By Sean Sinclair-Day
With a shiny whistle hanging around his tanned neck, Totake Yukiyoshi stands along the white shoreline of Yoshino Beach watching the waters for potential threats. But he is not your average lifeguard. When the whistle blows, he is not warning the swimmers and snorkelers to be wary of sharks or the dangerously unpredictable ebb and flow of powerful tides.
Miyako is a small, seagull- shaped island located at the southern end of Japan’s Okinawa island chain. Yoshino Beach is one of the island’s many unbelievably soft, white sand beaches where tourists and locals come to while away the lazy hours. Situated only a few splashes and waves away from where the Pacific Ocean collides with the East China Sea, aquatic revellers can admire the vast array of vibrant tropical fish that thrive in Yoshino’s intricate underwater realm. But visitors will get a quick lesson in coral protection if they decide to take a short break and stand on the reef. Totake takes his job seriously as guardian of the beach and its coral barrier. His whistle reminds people of his mission which is to keep this beach the cleanest and most beautiful in the world.
Remarkably, his ecological imperative does not end in marine education. With a concern that seems to know no bounds, this 55-year-old city planner comes down to Yoshino every day to collect the trash that has been discourteously discarded by thoughtless beach bums. He tirelessly sorts through it all, separating combustibles from tin and plastic in an unparalleled endeavor to ensure that Yoshino’s sands remain pure. The only thing that outrivals his appreciation of nature and his favorite beach is his love for humanity. It thrills Totake to see happy people and his heart is filled with a buoyant joy whenever he watches visitors stare in amazement, beholding Yoshino’s wonders. His undertaking is to guarantee that this beauty will remain unspoiled.
Known simply by locals as ‘Takeji-san,’ a friendly nickname that means uncle Takeji, he is revered by many islanders for the extreme effort that he has put forth to preserve the face of their beach. As if tending to his own garden or a field that will yield a great crop, he treats this public place like it were his own backyard. His aim is to illustrate by example that Mother Nature needs to be nurtured if she is to be forever appreciated, a way of thinking that he honestly believes can change the planet for the better.
Unknown to many people, there is a serious threat to the world’s coral. It is not only global warming and pollution that has effected the depletion of coral; direct human-induced destruction through dynamite fishing, cyanide fishing, coral mining, construction and coastal development are a number of other severe ways that humans have contributed to its diminution. But careless tourism also plays a key role. Not everyone is aware that even the slightest contact with a hand, a foot or a scuba fin can cause irreparable damage to the fragile coral. It is an exceptionally sensitive life form that requires an equal sensitivity and respect from those who admire it. Thankfully, Takeji-san is doing his best to inform anyone who will listen.
In addition to his position as seashore sentry, Takeji-san is also somewhat of an artisan. In the little hut-away-from-home that he has built at Yoshino, he revives coral, shells and sea grass that has been washed ashore by making accessories and decorations for visitors and friends. His philosophy seems to be that nothing ever dies if it is given a new life. He offers free lessons in necklace and bracelet making and further demonstrates his creative abilities by making blackened sculptures out of burnt driftwood.
Unbelievably, however, there are some locals who disagree with his ecological vision and, at night, they have been known to destroy his quaint abode, proving that there is a contrary way of thinking out there. At the same time it reinforces the need for Take-ji-san to speak to those who do have open ears. Despite the repeated efforts by these anonymous locals to break his will, Takeji-san’s determination remains as firm as the local lighthouse, knowing that a better tomorrow will only come through conquering the trials and tribulations of today.
Although there has been a concerted effort in Japan since the 1997 U.N. Earth Summit to monitor acid rain and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to protect Pacific coral reefs, there is nothing the government can do to protect reefs and beaches from the ignorance of the public. Takeji-san has become a kind of public servant, establishing his own little beach protectorate to remind everyone about the about the role of the individual in the equation for a green future. He is a peaceful watchdog using neither bark nor bite, but only a soft-spoken tone of voice that hides behind his permanent, infectious smile.
But as snorkelers continue walk and climb on coral the world over, defacing a wonderful and diverse life form, it demonstrates a profound lack of education and disrespect for the true threats that face this unique organism. These underwater networks are considered to be as diverse as the tropical rainforests. Takeji-san has only claimed responsibility for one miniature piece of the planet but because of him, Yoshino’s splendor and majesty remains preserved for enthusiasts to admire. Hopefully his actions and words will be as contagious as his smile.
Sean Sinclair-Day is from Toronto, Canada. He is a screen-writer who is currently traveling the globe in search of interesting stories and people.
Coral in Peril Marine Scientists believe that:
• 10 per cent of coral reefs are already destroyed
• 70 per cent could be gone within the next 40 years unless we change our ways
• more than 80 per cent of Southeast Asia’s coral reefs are at risk Humans need coral for:
• Food: nearly one million species of marine animals and plants live within reefs
• Shelter: coral helps to protect against tides, storm surges and hurricanes
• Medicine and other resources: an amazing bio-diversity exists to improve what we have — from sunscreen to pain killers
• Fun and profit: you don’t have to be Jacques Cousteau to appreciate and enjoy the vibrancy of underwater life
Taken from: ‘ACTION ATLAS: Coral Reefs: Reefs In Trouble’ www.motherjones.com/coral_reef/science.html and ‘Planetary Coral Reef Foundation: Coral Reef Facts’ www.pcrf.org/reeffacts.html
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