Where the Rivers Meet the Sea

They say all rivers eventually run to the sea, numerous small streams converging along the way until you have this great, flowing torrent that joins myriad other torrents to fill the seas, the oceans. That’s exactly how I feel about today’s discussion with Satsuki Takahashi. Her lecture and subsequent discussion brought together ideas and places and themes we’ve been discussing these past two, three weeks. Topics like fisheries management, nuclear energy and the Fukushima disaster, the roles of zoos and aquariums, etc. etc. on and on. Frankly, it was incredible and for me probably was tied with our visit to Tokyo Sea Life Park and discussion with Tada-sensei for best trip day. Easily my favorite lecture we’ve had as well.

Takahashi-sensei is an Associate Professor of Anthropology in the Faculty of Sustainability Studies at Hosei University, but did her undergraduate studies on fisheries. She talked a lot about Japan’s unending modernization and futurism, especially related to the development of its fisheries and nuclear power. Hope was a major theme of the talk as well. She also brought in a lot of her research (where she goes to fishing communities), which apparently was really enjoyable for her since, as a professor, she often is engrossed in the material she teaches and developing lesson plans. Her lecture was definitely enjoyable for us! In particular, I thought it was fascinating that, prior to 3/11, there was a fish hatchery coupled to the Fukushima Daiichi nulcear power plant in what Takahashi-sensei calls, “nuclear fish hatcheries.” That is, thermal discharge (superheated water used in the condenser of the nuclear power plant) is sent to the fish hatchery to accelerate growth and and spawning cycles, rather than be dumped into rivers or the sea where it could upset the thermal balance of those ecosystems.

Apparently, Takahashi-sensei’s next project is going to deal with the anthropology of aquariums in Japan as a maritime nation. I had the opportunity to talk with her about aquariums, and she revealed an interesting, somewhat new perspective to me (though I realized later it had echoes of what I had read in A Fascination for Fish) about how aquariums, more so than zoos, are concerned with the “natural aesthetic” and how the viewer sees the exhibit–that zoos are “more concerned with ecology”. I initially pushed back on this, arguing that I thought the reverse was true and that from what I had witnessed, aquariums tended to set up more natural or ecologically-representative communities in its exhibits, whereas zoos tended to display animal species in isolation, or occasionally in mixed-species exhibits. She clarified, though, that she speaking about “natural aesthetic” or “realism” from an animal-sake vs human-sake perspective. That is, zoos are less concerned with realism of its exhibits for the viewer’s sake but rather for animal well-being. Reflecting back, I think, based on the readings I’ve done and the discussion I had with Tada-sensei and my own visits to zoos and aquariums, that aquariums are generally (or should be) concerned with both “natural aesthetics.” That is, it’s equally important that the aquarium try to produce realistic, nature-mimicking exhibits both for the animal’s well-being and for the viewer’s immersion.

Disaster Re-silence? Disaster Resilience?

Today we had two lectures/discussions on 3/11 Fukushima disaster relief.

Sorry, that was a terribly uninteresting first sentence that in all honesty, I almost started with. I’m relieved (get it?) I caught that and it wasn’t a writing disaster.

Okay, joking and puns aside, I think our discussions today, led by Hijikata-sensei and Shinoda-sensei from Waseda University and later by Nakayama-san of Kuma Project Association, were a really interesting follow up to our meeting with Oguma Eiji yesterday. That is, Oguma Eiji provided a sort of historical sociological/activist/documentary filmmaker perspective or response to the path-dependency of Touhoku, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, and the “natural” vs “manmade” aspects of the disaster. Today, then, we approached this same event from the different lenses of information science and NPOs.

Information science takes the Environment as observed through the Five Senses to compile Data (i.e. record of the past), and uses that information and knowledge to generate Models (via induction and deduction), which then inform decision-making and action, which in turn changes that original Environment. In short, it’s a social process that goes into regional planning (though, Hijikata-sensei noted that “region” is a product of human perception). Hijikata-sensei used Kesennuma City in the Hashikami Area as a case study in discussing post-disaster regional planning and resilience. I was reminded a lot of a guest lecture in my Introduction to Environmental Studies course this past fall semester, where Professor Eileen Johnson talked about Coastal Resilience in Maine.

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Keiji Nakayama actually visited Bowdoin last year and gave a similar talk on the NPO he founded, Kuma Project Association, which provides outdoor, experiential, and volunteer-based education programs. That’s not to say it was repetitive at all. Rather, it was really interesting hearing it again and being able to engage with Nakayama-san in a smaller group/discussion setting.

