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The vision beyond connecting lives
13 sixth-year students (one absent on the day) and 11 new students from Hakone-no- mori Primary School are caringly watched over by the teachers and members of the Lake Ashi Fishery Cooperative.
Eleven little ones, led by their older school friends, were holding buckets with anxious expressions on their faces. The older children look out for the little ones while they sit on the pier.
They try and speak up, but from shyness or nervousness, their sweet voices are lost as if blown away by the spring wind.
“Let’s try again in a larger voice,” calls out the teacher.
Surrounding parents and kindergarten children cheer them on. Many first-years would have attended the same kindergarten not so long ago. Then, the eleven gather their strength and call out with vigour.
“Grow up healthy and strong!”
People gave another warm round of applause as the children released the fry and were relieved of their nervousness. However, the children continue to follow the fish with a worried gaze. The small fish continue to swarm and swim around the lakeshore as if they were reluctant to part.
“Why don't they swim away?” the children ask, and Tatsuya Fukui, head of the Lake Ashi Fishery Cooperative, responds gently.
“Fish that grew up in fishponds are afraid of deep places where they can't see the bottom. Fish don't like to look down; I think they instinctively know that bigger fish will attack from the deep."
Under the clear sky, Lake Ashi is surrounded by a brocade-like forest of rich greenery, and Mount Fuji is present in the distance. The small fish swimming cautiously into the vast lake makes one think of the children who have just stepped into a new world.
First-year students release buckets of fry into the lake. They are a little nervous.
The fry remains in the shallow for a while as if they are uncertain of this new water.
In May, the annual event “Celebrate the start of school with trout release” was organised by the Hakone-no-mori Primary School (Hakone Town, Kanagawa Prefecture) and supported by the Lake Ashino Fishery Cooperative.
The history of releasing to commemorate the start of schooling goes back a long time. Forty years ago, when the school was still called Hakone Primary School and had not merged with other local schools, this celebration was already being held. Tatsuya has memories of his experience as a first-year student. And so does cooperative member Yosuke Yuki, who vividly remembers the event.
“When we were kids, we would go to the lake straight after the entrance ceremony on the first day of school to release the fish."
There was a period when the ceremony release was not held. Then, ten years ago, none other than Tatsuya and Yosuke revived this tradition. “I couldn't stand still when I heard of a media report that children in Tokyo drew a saku block when asked to draw a tuna.”
The two put their heads together. If the celebratory release event was going to be revived, it needed to be meaningful and rooted in Lake Ashi. “That is why we chose to release kokanee trout (also known as kokanee salmon), which is called Himemasu in Japanese (meaning princess trout) .”
As children, Tatsuya and Yosuke released rainbow trout and carp. However, kokanee salmon has a more long-lasting connection with Lake Ashi than those two fish. “The first kokanee salmon release was in 1928. When it comes to Lake Ashi's aquaculture history, it seconds wakasagi(Japanese smelt). Moreover, kokanee trout are raised from eggs harvested and cultivated from fish that actually comes from this lake.”
The Lake Ashi Fishery Cooperative handles twelve species of fish, but the kokanee trout and wakasagi are the only ones incubated from eggs harvested from parent fish in Lake Ashi.
Lake Ashi has a few varieties of trout managed by the Fishery Cooperative. However, fish such as rainbow trout or brown trout do not spawn at once, making it challenging to harvest eggs and make it a viable business.
The cherry trout and red-spotted masu trout also spawn only once in their lifetime, just like the kokanee trout. Since last year, they have been incubated and released into the lake, raising high hopes for their future cultivation. However, kokanee trout is suited to Lake Ashi’s environment, which has few rivers running through and will definitely return up to the lake, just as salmon will.
Kokanee trout, the land-locked form of red salmon, is born in rivers, grows in lakes and migrates down to the sea. In Japan, red salmon are naturally distributed only in Lake Akan and Lake Chimikeppu in Hokkaido, while they require human intervention in Lake Ashi.
“Lake Ashi has been in the aquaculture business for a long time, but it wasn't until 1993, when the current Hirukawa fish farm was completed, that it took on its current form.”
After three years, the fully grown kokanee trout return in October to spawn in the Hirukawa river, which flows through the fishery where they were born. However, the Hirukawa river is not large enough as an environment for spawning.
“Therefore, we have been manually removing eggs and fertilising with sperm. For the past ten years, we have brought in the fifth-year students from Hakone-no-mori Primary School to experience this process.”
The following spring, the fifth-year students who harvested the eggs will release the grown fry with the newly entered first-years. And in three years' time, the fully grown fish will run up to the lake.
“The fifth-year students handle a knife and experience cutting the kokanee trout alive.”
