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  • Joseph Polack


Updated: Jan 21, 2023

Our magical journeys to the afterlife and back to our Shonan neighborhood seem as natural for many of my Japanese lifesaving friends, as the annual celebrations of Obon, Mikoshi, and other community festivals that linked us with the past.

In the pre-pandemic times, we participated as a team inthe Shonan summer festivals alongside SURF90 lifeguarding duties and international long distance swimming races.

A quick change from our beach uniforms to traditional Mikoshi outfits was a summer routine that I was expected to master as a voluntary community lifesaver.

Under the instruction of Matsui-san, one of the SURF90 captains, as well as a captain of a Kamakura-Ohmachi Mikoshi team, my introduction to Shonan community festivities and outdoor parties went smoothly, in fact almost in a carefree manner.

Then everything began to change last spring. Covid safety measures increasingly encroached on the joy ofliving in in ourvibrant seasidemulti ethnic-neighborhood. One matsuri (local festival) after anotherwas postponed, then cancelled all together.

With every cancellation, our neighborhood spirit was weakening. We were slowly drifting apart as a team, caught in the troubled here and now. It almost felt at times as if our increasingly confusingsocial distancing was reviving dormant memories hiding along Shonan coast.

The memoriesof our coastal neighborhoods’ ancient past, which had evolved around light-skinned, grey-eyed nomadic Ainu hunters and their tattooed wives, sank into the sea,submerged by the forces of nature.

Thousands of years ago, the Ainu communities made of non-Mongoloidnomadic clansinhabited Hokkaido and a major part of Honshu island.

Before they were pushed north to Hokkaido by the expansive Yamato-Japanese and the other tribes arriving from the Asian mainland, Ainu’s historical presence in the area currently known as the Tokyo Metropolis and Kanagawa Prefecture is well documented.

According to Japanese statistics only 25.000 Ainu are left in the 21stcentury Japan. Yet, the Ainu activists estimate that there are over 200.000 Ainuwho don’t disclose their identity in fear of discrimination.

Though Ainu representatives, were expected to participate inthe opening of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in a similar way to the Australian Aborigines during the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the Ainu symbolic presence was cancelled a few months before the outbreak of the pandemics.

It was reported that the unexpected cancellation was caused by logistic considerations rather than by cultural obstacles rooted in the past.

With the colonization of Hokkaido by the expansive Japanese State, the tattoo as a sign of Ainu ethnic identity was forbidden, and so were their other cultural traditions.

Though their rights to the ancestral land, Ainu Mosir, were taken away from them, their decaying culture and continuing trust in Guardian KamuyGods living in nature, have survived against the odds. Ainu'sKamuy Gods, who appeared under many forms and names, were vennered with gifts of dances and songs as a gratitude for guarding Ainu clans against the evil spirits.

Ainu people's symbolic participation in the opening of the Summer Olympics might have been a chance for healing memories of the past injuries and overcoming the cultural pain.

Some of my local friends believe that a postponement of the Tokyo Olympics by a year was caused by the increasingly annoyed Guardian Gods. The Gods living in nature keep refusing to obey our human made rules that keep associating tattoos with social stigma and cultural exclusion.

The memories of Ainu tattooing tradition of protecting females from the evil forces and rescuing their unborn children from misfortunes hiding in our abusednature could still be traced in the ancient Ainu songs.

The songs carrying a message of peaceful coexistence of human and nature were expected to be performed for the worldwide audience are still being rehearsed by the Ainu community who hopes their voice will be heard in summer of 2021.

The cliff facing the Enoshima Olympic Yachting Harbour, Mt. Fuji, and the beach area where our SURF90 Lifesaving Field Station is located, used to be shared by the migrating Ainu tribes with the Guardian Gods living in the surrounding nature. Yet, many of us living in Shonan hardly know about the culture of our northern Japanese neighbours, Ainu.

In my seven years on the SURF90 team preceding the pandemic’s outbreak, Igradually immersed myself within the Shonan community made up of unlikely souls, historical twists, and untold human stories.