Nakayama-san is a close friend of Aridome-sensei and was a school refuser from the 4th to 9th grade because he disagreed with the emphasis on conformity placed in the Japanese education system. Though he didn’t go to high school, Nakayama-san decided to go to college and got a B.A in Economics because he was interested in the education quality discrepancy between “developing” and “developed” countries, which as political, cultural, and economic roots. He then pursued a Master’s in Outdoor Education and Recreational Therapy, followed by a Doctor’s in Sports Sociology. Besides his work with Kuma Project Association, Nakayama-san also, ironically enough, teachers teaching-training courses for students who want to become teachers, where he does everything he can to emphasize the importance of individuality in school settings.

Nakayama-san believes that many education systems focus too much on the knowledge component of education, which can come from family and formal (school) education. Kuma Project, therefore, aims to provide social and experiential-based education. He used a wonderful bike analogy, where “knowledge” and “experience” are the two wheels of the bike; if one is turning faster than the other, the bike can’t really move or be balanced very well. Following the 3/11 nuclear disaster, Nakayama-san realzed, driving around evacuation advisory areas, that many people weren’t getting the adequate relief they needed. Elderly people, people with disabilities, and families with children often left evacuation centers and returned home, often feeling guilt or that they were a burden or falling ill due to the stressful environment (and recovering upon returning home). Furthermore, many people in mountain areas were considered “non-affected,” even though they were without water and (especially elderly) had to walk many miles to get water and other supplies. In other words, they were considered “non-affected” from a physical damage standpoint and weren’t allowed to go to the evacuation centers. Finally, many children, but also adults needed stress-relief and social opportunities to talk about the disaster, in a setting where they could do so without feeling guilty (i.e. what if the other person suffered more than I did?).

Kuma Project Association, with the help of its college student “volunteers” (note, there is a fee, since government-based funding is tricky), seeks to meet all of these needs through its programs. It was interesting how Nakayama-san acknowledged that it’s now more accurate to call it “regional development” rather than “disaster relief support,” which might dredge up old, bad memories. As a bit of an aside, I thought Nakayama-san had this really fascinating, wonderful combination of sincerity and humor and pride and honesty in talking about his work that was a pleasure to listen to.

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EDIT: I want to briefly explain this post’s title. I think “resilience” is a word tossed around a lot, especially in the face of climate change and natural disasters. I think there are worse “buzzwords,” but talking with Hijikata-sensei and Nakayama-san made me think a little bit about how events or disasters can fade from our memories, just as Nakayama-san mentioned in his talk. So I don’t want my title to evoke an idea of “silencing” disaster or climate change support efforts. Rather, it’s to point out that self-“silencing,” or memories or ideas fading into the recesses of our mind, I think can occur both with time and overuse (especially of words). I think there’s very real, valid reasons for and against letting such things fade (for instance, so as not to dredge up bad memories, as Nakayama-san said) but also reasons for and against keeping such ideas alive. It’s cliche, but as they say, we can learn from the past. Does forgetting help ease those who suffered back into everyday life or does it risk leaving that suffering unacknowledged, for lack of better words?

Tell the Historical Sociologist

Today we had the honor of visiting Oguma Eiji, the historical sociologist, Keio University professor, guitarist, and documentary filmmaker who directed “Tell the Prime Minister”–at his house, no less. To be honest, I was really nervous beforehand. Was my reading and preparation adequate? Did I watch his documentary in enough detail? Would I ask good enough questions?

In the end, I wound up just listening and observing. It was very interesting hearing how Oguma Eiji got to where he is today. Apparently, he studied physics and agricultural biology as an undergrad, did his master’s thesis in sociology, and his doctor’s in foreign policy. Oguma Eiji was interested in how invisible desire or collective consciousness is present in anthropology, and also how that plays into the Japanese identity. I was also intrigued by how he didn’t really self-identify much as an activist or writer. I was also very impressed with how fluent his English was.

