- Joseph Polack
ROUGH WATER RACE: VIOLENT BEACH ARREST & LIFESAVERS
Protecting the +500 ocean swimmers in the Japan Power Sports Races has become tougher with each passing year of Covid.
Though the number of international racers has steadily decreased due to the pandemic, the dangers kept growing.
When the lives of two our fellow racers were at stake in the 2022 Annual Summer Rough Water Race in Kamakura, we had to react fast. Almost instinctively.
Suddenly, the deceptively surface calm on the Shonan coast was turning by hidden undercurrents into a life-endangering trap. Yet many Japanese and foreign competitors (in 800-1.500-3.000 meters categories) were unable to notice the danger until it was too late.
Between our annual international races, we all had trained for months in navigating across rough waves and Pacific undercurrents, but we were hardly prepared for what was going to happen in the summer of 2022.
Preparations for the organization of the races was as always done with meticulous attention to high tech safety precautions. Each of us was tagged with a waterproof security chip that followed us along the race. But the AI-monitored alerts weren’t pre-programmed for the sudden invasion of the potentially deadly Katsuno Eboshi (Portugal Soldiers*) jellyfish preying in groups. These purple colored predators used their paralyzing stings to eat alive other sea creatures.
They were hiding among sea debris and offshore rocks. Because their encounters with humans could cause life threatening injuries for bathers (muscle paralysis, heart attack), we were advised by the on-duty Shonan lifesavers to be doubly cautious during this summer race.
The first swimmer attacked by the purple jellyfish in the 3 km race was already sped by ambulance to the hospital by the time I had entered my 800 meter race. The ocean seemed peaceful. The triathlon swimmers dominated our race right from the start. We were already resting behind the goal line, when one of the Japanese competitors collapsed trying to reach the shore. We ran to help him.
Our reaction was instinctive. Together with the other swimmers who were trained lifesavers we kept his mouth away from the approaching waves. Our on-sight medical team arrived almost instantly and massaged the chest of the Japanese swimmer until he slowly began to return to consciousness.
He needed to be transported to the hospital immediately. After placing him in the blanket brought by the lifesaver-nurse, the six of us carried our still half-conscious fellow swimmer to the first aid station.
The on-duty lifeguards and race organizers had already coordinated the rescue.
The ambulance was on the way. The man was slowly regaining his ability to talk. Yet, he still wasn’t able to comprehend where he was and what had happened to him.
Knowing he was in safe hands, I returned to monitor the ending of the relay.
In addition to our computer-operated-security, our race was monitored by several dozens of Shonan lifesavers. On that Saturday, among the on-duty veteran lifesavers was my old friend Shintaro Goto, and his fellow Kamakura lifeguards stationed at the racing venue.
For many beach visitors, Shintaro didn’t look different from our other veteran Shonan life guards, like Hideshi, Atsushi, or Ichiro.
It took me many years to learn that Shintaro was deaf. He lost his hearing when he was an infant. We have been serving in two different lifesaving stations in Kamakura. He was assigned to the Yuigahama—Zaimokuza lifeguarding stations, while I have continued serving at the Sichirigahama field-post for the past 10 years.
At times Shintaro participated in our Kamakura Henna Gaijin Swimming Club (HGSC) training and pre-Olympic charities. Though he couldn’t hear me, he could read my lips.
Shintaro, who was the descendant of a Southern Japanese fisher family, could also read the changing undercurrents faster than most of us.
And while our fellow Shonan lifeguards Hideshi and Atsushi monitored the wind’s impact on waves, Shintaro followed the changing shades of green, blue, and gray of the surface water.
The colors replaced the sounds.
For Shintaro, reading the silently changing mood of the sea waves was like reading the subtle movements of one’s silently moving lips.
Once during our offseason HGSC Charity swims at Kamakura bay, Shintaro noticed the slight color changes of the surface. He didn’t need to shout his warnings over the waves. Being the fastest swimmer among us, he accelerated his speed, and we followed his lead towards the safer waters.
