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  • Joseph Polack


Updated: Jan 21, 2023

The acting in over 150 feature movies, and decades of managing global business ventures, didn't prevent Kato cousins to turn their lives around, and return to their ancestral fishing roots in a decaying coastal village.

A 95 year old Shigeo Kato and his two decades younger distant cousin Shoichi Kato, used to mentor me in their ancestors' 350 years old net-fishing tradition at our Shonan Kamakura bay. It took me years before the aging fishers shared with me a story of their double life. The life in a much bigger world.

Both Shigeo and Shoichi were since their childhood trained by their families in the ocean fishing and survival secrets. Shigeo’s father and Shoichi grandfather were brothers, and highly respected community leaders. Both boys were groomed in the ancient fishers' wisdom of surviving sudden typhoons, tsunami, earthquakes, and other natural disasters that could endanger their village livelihood.

The survival skills were passed from generation to generation in the Kato clan. Sometimes through their grandfathers' stories. Other times through the old songs and dances jointly performed by fisher folks during once frequent neighborhood matsuri-festivals.

Though Shigeo and Shoichi were expected to take over their grandfathers' net-fishing business and follow in their fathers steps, they rebelled. They looked for luck away from their slowly deteriorating coastal village. Their beginnings in an unknown world of tough competition were difficult. They had to master different skills to succeed.

The older Shigeo was the first one to follow his dreams of a bigger world. He started from scratch in the ruined by the war film industry. First, as an extra, later as an actor.

One Sunday morning, when we were jointly pulling our half-empty net closer to the shore, Shigeo told me that getting an acting job was similar to fishing; unpredictable! And though his early fishing for auditions was tiresome, the money, small, and future, uncertain, he hoped the tides would change with time.

After debuting in Akira Kurosawa's classic "Seven Samurai" (1953) Shigeo continued playing in the hundreds of feature movies, TV dramas, and theatrical productions for the next seventy years. He played so many different roles as a robber, an impoverished samurai, a ship captain, and hundreds of others roles.

The difference between a small and a bigger role, was for him like the difference between a small and a big fish. Shigeo proudly told me that he had equally enjoyed performing together with the leading Japanese stars, like Toshiro Mifune, and Hollywood actors, like Richard Geer. The roles were challenging in different ways, and he loved to build a character from scratch.

But when a series of typhoons devastated his ancestral fishing village again, the veteran actor was ready for a different challenge; he made a U-turn.

Shigeo returned to the community he had left many decades earlier. And the role of a community spirit was something unexpected. Something he didn't audition for, and yet he found his new role both natural and rewarding.

Though when I befriended Shigeo, he was in his early 90-ies already, he hardly had time to slow down. The seasonal drying of nori-seaweeds, or repairs of fishing nets kept him busy in the mornings.

In the afternoons, Shigeo continued helping his relatives in rebuilding their huts. In the evening, he was writing a book about the local stories he wanted to preserve for the coming generations of fishers. Or preparing a script for a small Tokyo theatre.

Shigeo's cousin, Shoichi Kato, also left his village early and never expected to be back. He was the first in his family to earn a university degree and join one of Japan's biggest corporations operating worldwide. Shoichi stubbornness and interest in natural energy sources was gradually rewarded.

His mastering of Chinese, English, and other languages helped him to climb the corporate ladder fast enough to be seconded abroad in the very young age.

Though Shoichi spent most of his expat life managing huge overseas business ventures in Asia, Europe, and Middle East, he confessed to me that he often missed such little things as the smell of his family nets drying in the wind and the soothing sound of waves. And missing his boyhood bay, and a taste of a freshly caught fish, brought him back to his ruined village several decades later.

Shoichi transition from flying the world in business class and dining in the upscale foreign restaurants to a tight-knit but financially struggling fishing community wasn’t easy. Shoichi was met by doubts about his chances to make a successful U-turn from a corporate manager to a local fisher. But though he was already in his late fifties then, he didn't give up. He was as stubborn as always.