Efficiency or fertilisation rate is disregarded, and the possible blade injuries are risks that the adults are willing to shoulder because they believe it will help the community for the children to experience this.
“Last year, however, the run wasn't great, and the number of egg harvest was low. Also, the condition of the eggs was not good. Hokkaido seems to have had a similar situation, so it was a difficult year for kokanee trout all over the country."
Of course, there were some healthy kokanee trout, but the growth rate was slower than in previous years, and they were not ready to be released.
“We didn’t think they would grow up safely in that state. It should not be a release for the sake of an event. We explained the situation to the children and decided to release red-spotted masu trout this year. “
The red-spotted trout weigh roughly 15 g each, and the quantity transferred to the tank weighed about 15 kg. The first-year students were excited to see the beautiful fish with its blue parr marks and vermilion dots. The now six-year students were promised that the cooper members would release the kokanee trout when the appropriate time came. The students listen to the careful explanation of what difficulties lie when dealing with life.
90% of Lake Ashi's kokanee trout are male. Even if they are born as females, they change sex into males, while their chromosomes remain female, triggered by the warm Lake Ashi water temperature. If global warming continues, this may happen elsewhere, and kokanee trout may face extinction.
After the release, Mr Fukui spoke to the children. “Lake Ashi’s water is very clean now, but as a child, the lake was heavily polluted, and it was difficult for the fish to live in the environment. The adults realised this and revived it by building a sewage system and creating an environment where living creatures could thrive."
The wilderness is beautiful. We who have moved away from it regard such wildness as supreme, but nature protected by human hands—the will to protect it even at the cost of losing something—is just as precious.
“As you graduate from primary school, go on to junior high school, high school and adulthood, some of you will probably leave Hakone. But please remember that there is a lake like this in your home town."
Tatsuya Fukui, head of the Lake Ashi Fishery Cooperative, and the children share thoughts after releasing the fish.
Love Hakone, be studious, kind and strong.
The first-year teacher, Tokuyuki Kato, shares the educational goals of all three Hakone town primary schools.
“We call it 'Hako-Iku'. (Hako=Hakone, Iku=to raise) We organise field trips and classes to raise students who can share and communicate the attraction and specialness of Hakone.”
The fish release is part of this programme and is incorporated into the first-year students' “Life environment studies” and the sixth-year students' “The period for integrated studies”. Other activities include experiencing parquetry, making handmade grass sandals, and even walking the old Tokaido way in them.
“'I am originally from nearby Yugawara town, but when I grew up, I realised how little I knew about my hometown. I believe knowing your town with correct information from a young age will help them in the future. A strong love for your hometown will surely protect the children.”
Do you not find it is time-consuming and with more risks? We pose this question. “Yes, probably,” Tomoyuki Kubodera, a fellow teacher, smiles and continues. “Still, if we cut back on that, we would be limited in what we could do. There are so many community members who are willing to help. It reaffirms our wish to create opportunities for the children to have more experiences.”
With understanding and support from the community, they hope the children will have more experiences and learn in a multi-disciplinary way, even if it means taking some risks.
“The children’s education will reach far beyond one subject if they can see how numerous adults tirelessly work for the community and protect Lake Ashi and its clean water.”
Noriyuki Kato (left) and Tomoyuki Kubodera (right), both primary school teachers, passionately share their thoughts on “Hako-Iku”.
Tatsuya and Yosuke from the Fishery Cooperative vividly remember the fish release event celebrating their school start. That excitement is what led them to this work.
“When I started working part-time at the Fishery Cooperative at the end of my teenage years, I sometimes helped with the fishing classes my seniors used to run for children. Back then, it was a real pain helping out. But as I’ve matured, I look back with gratitude for having that experience. My seniors have created sharing occasions, and it is our turn to do so. Now, I am eager to run these!” Yosuke cheerfully laughs.
“Oh, I don't remember it at all……” bashfully and with some surprise Shin Kaneko, Yosuke’s classmate and coordinator for this interview, laughs. Shin was born in Hakone and raised in Tokyo. He eventually spread his wings and lived abroad for several years while extensively travelling worldwide.
Since moving back to Hakone at 30, he has shared Hakone's incredible nature and culture as a mountaineering guide.
What does it mean to raise children and live in a community?
What can I/we do right now?
Children are like seed fluffs.
They will travel where they decide to go or where the “wind of the moment” carries them. Wherever they may choose to lower their roots and flourish their lives, we wish their hearts will forever hold the mountains, the lakes and oceans and swimming fish in them.
“What can the Fishery Cooperative and community members who love their hometown do to help?” Yosuke (above) and Tatsuya (below) continue to work hard with passion in their hearts.
Text = Koki Aso
Translation = Asaka Barsley
Photo/Direction = Shin Kaneko
Interview supported by Lake Ashi Fishery Cooperative Association