[*END OF PART-1]
While our Shonan beaches are watched over by well trained Japanese lifesavers during the official bathing season (July-August), the off-season protection of beach is taken over by the local police patrols.
In the course of my several decades long anthropological field research, I had frequently crossed paths with law enforcement officers of different ranks, skills, and cultural backgrounds.
Having encountered on-duty armed police officers in such culturally diverse field settings as Eastern Europe, Australia, India, Greenland, Okinawa, and Scandinavia, I had learned how a seemingly minor cultural misunderstanding could lead to an escalation of force.
The results can be unpredictable and life endangering for both sides involved in any rapidly escalating community conflict. A few mispronounced words, or a heavy accent by a cultural stranger could be perceived by the natives as suspicious, if not offensive or frightening.
Witnessing the violent beach arrest of an African man on the Fujisawa-Nishihama shore on June 20, 2022 seemed hardly believable at first. He had been napping on the rocks. A few meters beneath him a turbulent Pacific stream was splashing more debris and dead jellyfish over the rocks.
The day was very hot. The napping man was first approached by two police officers. They were trying to wake him up by shouting their orders to be heard above the growing sea wind.
The slippery Nishihama rocks and the dark, longish figure of the resting man reminded me of the windy Swedish cliffs during the rough water races along the rocks during my student days.
My Scandinavian memories of multicultural police force were interrupted by the shouts of the Japanese patrolmen. I was back to the windy Nishihama beach and the increasingly irritated police officers shouting to be heard by the dozing stranger.
The suddenly awakened African man was ordered to stand up. He didn’t seem to comprehend what was happening and why the two uniformed men kept screaming at him.
The heavy waves colliding against the rocks made their increasingly agitated exchange difficult to follow for me and for sunbathers sitting nearby.
What looked at first as a minor cultural miscommunication between an African visitor and the Japanese police patrolmen on the fringe of Nishihama beach was rapidly evolving into a major incident.
Within minutes a third police officer joined the increasingly out of control confrontation and more police enforcement began to arrive at the scene.
While a sweating police officer in a full gear and protective helmet ran to support his half a dozen armed colleagues, still more policemen in civilian clothes were on their way.
With the police sirens getting louder, more Japanese and foreign sunbathers were moving closer to the rocks.
The growing crowd of curious onlookers was trying to learn what was happening in the on-folding drama. The comments in Japanese and English were overlapping the other languages.
Confusion was growing. Nobody seemed to know what was happening and why the police officers were kneeling on the chest of a black man who was already removed from the rocks.
The back of the police officer holding a firm grip of the Tanzanian’s throat was still clearly visible.
Though his face became gradually obscured by the wall of the newly arrived police reinforcements, parts of his large body could be seen.
Some of the disturbed beach goers turned their eyes away. The younger ones kept enjoying their cooled beers and sake while observing the unfolding drama as if it were a rehearsal for another TV reality shows. A few activated their mobile phones.
In the matter of minutes the Tanzanian man was overpowered and made unconscious by seven Japanese policemen. After he was injected with an immobilizing drug by a police officer, his cries for help slowly quieted down.
When his body turned still, even more police officers arrived. Then he was transported on the shoulders of seven armed officers out of the sight of a growing crowd.
Together with the foreign beach visitors from Scandinavia, Canada, Italy, and several other countries, I followed the incident from a few meters distance.
I wouldn’t have recalled how rapidly the violence had escalated, had I not videoed this public incident with my mobile phone.
That evening I summarized my field observations. Then following the guidelines of Applied Anthropology I shared my transcripts and fieldwork videos with my academic colleagues in Japan, the EU & USA.
The reaction from a Swahili-speaking British female professor and my longtime Oxford colleague arrived the next day.
