembers when nori was grown in Tokyo Bay. It's been decades since the capital's waterfront was clean enough to grow good seaweed.

Much else has changed, including the handcrafting of nori, a painstaking skill his parents taught him. All for the best, he says: "You can't make a living based on old methods." Now, cooperatives like this one lighten the burden still carried by independents like Mizuma, who work the whole season through without a day off. "The nice thing is, one guy gets sick or wants to take a break, the work continues, and you don't lose your income," adds Mr. Hoshi. "And then you can have a safer, more established lifestyle."

Pride in the product

Mogami Akira, a partner in his late 60s, doesn't consider it a total success. "My son? He hates nori," he says. "He moved to Osaka and works for Visa." The men on duty laugh. But Hoshi puffs up with pride, holding up a sheet of nori that looks almost as glossy as Japanese lacquerware.

"I haven't seen it like this in decades," he says. "The best nori this year, we gave it to the emperor," he says. Some 1,500 sheets - designated as the best in Miyagi Prefecture - were sent to the Imperial household. "I'm very proud that the best nori was produced here."

Gifts of nori to the emperor, according to one account, date to the year 701. Alyne E. Delaney, an anthropology PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, says there is evidence of nori being cultivated in Tokyo Bay for the past 300 years, and of being eaten in its rougher, original form for more than 1,000 years. It was once seen as such a luxury food that it was sent to local lords as a method of paying taxes.

Ms. Delaney, who has spent the past 18 months here on a Fulbright fellowship to study the life of Shichigahama's norimakers, was attracted to the subject by the way the town organized water rights for fishing and cultivating nori.

It worked, like many things in Japanese society, according to kinship and seniority: the older the noriya-san, the bigger the space. But when the government asked them all to consolidate nori production for greater security and smoother marketing, people balked. "I was shocked, thinking it would never happen," she says. But it went ahead smoothly: They consolidated everything but the fishing grounds.

She wondered, given the many difficulties of staying in the seaweed business, what kept the few stalwarts going. "I found that a lot of them like being able to work on their own," she says. "They all talk about their strong work ethic, without having to bow down to a boss, and that outweighs that it's cold and hard."

200 categories of nori

The reward ultimately comes on Friday, auction day. By 8 a.m., professional buyers from all over Japan gather at the marine products market - where no layman would dare to tread - to inspect and price the goods, laid out in row upon row of neat cardboard boxes. Some 200 men in suits and matching slippers - street shoes are left at the door - shuffle silently from box to box, picking up samples of nori and making notes about the quality on their clipboards. A few women, two or three, manage to blend in. They lift bundle after bundle, touching and sometimes tasting, checking and then sometimes chucking them back into the bins with a look of dissatisfaction. Like crotchety critics judging wine, cheese, or perfume, they look for esoteric qualities that allow the nori to be ranked into 200 different categories.

"What's important here is the color, the darkness," says Teruyoshi Fujimori, whose badge identifies him as Miyagi's chief nori inspector. "Miyagi is leading the industry in a lot of ways. But when the season gets long, the color degrades, and the quality goes down. I have to admit, looking around, I'm not really impressed."

Back in the open-air part of his ma-and-pa production line, the snow at his feet not yet melted, Mizuma rolls his eyes at the nitpicking today's noriya-san has to suffer. He misses the time when nori was just nori.

"You can obviously see there's no shrimp stuck in this, but it has holes, so they'll say it's no good. What's the big deal?" he asks. "In the old days, we'd eat it. It can't be perfect. Now, we're in a society where if people find a little bug in it, they'd call the Health Ministry.... Average people have no idea what we have to go through to make this."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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