Our little multicultural community was composed of surfers, beach cleaners, fisher widows, volunteer lifesavers, wandering souls of the folks whose bodies were lost to the demons hiding in the ocean, and the Guardian Gods living among submerged sacred rocks since times immemorial.

The Guardian Gods that bridge visible and invisible worlds, have many local names. Some inhabitants of Japanese Archipelago call their Guardian Gods, Kamuy; the other, Kami.

But regardless of their human-given-names, the Gods can miraculously purify the imperfect souls of those who revere them with the respectful bows and occasional dance offerings.

But if disrespected, the Ocean Gods can abandon those who doubt their powers.

It is believed that any swimmer or surfer being left by the gods to struggle alone in the waves of our increasingly polluted bay, could easily be abducted by the merciless demons.

That's why one of our lifesaving captains, Yoh Terazaki, and his fellow guard and wife Chizuko always made sure that I asked the Ocean Gods for protection with a bow, whether I was on patrol or we swam together in off-season races.

The coastal community living on both sides of the Inamuragasaki Cliff believe that our earthly co-existence with wandering spirits is natural as the reflection of sun and moon along the constantly changing ocean waves.

During my globetrotting decades as a swim-addicted field anthropologist moving between Greenland, Australia, and Hokkaido, I had never encountered a community of lifesavers so closely collaborating with the Ocean Gods, and yet fearing impure spirits supposedly hiding in tattooed bodies. As a member ofthe SURF90 Lifesaving Team, I became acquainted with over 60 Japanese male and female volunteer lifeguards. Japanese was naturally our language of communication.

Admittedly my command of the local Japanese dialect was a source of cross-cultural misunderstandings mixed with jolly laughter and jokes amongst our lifesaving team.

Over time our lifesaving team almost halved in size. The initial members were leaving for the variety of personal and professional reasons. Some, ended up working in Okinawa, the others, in Hokkaido. A few among the dropouts simply got tired of their long commuting hours to the increasingly restrictive beaches.

The expected number of newcomers ready to risk their lives for unpaid community patrolling remained low. Meanwhile our Shonan beaches were attracting more multilingual crowds, and injuries and fatalities were becoming more frequent due to a shortage of lifesavers. Some fatalities were reported by the social media; some were not.

During my weekly patrolling, I explored the idea of drafting more foreign residents to our team, and was pleasantly astonished to receive encouraging reactions from Yoh, Chizuko, Ken, Junichiro, and other fellow lifesavers long before the outbreak of the pandemic.

After informally introducing the potential foreign hopefuls to several of our team members during the annual Rough Water Swim Japan Series, it seemed like a cross-cultural breakthrough was on the way.

Or was it just wishful thinking inspired by our neighbourhood’s preparations for the 2020 Summer Olympics?

As many of the open water Olympic disciplines were going to take place in our Enoshima neighborhood, we eagerly anticipated the coming arrival of overseas guests to our Shonan beaches.

And getting our SURF90 team ready to deal with the expected influx of foreign beach-goers required a lot of physical fitness and language training in the run-up to the event.

Our preparations for the Olympics were joyful rehearsals. Annually competing with over five hundred other long distance swimmers from Japan, USA, Australia and the EU, set the stage for the Olympics. We would collect our swimming competition awards on the podium and enjoy the friendly cheering beach crowds and each other's company as we chatted in Japanese and various other languages.

These multicultural swimming gatherings, repeated year after year, but not a single of the far better qualified foreign candidates than I, joined the Kamakura-Shonan lifesaving team.

The reasons for their absence were not fear of the demons hiding at the bottom of our bay, as some of the locals suggested, but the minor tattoos spotted on the foreign hopefuls’ bodies.

The Japanese lifesavers are not allowed to have tattoos, unlike many other nations belonging to the International Lifesaving Federation (ILSF).