The US-born, Tanzania-educated, British Professor Deborah Bryceson wished to follow the case and asked me to supply her with more detailed updates. Fellow researchers from Europe and Human Rights activists from the USA interested in following the case also requested updates and more details.
During the following days, I had repeatedly reviewed my Nishihama documentary video files together with my fellow long distance swimmer and a Fujisawa lifesaver, Atsuko Matsuda.
We recalled the early afternoon on the third Monday of June when we were approached in a break between our training races by a gentle African giant.
Our unexpected cross-cultural encounter took place just five meters away from the same nearby offshore rocks where he would be arrested two hours later.
Atsuko and I had never learned his name and he didn’t ask for ours. Our leisurely chat lasted just a few minutes. I responded to his “Hello” with a “Salaams” greeting. He chuckled when I said it was the only Swahili word I have ever learned from my African friends.
He jokingly challenged me if I knew where his beloved Zanzibar island was located. After I said that a “marriage” between Tanganyika and Zanzibar gave birth to a post colonial modern state of Tanzania, he treated us to another of his happy chuckles and offered us a can of beer.
When we declined saying that we are still a middle of our daily swimming training for the coming Rough Water Race in two weeks, he wished us good luck. Then he switched his interests to a couple of sunbathers drinking beers near the rocks.
The rocks were frequently used off season as an emergency pissing spot by local drinkers. As the locals he had approached could hardly communicate in English, he returned to our spot with his unfinished beer can.
He gave an impression of a lonely man who had recently retired from athletics. I guessed from his posture he might have been a former basketball player that might have played in a Japanese professional basketball league.
But before I could ask him, he was already wondering aloud if I had ever visited Tanzania. I said that I only knew Tanzania from my British friends’ research books and novels.
After hearing me briefly mentioning a novel “By the Sea” written by a Zanzibar-born British academic and the 2021 Nobel Prize Winner in Literature, he insisted we should share his last can of beer.
His Tanzanian English accent, and frequent change of topics between his joyful chuckles were difficult to follow for Atsuko and her fellow Japanese. But she felt comfortable listening to him, as he was neither drunk nor aggressive. Just a cheerfully outgoing man trying to make friends by the sea.
He had hardly differed from my other African friends from Ethiopia, Senegal, and the USA who had visited our Shonan beaches several years earlier. Yet, while they were official guests of the Japanese Government protected by diplomatic immunity, he was not. He would be paying the price for being an anonymous man in the wrong spot of the beach at the wrong time.
If he had only visited Nishihama beach twelve days later, the violent arrest and excessive use of force might never have happened.
With the official opening of the Shonan beach season (July 1st) the well trained Japanese lifesavers would have become responsible for the on/offshore security of beach visitors. The African man, like anyone else, would have been prevented from entering the “Pissing Rocks” area by the on-duty lifesavers.
The Nishihama lifesavers have always carefully monitored the slippery rocks because of the invisible danger brought by the rough undercurrents.
A few weeks after the African man’s arrest, I noticed near the rocks a sacred flower offering. The special bouquet was laid to comfort the soul of a tragically deceased young man.
How did a 19 year old Japanese student die, nobody seemed to know for sure. Some locals believed he had stepped on a dead yet still venomous purple jellyfish. Others thought he was stung by a living jellyfish while swimming.
And still others wondered whether his muscles were affected as a result of multiple Covid vaccinations reacting in combination with the jellyfish poison mixed with beer. None of these opinions could be confirmed.
While the police search for his missing body had continued, someone laid the symbolic flowers and a can of beer to comfort his soul.
The flowers were in the same shape and color my Swedish-born daughter used to offer to her Buddhist home altar.
Our cross-cultural beach community was slowly adjusting to the increasingly unpredictable neighborhood events.
[*END of PART-2]
Only a few weeks remained before the ending of our 2022 summer season. The summer that was marked by violence and death.
I was still in touch with my deaf lifeguard friend Shintaro Goto of Kamakura, when another chain of unexpected encounters brought me back to the Nishihama police again.