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Later, we went to the Ghibli Museum. As an avid fan of anime (insert shameless plug for Bowdoin Animation Society) who’s interested in the environment, this was a really fascinating visit, since many of Miyazaki’s films deal with the environment and technology (looking at you, Princess MononokeNausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, etc.). As a bit of a sketch artist myself, it was wonderful to see the early concept art and sketches for various films I had seen, such as Princess Mononoke, Spirited AwayGrave of the Fire FliesHowl’s Moving Castle, and others. One particularly interesting exhibit was the exhibit on food in Ghibli movies; afterwards, we had an engaging discussion pn food culture with Selinger-sensei sitting outside the museum gift shop (yes, I caved and purchased Spirited Away playing cards). It really took me back to first year fall, when I took Selinger-sensei’s Japanese Animation freshman seminar. As a slightly relevant aside and another shameless plug, if you (as the reader) are interested at all in any Ghibli films, or anime films in general, Bowdoin has a number of films on reserve in the Library Media Commons (in the basement of Hawthorne-Longfellow Library). I’m still working on compiling them all, but a partial list can be found here (yes, yet again a shameless plug):

http://students.bowdoin.edu/bowdoin-animation-society/

 

“This is the dawning of the age of aquariums”

Oh man. Where do I even begin. There’s so much I want to say about today. Put simply, it was absolutely incredible. Even the title of this post I had a lot of trouble deciding. I ended up settling on this modified lyric from “Age of Aquarius” by 5th Dimension. If you haven’t guessed already, we visited an aquarium, Tokyo Sea Life Park. And as I think you’ll see in this post, I think now more than ever, amidst an ever-changing world filled with climate change, habitat destruction, and biodiversity loss, it’s imperative that we inspire care for animal life and conservation in people. And that’s where aquariums come in.

I guess maybe the best place to start is a little context. Last night, I read several chapters (15-18, 23) from A Fascination for Fish by David C. Powell. Powell is an aquarium design consultant and has worked with numerous aquariums around the world, notably Monterrey Bay Aquarium. The chapters I read dealt with the inception of Monterrey Bay Aquarium: from designing exhibits to collecting animals to aquarists at work. Chapter 23, the last chapter, served as a reflection on Powell’s experiences with aquariums and his thoughts on aquariums and their purpose. I’ll get to that in a little bit. I mentioned this to Selinger-sensei on the way to Tokyo Sea Life Park, but I thought it was a very publicly-accessible reading, in contrast to “Ciliated Sense,” which I discussed in a previous post. To be honest, it made me seriously consider the possibility of becoming an aquarist. One thing that really struck me about this reading was Powell’s description of aquarists. It’s not just about “feeding the fish”; yes, that’s involved and knowing the specialized feeding needs (something I can kind of relate to being a vegetarian in Japan) of different species is incredibly important. It goes beyond that to having a fascination with the animals you’re working with and being able to “read” them; that is, being able to tell just by looking what a particular animal needs.

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We began with a walk-through of Tokyo Sea Life Park, perhaps on the surface no different than the other tourists and local aquarium-goers. I’m going to be completely honest here: I was worried my peers and friends wouldn’t get all that much out of just walking through the aquarium. I love learning about animals, especially marine organisms, so visiting zoos and aquariums for me is more than just marveling at the animals. But, based on everyone’s reactions to the Ueno Zoo the other day (notably, after the panda exhibit), I was worried everyone wouldn’t be too interested. Maybe it was just being outside in the sun.

I was absolutely wrong. Something about the aquarium captured the interest of everyone, and I found myself explaining what marine biology of the animals I knew alongside Michael (we spent a solid 5, 10 minutes in front of the hammerhead exhibit, the very first one of the aquarium). I don’t know if I really expressed this to anyone during the day, or if I’ll even be able to capture the feeling in words here, but I was just so relieved and thrilled that everyone was taking so much interest. Last night, I was talking with Aridome-sensei about how much time I thought we’d need in the aquarium (at the time, I didn’t know how big or small it was; turns out it’s about the size of Maritime Aquarium). I realized during lunch that we probably could’ve spent more time at the aquarium, frankly. Oh well, all the more excuse to come back, right?

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The highlight of the trip for me, though, was our meeting with Tada-sensei, head curator at Tokyo Sea Life Park. I’d corresponded (through Aridome-sensei; 多い質問をほんやくしてくださってありがとうございました!) with Tada-sensei prior over email, so he’d be able to prepare himself with the questions I’d sent him beforehand. But first, he gave us an educational program on bluefin tuna (クロマグロ; kuro maguro) that the aquarium designed for elementary and middle schoolers. He surprised us all by handing us sketchbooks and pencils and taking us to the tuna exhibit. He wanted us to get a feel for the observation and attention to detail needed in his line of work and in biology in general. He gave us 5 minutes to sketch tuna as they swam by, and then talked to us about many of the adaptive features of tuna. He even took us behind the scenes, above the tuna exhibit, to show us firsthand how countershading works (basically, many marine species are dark colored on their dorsally and light-colored ventrally. When seen from above, tuna are hard to see because they blend in with the dark, deep water. When seen from below, their light coloration lets them blend in with the sunlight streaming down). I was actually able to pick up on a lot of what he was saying in Japanese, through a combination of language and my own knowledge of marine biology, so it was really cool to be able to help with translating those elements! Finally, he took us back to the presentation room and brought out a dead, frozen tuna for us to explore by touch.