Lifesavers with tattoos on Kamakura beaches were forbidden by a mayor a few years prior to the Olympics. And so were all other tattooed beach-goers. On duty, or off duty, didn't make a difference. No excuses, and no ethnic discrimination. Anyone with a tattoo who illegally entered our Kamakura beaches and was spotted by the security personnel was requested to leave.

The overseas tourists who revisited Kamakura beaches after several years, were confused by the ongoing changes. It appeared that the number of beach security staffers responsible for keeping tattooed folks away continued to increase, while the number of trained volunteer lifesavers was shrinking.

Tattoos were a symbol of cultural and social identity on the Japanese Archipelago for centuries, but they became a target for social and cultural exclusion in contemporary Japan.

With the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics due to the outbreak of the Covid-19, some of our younger lifesaving volunteers hoped that change might be on the way with lifting of the tattoo ban. If socially restrictive tattoo regulations (dividing bathers as ‘legals’ and ‘illegals’) would be eased, then the Ocean Gods would welcome the foreign-born lifesavers into our multi-ethnic community. But this was not a certainty.

The local officials avoided the issue, while many lives that could have been saved, were lost.

The tattoo question remained among these socially risky, with the possibility of boomeranging on visiting Olympians and tattooed foreign swimmers.

Who cares in the time of life and death struggles of the Covid pandemic if a lifesaver wears a tattoo, or not?

Or if the person struggling to survive had a small or a big tattoo? Some among the grassroots felt, that by more sincere bowing during the Obon celebrations rather than just conforming to the bureaucratically imposed restrictions, the Ocean Gods may become more merciful in 2021.

Yet, the administrative rules had to be obeyed, regardless of the human price we all had to watch happening asthe shortage of lifeguards engendered consequent loss of life from drowning.

Common sense and compassion were being replaced by conformity and fear of voicing our honest opinion.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the leaders of the Japanese Lifesaving Association's (JLA) have become even more active along Shonan coast. The JLA President, Takuya Iritani, who together with the local Kanagawa leaders brought personal emergency supplies to our SURF90 field station, were open to discuss differing cultural approaches to lifesaving and crisis management in Japan and overseas.

Some of the JLA veterans believe that a second and third wave of the pandemic might be on the way, but the crisis could be prevented by the ‘right preparations’ namely, the more timely supply of masks for local lifeguards, more effective communication among rescue teams and an ease-up on the tattoo ban, which is an obstacle to the recruitment of more life guards. This could help to alleviate the danger of drowning on Kamakura beaches.

Though the response of the Ocean Gods is continuing to be slow, there seems to be a slight increase in the number of overseas-schooled Japanese student volunteers ready for the challenge of life-guarding.

Some of these young nomadic Japanese have experienced cross-cultural rescue training with tattooed local lifesavers in Australasia, Eurasiaand elsewhere where bureaucratic regulations about tattoos are absent.

The small, personal or cultural tattoos are not being perceived by many younger Japanese returnees from overseas, as a social stigma, or an implicitphysical threat associated with the Yakuza gangs.

The sight of tattooed female and male lifeguards saving the lives on the beaches in the EU, USA, Australia and many other places, have been common for decades.

Meanwhile, one of our SURF90 veteran lifeguards returned from a long working assignment in Sapporo and re-joined our field team. During one of our patrol breaks, we chatted about the Kamuy Guardian Gods, and my earlier anthropological fieldwork among Australian Aborigines and the tattooed indigenous people of Hokkaido, Ainu.

Regardless of whether the postponement of the 2020 Olympics was inspired by the Guardian Gods worrying about the fragility of the sea’s nature, or by other dormant causes related to social taboo, it may still give the hosts of the 2021 Olympics a second chance to deal with the unsolved cross-cultural challenges and the demons lurking in the sea around Inamuragasaki cliff.

The past drama of a vanishing Ainu culture would not have re-emerged in our offline chattering and online global media coverage if it were not for the aborted opening ceremony of the 2020 Summer Olympics.


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