I found by chance that among my fellow Shonan lifeguards was a 17-year veteran lifesaver who was also an active Kanagawa police officer. His name is Hideshi Ohno.
As we both have been serving as volunteer lifeguards on the Shonan beaches a few kilometers apart, I have only known Hideshi as a fellow Shonan lifesaver.
I occasionally stopped by Hideshi’s lifeguard station at Nishihama and chatted with his team members, while he was busy monitoring bathers from a nearby observation tower.
Mr. Ohno, or Hideshi (as I called him) was a soft-spoken, quick-witted athletic man in his late forties.
Sometimes we bumped into each other when he was on his unpaid seasonal lifesaving
mission in Nishihama, while I was continuing my usual all around the year training for our Power Sports Rough Water Races.
Several years before I found out that he was a police officer by profession, I could see him breaking our lifeguards’ strict patrolling daily schedule (9-to-5).
For Hideshi helping intoxicated bathers back to shore after the other lifeguards' posts were already off service for the day was correct and expected. He was a lifesaver first.
Timing and readiness to save life seemed to had a very individual meaning for Hideshi. And so was his sense of trust in his fellow team members’ ability to remain on alert at all times.
When I mentioned my ongoing book project about Shonan culture and asked his permission to follow his lifeguarding routines in the field, he smiled: “Sure! No problem, Marek. Ask anything you need for your Shonan book.”
After our chats off-camera Hideshi unexpectedly agreed to share his thoughts about lifesaving and community policing on-camera. When I asked him if he was really sure that I can use his family name in my forthcoming blog-chapters, he repeated “No problem! Nothing to hide. Your family name is on Kanagawa lifesavers’ list, and so is mine.”
Hideshi’s almost two decades of policing and lifesaving experiences along the Shonan coastal towns of Zushi, Kamakura, and Fujisawa had taught him that a difference between death and life was often a matter of seconds. He believed that individual decisions taken on the spot should be fast and follow rescue instructions.
The captains among our Shonan lifeguards had frequently rotated during the season. A 3rd year female student of the Japan National Sports University could as frequently lead a Nishihama rescue team that included Hideshi, as the leadership roles could be reversed in the following week.
For Hideshi neither gender nor ethnic origin was an issue. Rather, a person should have proven skills to be able to lead a rescue team in an emergency.
He believed that leadership and lifesaving skills could be practiced as early as in the first grade of elementary school.
Listening to his suggestion that a young student who hadn’t learn to read yet could be still schooled into becoming a future rescue leader seemed to me like a wishful thinking.
And yet, I was wrong. The more I was learning about this unusual policeman’s family background, the less I was astonished by my fellow lifeguard’s unconventional ideas of training his two kids to become English-speaking Junior Lifesavers.
When I asked Hideshi how he became acquainted with his wife Yuriko, he said:
“Of course, on the beach!”
“Here, in Fujisawa?”
“No, on the other side of Tokyo Bay. We met by chance on a Chiba beach. I was then a young police officer and Yuriko was a young nurse and…”
“And we both loved the sea…”
Our chat was overlapped by two agitated foreigners sunbathing near his lifeguarding tower.
In their heavily accented non-native English, they wanted to make sure that there were no dead Portugal Soldiers floating in the bay.
While Hideshi and my other fellow lifesavers called the venomous purple jellyfish by
its Japanese name of Katsuno Eboshi, the overseas visitors, called it by variety of terms: Portuguese man-of-war, Portugal Soldier, Portugal Jelly, or just Portugal Purple!
Without interrupting my exchange with the worried foreign sunbathers, Hideshi kept screening the beach with his binoculars. Then he gave us the all-is-fine hand-gesture.
The assured foreign guys headed to the water, and I returned to our chat about his
and Yuriko’s beginnings of lifesaving.