Following that, Tada-sensei began to answer the 9 questions I had posed to him via email as well as other questions we thought of on the spot. I’ll probably include those in a separate post, for sake of flow and length here, but a lot of what he talked about echoed ideas I had read about in Powell’s A Fascination for Fish. It was fascinating to see and hear parallels between Monterrey Bay Aquarium and Tokyo Sea Life Park. Selinger-sensei later told me that Tada-sensei thought I had raised really important questions and that some in particular (especially my question on the ethical capture and keeping of animals in captivity) were incredibly difficult to answer. Selinger-sensei assured him that these questions weren’t meant to be severe or critical in nature, but rather since I, myself, am considering aquariums as a potential career path, these are the very questions I am asking myself. And, she told me, Tada-sensei said that he could really pick up on my enthusiasm and fascination (incidentally, he’d extended the original hour and a half meeting to two hours).

What struck me most, though, about Tada-sensei’s talk was how honest, sincere, comprehensive, informative, and engaging it was. In particular, I was moved by Tada-sensei’s own emotional investment in his work, that he thinks education and inspiring awe and conservation (echoed also by Powell in chapter 23) is by far the most important of the aquarium’s goals. I recall a particularly relevant, though long, passage (though, there’s many and it’s hard to pick) from A Fascination for Fish that I think is at the core of aquariums and their mission:

We may have only one chance to turn a visitor’s head toward conservation and conscience and away from complacency–a chance that is offered through our exhibits. For an exhibit and a visitor to make a connection, those of us designing displays and defining messages must be cautious.

Do we assume the visitor knows nothing and it’s our obligation to explain as much as we can? At one time, I would have answered yes to that question. My original goal was to bring as much factual understanding as possible to the visitor, to describe every detail of a creature’s existence, from feeding to spawning to its relationship with the other creatures in its environment. And I expected the visitor to absorb all this eagerly.

Now I see things quite differently. I’ve come to realize that perhaps our true goal in the aquarium world is to inspire awe, to create a sense of wonder and appreciation that will grow into caring. Communicating facts is all well and good, but without a sense of caring we have accomplished little.

David C. Powell, A Fascination for Fish

Put simply, these ideas resonated strongly with me.

And, Tada-sensei was extremely honest in admitting that Tokyo Sea Life Park’s exhibits aren’t enough, he thinks, for its inhabitants, especially size-wise. Still, I thought the exhibits quite well replicated the natural environments they were portraying, even if they were small and cramped as Tada-sensei thought. Tada-sensei also apparently has been to Monterrey Bay Aquarium and thinks it’s the best in the world and uses that as something of a role model or exemplar. Talking with Tada-sensei I think solidified the sense I had gotten from reading A Fascination for Fish; that is, I think becoming an aquarist is something I really want to pursue. But, I think something else that resonated with me about reading about Powell’s experience with Monterrey Bay Aquarium, visiting Tokyo Sea Life Park, and talking with Tada-sensei is that there’s still so much to learn about this marine and aquarium world. And I want to leave you with a passage from Powell’s last chapter that I think was really inspirational for me and hopefully for you, the reader, and for anyone reading A Fascination for Fish interested in marine biology and aquariums:

When meeting young, eager marine biologists, I do my best to steer them in a direction that will give them as much satisfaction as I’ve had in my work. When they ask what they can do to get started, I pass along commonsense tips: Get an education. Learn to dive, so you can experience the underwater world firsthand. Volunteer if you can. Keep learning, diving, and working with the animals you love.

David C. Powell, A Fascination for Fish

So, will I become an aquarist in the future? Perhaps. I’m excited to intern at Maritime Aquarium this summer (an Education internship; Animal Husbandry was rather popular and full) and experience this aquarium world on the other side firsthand. I plan to follow Powell’s advice and see where it takes me. So, stay tuna’d.