He bought a small fishing boat and after repairing his old family net, he was ready to challenge the bay.

When I asked him why he called his boat "Choshiro Maru", he said it was just his way to honour his ancestors by keeping the old family name alive. His grandfather's name was Choshiro, and he believed that whenever his boat may face the rough waves and sudden typhoons in the future, his grandpa's spirit will protect him from danger.

For Shoichi, the future and the present were guided by the spirit of the ancestors.

One day when I interrupted my daily swimming routines to help him beaching his boat, Shoichi offered me a couple of fresh fish for home. The following afternoon, I reciprocated his gift with a couple of beers. Gradually our outdoor evening chats over the beer and sashimi became more frequent and lasted long into the evening.

And with every passing month, I was learning more about Kato clan's kinship links, marriages, and the changing fortunes.

During the Kamakura Shogunate, the Kato clan was the first to receive a license for profitable net-fishing along the bay. The other local fishers had to venture with their small boats longer away. The fishing far beyond the horizon was riskier, the waves, rougher, and the typhoons far more deadly. And yet the folks who had ever fished together with the Katos in the past could name their family boats several generations back.

It took me several years before Shoichi invited me to his family home. The house he inherited from his father used to be close to the sands, but now the house is separated from the bay by a busy motorway. And he felt that there are more traffic lights along the bay than in the shopping street.

One evening, when I bumped into Shoichi in our neighborhood Mitome-shop, he asked me if I was interested in getting acquainted with his and Shigeo's ancestors. Though it sounded a bit odd, if not ghostly, I followed him home.

He treated me to a cup of green tea, rice crackers, and half a dozen family albums featuring family weddings, newly born kids, funeral ceremonies, and other important events from the past. While we were going through the Kato family's faded photos and old maps, Shoichi was introducing me to the local history.

With the transition from Shogunate to the Imperial Rules and the move of the capital from Kyoto to a nearby Tokyo, Kamakura shores were gradually taken over by the second houses of wealthy Tokyoites. The Katos net-fishing grounds were redeveloped into municipal beaches. The village community separated by the 3 kilometers long beach, was shrinking with every passing year.

Watching together with Shoichi the black & white photos of his ancestors, I was going back in time to the days of his father Chosaburo, and his grandfather Choshiro. Choshiro's younger brother Saokichi, who was Shigeo's father, could have hardly imagined that his actor son would ever return to the net-fishing in his senior years.

But a half century later, when only a dozen of fishing huts and weathered boats were left on both sides of the bay, the tides began to change again.

The dying village was slowly returning to life. With the aging Katos U-Turn, a sense of community was slowly reemerging again. Shoichi Kato's successful revival of community net-fishing that brought the locals and foreign neighbours together, earned him both respect and a new name, Master Kato.

The younger and older fishers living on the opposite sides of the bay, were coming closer together during our seasonal fishing rituals and neighborhood festivities. The Katos have naturally linked past with the present by crossing age and cultural boundaries. The future looked promising again.

Then in the spring of 2020 the sad news struck our Shonan neighborhood: Shigeo Kato was in critical condition.

A few days ago, Shoichi Kato sent me a line-message saying that due to Shigeo's advance age and kidneys failure, "his doctor has given up his further treatment."

Yesterday morning, I called him again, but his phone remained silent. Then came another message from my friend Shoichi, or the Master Kato, explaining that regardless of the ongoing state of emergency onshore, he was busy offshore with his fishing work. In the middle of pandemic, Shoichi bought his second boat.

Shigeo Kato being just a few weeks away from his 95th birthday may not be able to join our Sunday net-fishing anymore. But as Shigeo assured me a few years before the outbreak of Covid, whenever the time of rejoining his father Saokichi and all the other ancestors on the other side of the bay, he will be ready.

The life along our Shonan coast continues to follow its natural rhythm. The past seems to be living in the present.

My old fisher friends believe that the tides will turn soon and our deserted bay will return to life again... as it always did after the typhoons.

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