“When we met in the Lifesaving License Course, Yuriko was a newly graduated nurse, and I was just a rookie police officer. She was then living on the mountainous side of Kanagawa Prefecture, so she had to commute several hours to Chiba seaside by car. Sometimes she was too tired to drive back home and slept in her car…”
Hideshi focused his binoculars on the school kids trying to catch an inflatable beach ball drifting further offshore. Only after making sure that the kids got safely on shore, he returned to my questions.
“The lifesaving course brought us closer together. After getting our certificates, Yuriko stopped commuting. We continued sharing our lifesaving duties along the Chiba-Kujukuri beach. Then one summer day many years ago we had just fallen in…”
Hideshi turned his attention from my questions about marriage to Yuriko, to the surfers coming dangerously close to the swimming folks.
Since a young Kamakura woman was killed by an out of control surfing board that hit her head several years ago, the Shonan lifeguards tried to keep surfers and swimmers apart.
“The Nishihama surfers usually keep to their designated area,” Hideshi gestured to the right side of the beach, “but even during a calm sea, the danger of being hit by an over-speeding surfers may…”
Our conversation was interrupted by a growing rumbling of an approaching thunder. A
jet-ski appearing from behind the Enoshima Island was getting closer. The lifeguards got
on a higher alert again. When the slaloming jet-rider was gone, and the beach became
quiet again, I headed back to Hideshi’s lifeguard post to continue interviewing his
The on-duty captain was much younger than Hideshi. And the fact that he was in command of an off-duty police officer showed how volunteering was bonding people by their shared love for the sea rather than by the power of seniority and orders.
Many of the young Nishihama lifesavers that I had gotten to know from our earlier offshore encounters were fast paddlers, but their English skills were limited.
Several times they had caught up with me some 100 meters offshore and instructed me
to swim back because of an approaching typhoon or because of lightning-alerts.
Whenever the winds were too strong to hear their warnings, they gestured with their
hands to follow them to safety. Though their English was basic, their decisive-yet-friendly gesturing made them good communicators.
Due to Hideshi’s double schedule (of beach volunteering and commuting to his regular police work in Hadano’s mountains), our Nishihama chats became less frequent. But he shared with me his Line-app and promised to respond online to my follow up field inquiries about our seaside community.
Perhaps because his family lived near my daughter’s house, and my granddaughter occasionally played on the seaside with the Nishihama junior lifeguards, our on/offline
chatting naturally mingled lifesaving with conversations about our family lives.
Our shared neighborhood was linking us together across the cultural divide and professional backgrounds.
That Hideshi & Yuriko’s daughter Momoka and son Tomo-kun belonged to our award winning Nishihama Junior Lifesavers Team (NJL) was even a more astonishing discovery.
Though I had frequently encountered the NJL youngsters training offshore, our offseason swimming routines differed.
The NJL trainees combined endurance swim with board-rescue paddling, running, diving, and carrying “injured swimmers” on shore to apply first aid. The team building exercises
integrating elementary & junior high-schoolers gave them early practice under instructions
of the senior lifeguards.
During my follow up online exchange with Hideshi, I learned that his daughter Momoka
was on the team representing Nishihama in the All Japan Lifesaving Championship held in October 2021. The very event that I had recorded earlier on video on my iPhone.
I was first introduced in English to Momoka on the beach by a fellow Fujisawa lifesaver, Atsuko.
Atsuko, who has been Momoka’s English teacher for the past ten years had also earlier
served with me in the 2021 Olympic Water Sports Security Team in nearby Enoshima Yacht Harbor.
I was surprised to find out during our beach encounters that though Momoka was only a Junior Lifesaver, she could easily switch between her fluent English and her native Japanese.
While Hideshi was busy commuting between his beach volunteering and his police job, his wife Yuriko was between her hospital work driving her children to the junior lifesavers competitions in Yokohama, Shimoda, and other faraway beaches.
From Yuriko’s online exchange with her kids’ English teacher (and my fellow rough water racer), Atsuko, I could enjoy the Ohno-children’s latest lifesaving achievements.