Panda-emic? Turns out I can’t stand zoos

Quick warning: major rant on zoos and pandas incoming. Proceed with caution and at your own risk. I claim no liability for any injured feelings towards pandas or shattering of childhood visits to zoos (including my own).

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As a kid, I always enjoyed going to zoos and aquariums. I lived 15 minutes away from Maritime Aquarium and maybe an hour and a half from the Bronx Zoo (I think), where my childhood friend’s dad worked. I grew up reading (children’s) encyclopedias alongside children’s picture books and novels. Animal Planet and Discovery Channel probably got as much or more air time in our living room as channels like Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon. In short, seeing and learning about animals in these various contexts was probably what drove me to be interested in biology, ecology, and especially marine biology.

What’s the first animal you think of when you think zoo? Probably one among the following: pandas, lions, tigers, bears (oh my), giraffes…did I mention pandas? At Ueno Zoo, the giant panda exhibit is pretty much the first right out of the gates–and it all started with a hastily arranged visit and gift of two pandas from China to Japan (after Nixon’s surprise visit to China where he returned with two pandas and which left Japan scrambling to follow suit). People line up in one of two lines for a close or slightly further away view of the panda (naturally, not the ones originally gifted by China), sitting in a glass and walled enclosure munching away at bamboo. I’ll be honest. Amidst all the “oohs,” “ahhs,” and “kawaii ne” (cute), I’m not particularly moved by pandas. Or typically “cute” things in general. Apparently, according to Lorenz, pandas and certain other animals evoke this affectionate response not just culturally (and commercially), but also biologically/evolutionarily. We’re conditioned to respond to animals with certain head, face, and eye shapes and proportions, so that we’ll be more likely to care for our own offspring when they’re perhaps most vulnerable. So yes. We associate pandas with babies. Supposedly also, there’s just something peaceful and relaxing about how they just sit around. When the two pandas were delivered to Ueno Zoo from China, the Mainichi Shinbun reported after about 3 days of exhibition (and let me grab the exact quote because it riled me so much), “After trying to please everyone for several days in a row, the pandas at the Ueno Zoo, Kang Kang and Lan Lan, have crashed from too much work.” Absolutely infuriating. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t really get riled at very many things. This is one of them. So often, we attribute human qualities to animals that I don’t think we have any business doing. The pandas are hardly “trying to please” people, nor are zoo or aquarium (read as: SeaWorld) animals consciously trying to serve people by being there. We tend to anthropomorphize animals. There was a sign next to the panda display saying “Look it stood up!” and some text about it getting exercise; I interpreted it as a nod towards seeing pandas as babies and the monumental moment in life when a baby first stands. Either way, it’s assigning human attributes to the panda.

I’m conflicted, though. On the one hand, I think it’s absurd to ascribe human characteristics, emotions, and values to organisms. But on the other hand, is this what is needed to protect them? That is, I’d always believed that if you can get people interested in the environment and wildlife, interested enough to want to protect them, then maybe you have a shot at conservation en masse. And what better way to do so by getting them fascinated at an early age at places like zoos and aquariums. So all the “oohs” and “ahhs” evoked by pandas and polar bears (it drew a huge reaction when it lifted its head briefly) and these other “charismatic megafauna” maybe is how you get people to care for the environment. But even then, the problem with that is that you don’t focus on all the myriad other organisms on this planet. Heck, as I write this, some obscure, unknown species may well have gone extinct. People won’t care about the insects, the microorganisms, all the wonderful diversity that makes up this planet. Because they aren’t cute. Or majestic. Umbrella species can only protect from so much raining extinction.

I want to rant about one last thing. From what I’ve seen, zoos enclosures are incredibly unrealistic. I’m not really speaking from a “public immersion” perspective. Rather, zoo enclosures seem horribly ill-suited for their occupants. Polar bears lay in the shade in an open air exhibit filled with plexiglas rocks and ice and concrete walkways. Hawks and eagles and owls perch in caged enclosures that seem hardly adequate for these soaring birds. I can only hope that Tokyo Sea Life Park on Tuesday offers more realistic, “natural” environments for its inhabitants. Otherwise, I’m starting to have trouble justifying the enclosure of animals in these artificial, inadequate environments. If zoos and aquariums are meant to show people a glimpse of this “separate” (an association I also disagree with, but [panda] bear with me) or different natural environment, they should at least try to make them as realistic and natural as possible. For our sake as viewers and for the animals’ sake.