Japan's tsunami defenses come at a price: Vanishing beaches
Erosion linked to sea walls is one reason 12 close every year
TOKYO -- Seeking sun and sand in Japan this summer? Double-check that your beach of choice has not been swallowed by the sea.
There were 1,095 beaches nationwide, as of June, according to the Japan Travel and Tourism Association. But since 1995, the number has been decreasing by an average of 12 each year. Many are forced to close because the construction of sea walls -- for protection against tsunamis -- prevents sand from being replenished. In other cases, declining visitor traffic simply makes it pointless to stay open.
Chijiwa beach in Nagasaki Prefecture, on the southern main island of Kyushu, is known for its long arc of sand and pine-tree vistas. Normally, it opened to the public around mid-July, drawing thousands of swimmers and sunbathers.
Not this year.
"As a significant loss of sand has left rocks exposed, we can no longer use the beach safely," said an official of the municipal property management division in Unzen, where the beach is located. "We regret that the historic beach will be closed."
Shinichi Aoki, a professor of coastal engineering at Osaka University, said the phenomenon of vanishing sand is being observed at beaches across Japan. He explained that, under normal circumstances, sand that is washed away by waves is naturally replenished, in part with gravel carried down rivers.
This cycle is being interrupted in a couple of ways. One, gravel is extracted from rivers as an ingredient for concrete, leaving less to flow into the sea and back onto beaches. Two, sea walls -- essential in an earthquake-prone country like Japan -- are blocking the bits from washing up on shore.
Aoki said many beaches are being maintained "artificially," with sand brought in from elsewhere. This is not foolproof.
Sand refills were not enough to prevent the gradual shrinkage of Toyohama beach in Katsuura, Chiba Prefecture, just east of Tokyo. The beach closed last summer.
In some places, it is the visitors who are disappearing. This was the problem at Ishiwaki beach in Yurihama, in the western prefecture of Tottori. The Environment Ministry named Ishiwaki one of the country's 100 most comfortable beaches -- a distinction based on both safety and the attractiveness of the landscape.
Yet, last season, about 13,000 people visited -- nearly half the figure in 1995, when data collection began.
For local residents, managing the beach was a labor of love. But the combination of dwindling beachgoers and aging managers prompted the decision to close the site.