The 9-year old Tomo-kun was following in his 13-year old sister Momoka’s footsteps.
Only within the past year Momoka won several rescue categories in Kanagawa Prefectural Lifesaving Championship and got the 2nd place in the Japan National Lifesaving Championship.
Tomo-kun after his 2nd place in the 2022 Kanagawa championship on first weekend of September in Shimoda, was already training for the All Japan Lifesaving Championship
scheduled for October 2022.
With the ending of the official Shonan bathing season, the lifesavers posts were removed from Kamakura and Fujisawa beaches.
The familiar yellow-red-white uniforms of Shonan lifesavers were replaced again by the other familiar uniforms in the blue-black colors, the police patrolmen. The armed police patrols have regained control power over the beach life.
The pre-season and post-season policing of the beaches didn’t differ much. Only the days were becoming darker and shorter in the fall.
Since encountering Hideshi Ohno and the deaf lifesaver Shintaro Goto, I couldn’t stop wondering what might have happened to a napping on the beach African man if the timing and venue were different.
Some of the earlier overseas feedbacks I had received on the drafts of my lifesaving stories asked hypothetical questions:
Could have Hideshi Ohno's lifesaving and community policing experiences been of help in deescalating a rapidly growing tension between the awakened African man and the local law enforcers before it turned confrontational and violent?
Could another of our Shonan veteran lifesavers, Shintaro Goto’s unique skills as a deaf lifeguard been of help to prevent police patrolmen from misreading of the Tanzanian man’s panicky reaction?
Was the forcefully awaken man’s impulsive reaction towards the policemen triggered by his fear of falling from the slippery rocks to the rough water beneath him, rather than a hostile aggression?
Could Shintaro’s ability to quickly read the changing mood by following beach-goers’ lips and body movements have helped the intervening patrolmen to reinterpret the situation on the spot?
Perhaps anyone in danger of losing a balance on the sea-cliff would instinctively grab the arm of the closest person standing nearby? Even if it was an on duty police officer that should never be touched?
Or perhaps it was already too late?
Perhaps the two police officers initial perception of being physically assaulted on duty by a foreigner generated a snow-ball like reaction. The arrival of additional seven officers and resulted in chain reaction of the violence hitherto unseen on our Shonan beaches.
When I was asked, why an already subdued by an overwhelming police force African man was additionally injected by an unidentified drug that made him unconscious, I had no answer.
While the global media coverage focused on the dramatic murder of the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the little dramas of a young student who had drowned near the rocks that only few weeks earlier the African man was violently arrested, had remained largely unreported by the foreign media.
With the summer turning into the fall, more police patrols have become more noticeable along our Shonan beaches than the last fall.
Though the restrictions brought by the pandemics were slowly being eased, our seaside neighborhood was put on security alert again.
From our Lifesavers Captain I got a late night message that our offseason Community
Rough Water Race scheduled for September 18th will be postponed. My plans to meet with my fellow lifesavers Shintaro and Hideshi, and share the latest overseas reactions to the increasing community violence had to be also changed.
Typhoon Nr. 14 was approaching our Shonan beaches.
The rough waves beneath the rocks reminded me my brief encounter with the stranger who had never managed to tell me his name. The only name we both had shared was a name of a Tanzanian refugee, Abdulrazak Gurnah.
Whether the violent arrest of a Tanzanian beach goer will ever inspire my fellow academic and a former Tanzania-born refugee-turned a 2021 Nobel Prize Winner in Literature to write a sequel to his novel “By the Sea” remains an open question.
The Swedish Nobel Prize Committee motived its award for a largely unknown in Japan African novelist for his compassionate exploration “of the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
Meanwhile the number of the displaced people stranded in our Japanese communities has been growing further.
[* THE ABOVE THREE PARTS ARE THE LATEST CHAPTERS OF MY FORTHCOMING
BOOK “LIVING AMONG JAPANESE”]