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  • Joseph Polack


Updated: Jan 21, 2023

"You could be killed by eating a poisonous blowfish (fugu) living in our Shonan Kamakura coast" my elderly fisher friends warned me on my first netfishing day. Though the older of the Kato cousins was in his 90s already, he still kept occasionally helping his twenty years younger cousin in the ocean netfishing.

The younger Kato, who was in his 70s, kept his boat and family nets near his weathered little hut at the outskirts of once prosperous Kamakura fishing village. There was only a dozen licensed fisher folks left. The frequent typhoons kept destroying the remaining huts and beached boats, but the younger Kato, or the Master Kato as he was respectfully called by the locals, didn't give up his love for the ocean.

His beard was turning more grayish and there was less fish in the bay, yet his eyes remained as clear as ever. He could catch the first signs of typhoons and changing undercurrents long before we could see the coming danger.

Though Master Kato was my neighbour and I almost daily passed by his boat on my way home from the ocean swimming, it took me years before he allowed me to join his netfishing group.

Master Kato's team was made of aging local men and their relatives. Some were living on the Kamakura side of Shonan coast. The others, further away, closer to Enoshima. And yet, as I discovered later, most of them had common ancestors dating over eight generations back.

As long as I could follow their offshore commands and help them pulling back the fish-filled-net closer to the shore, nobody cared where I was from. Or how fluent my local Japanese dialect was. And being part of Master Kato’s Sunday fishing team was like a free ticket to my neighborhood festivities.

On the good days, when our net was overloaded with more fish than usually, we were helped by the Kato clan’s children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren. Four generations working hand-in-hand didn't seem unusual among the Katos.

The fishing and sharing rules were simple: depending on our catch, each of us could take home between 3 and 8 kgs of fresh fish for free. Then after loading the surplus on Master Kato’s small truck filled with ice and fishing nets, there was time for feasting on sashimi along the beached boats.

Among our regular team members were folks from different walks of life, including a licenced fugu chef. Since his retirement, he seldom ventured to slice our Kamakura fugu outdoors. The knives the chef brought to our beach parties remained sharp, but he didn't trust his eyes anymore.

Sometimes our sashimi beach parties were joined by the fisher folks who were keeping their boats nearby. They always made double sure that my selection of fish was right. I was repeatedly cautioned that a set of sushi toped with a wrongly sliced single fugu could kill dozens of victims by paralyzing their respiratory system. Fugu poison being far more powerful than cyanide ended many lives of amateur fishermen. As there was no antidote discovered yet, the people keep dying year by year.

Master Kato pointed at the other side of the bay where his little fishing boat was facing. The bay he loved and learned his first fishing skills from his father and grandfather was changing beyond the recognition. The playful dolphins that used to revisit the bay frequently, stopped coming long time ago.

A few kilometers away a Zushi Marina resort was built for the wealthy Tokyoites and luxurious yacht owners. The powerful family boats that scared disoriented dolphins away were leaving behind the smell of gasoline. The folks on both sides of the bay seemed to enjoy their fishing pleasures in different ways. Some kept enjoying nature in their small fishing boats; others enjoyed the latest models of fast cruising boats.

The first thing the local fishermen's kids were always taught was to avoid speeding boats and to spot poisonous fish among the hundreds of other sea creatures caught into the net.

The other thing that the elderly Kato cousins kept teaching the younger generation was the danger of getting fingers caught by a pulled net.

The scene of the two elderly local fishermen teaching a small boy the skills they had learned from their ancestors have remained in my memory long after I moved from Kamakura to nearby Enoshima.

When last week a disoriented dolphin was almost stranded near the Enoshima aquarium, I recalled my elderly fisherman friend's warning about the punishing power of an abused nature. While the fugu fish could kill the humans who disrespect the laws of nature, most of the dolphins naturally pass to their offspring the new ways of avoiding human-made danger. The dolphins continued moving farther and farther away from our polluted waters.

And yet some dolphins still venture into our bay in search of the poisonous fugu. They eat fugu to get high, in the same way we humans get high on drugs.

Wondering if the story of an intoxicated dolphin was true, I called Master Kato yesterday. His phone was silent. I tried again today. No reply. There were new cases of Covid in Kamakura. Some of the fisher folks believe that the deadly impact of Covid is like the poisonous power of fugu, a warning. A warning call to all of us that something might be going wrong in the way we live our lives by ignoring the laws of nature.

Am still wondering if biking to Kamakura to revisit Master Kato's hut during the ongoing state of emergency wouldn't break the law of keeping social distancing in tact.

During our latest meeting, Master Kato wasn't able to finish sharing with me over fresh sashimi his long family story. The story of 350 years of continuing family netfishing in the same Shonan Kamakura bay.

The bay he taught me to respect and love... and fear at times.

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