With changing tastes and warming oceans, Japanese seaweed in danger

URAKAWA, Japan — To the uninitiated, a strip of kombu looks like any old piece of seaweed you would find washed up on a beach: slimy and brown and decidedly unappetizing.

But to generations of Japanese chefs, this prized kelp is the basis for much of the nation’s cooking, the secret ingredient in the creation of umami, the “savory” taste that is central to Japanese cuisine. Some even call it the “king of seaweed.”

If you’ve had proper Japanese noodle soup or eaten simmered Japanese fish, you’ve experienced the magical depths of flavor said to come from kombu (though you probably didn’t realize it). Kombu is used as the basis for the ubiquitous dashi stock and is eaten as salad and with sashimi.
Now, thanks to an unfortunate coincidence of demographics and climate change, kombu is under threat.

“I get worried when I think about the future of the kombu industry. The water temperature is rising, and resources are becoming more scarce,” said Norio Sakuyama, the local champion kombu harvester in this small seaside village on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands.

Kombu is laid out for drying for an entire day after it is caught. (Hidaka Subprefectural Bureau)
Kombu is laid out for drying for an entire day after it is caught. (Hidaka Subprefectural Bureau)

About 90 percent of Japan’s kombu is harvested around Hokkaido, where the currents coming across from the Russian coast have maintained the water at the frigid temperatures in which kombu thrives.

But people here say the water has become noticeably warmer in recent years, as evidenced by the rotten roots of the kombu.

“The water temperature in the entire Hokkaido area is rising,” said Norishige Yotsukura, a kombu researcher at Hokkaido University, adding that the temperature of these waters has been known to spike by as much as 5 degrees Celsius.

“In the ocean, an increase of even 1 degree is significant, and it could change the density of kombu growth,” he said.

At the same time, fewer young people want to get into this line of work, which requires long days in the summer hooking seaweed from the water, then months drying and preparing it. The kombu trade typifies the “three K’s” — the Japanese equivalent of the three D’s: dirty, dangerous and difficult.

“This job is a tough job. Young people tend to prefer jobs that aren’t as hard,” Sakuyama said, sitting on the floor of his kombu-drying hut — which smelled something like a barn — measuring lengths of the seaweed against a stick and laboriously snipping them one by one to the right length for packaging.

Sakuyama, a third-generation kombu harvester who has been plying these waters for 44 years, laments the decline of this Hokkaido tradition.

“When I was small, there were 80 boats that used to go out from here. Now there are only 20,” he said, as ice melted off the roof outside onto the snow-covered beach. “I’m afraid that there might be only five or six of us remaining in this village in a few years.”

Indeed, at 66, Sakuyama is one of the younger kombu fishermen around here. Demographically, Hokkaido is in one of the worst situations in a country notorious for its rapidly aging population. It’s the most sparsely populated part of Japan, and the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research forecasts its population will fall by one-quarter, to 4.2 million, by 2040.

The number of registered kombu harvesters on the island has fallen from 10,795 in 1999 to 7,159 last year, according to figures from the Hokkaido Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations. Meanwhile, the annual kombu harvest has fallen by one-third, to 15,000 tons, over the past decade.

“This job is not very flashy, so this is not the kind of job that young people want to do. Compared to being a salaryman, working 9 to 5, it takes a lot of effort,” Sakuyama said. “If young people are unwilling to even try, to learn, they will never learn to enjoy this work.”


For one, Sakuyama’s son doesn’t see the attraction.

“I helped my father while I was a child, and I felt how hard the job was, how physically tough it was, and how the work continued from morning till evening, and I didn’t like it,” said Kazuhiro Sakuyama, a 41-year-old father of three, who opted to become a firefighter. “That’s why I didn’t become a kombu fisherman.”

He didn’t desert Urakawa for the big city, though, like so many others from small-town Japan, saying that, as the oldest son, he felt a responsibility to stay close to his parents, helping them on holidays.

Although he finds it sad to think that this tradition might die out, he would discourage his kids from considering a life of kombu harvesting. “I’d probably try to dissuade them by explaining how hard it is,” he said.

Masao Hirano, vice chairman of the Hokkaido Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, also attributes the decline of the kombu business to the modern lifestyle.

“Young people’s diets have changed drastically,” said Hirano, a 70-year-old who started in the business at 15 and is the kombu champion in his own village, Erimo. “My late wife would make soup out of kombu and bonito [fish] every morning. But even in my area, some young people don’t make soup in the morning.”

Barely disguising his distaste, he says his son’s family has coffee, bread and eggs for breakfast.

“When I talk to young people, sometimes they say they haven’t had miso in a while,” he said, half-laughing and half-shocked. Even those who do make miso soup often use ready-made powder for the stock, instead of making it from scratch by soaking kombu in water.

“That’s actually my biggest worry,” Hirano said.“We make our living by catching and selling kombu and having people consume it. So I worry about declining demand.”

It’s not just declining demand that’s a problem, but also supply. As with so many other Japanese products, kombu faces competition from the economic giant next door, China, where it is cultivated in warmer waters.

Sakuyama was shocked during a trip to Qingdao to see the way that Chinese producers were handling their kombu.

“They just laid the kombu out on the ground where they walk and drive. It was so dirty,” he said, describing how, in Japan, producers lay the kelp on several layers of nets on the beach to prevent it from touching the stones below.

“Personally, I feel that we can’t be beaten by Chinese kombu, because the quality is completely different,” Sakuyama said.

But there is definitely one area where China can beat Japan: price. Kombu from this part of Hokkaido sells for about $15 a kilogram, whereas Chinese seaweed goes for one-third of that.

Still, with every year of smaller harvests and fewer fishermen, every meal made from powdered stock, old-timers such as Sakuyama feel as though Japan is relinquishing a little bit of its culture.

“I do feel that we’re losing something,” he said. Still, he is resigned to the fact that there is only so much he can do. “We can’t fight against nature.”


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