Umisakura: A FUNctional gomihiroi for protecting the sea

By Staff Writer
March 02, 2022
Many throughout the world are familiar with the expression, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” (In German, Sauberkeit ist Frömmigkeit). It is a truism associated with worldwide religions that associate ritual purification and cleanliness with higher spirituality. Cleanliness is related to Shinto teachings that see the divine in all living and inanimate things. The gods in everything (“kami”) from the kitchen to the restroom, to the rivers and the sea, prefer neat and sterile environments.
Schoolkids pushing mops across a gymnasium
Cleaning the school is a routine task for kids in Japan.
Japan instructs good citizenship from a young age in the form of picking up after oneself and keeping the space around you clean and neat. Cleanliness is highly valued since population density requires maintaining respectful awareness of each other and the environment, which in turn maintains good social relations.
Japan is especially renowned for its communal approach to garbage collecting. This habit has earned the country a worldwide reputation for being communally responsible about trash, to the point of Japanese fans bringing along large trash bags to the FIFA World Cup in support of their Samurai Blue national team. Picking up one’s mess around one’s seat impresses a global media audience, but it is also part of a school drill ingrained in every Japanese child. Children and adults are encouraged to keep up the neatness practice. Foreigners who first visit Japan immediately notice that trash cans are not plentiful in public places except for convenient stores. You are expected to carry your refuse home with you. This too ingrains a sense of personal responsibility for refuse.
Landscape of Enoshima Beach and Mt. Fuji
Enoshima is famous for its beaches and its view of Mt. Fuji across the bay.
Enoshima is a beautiful seaside town in south Kamakura easily accessed by Japan’s two largest metropolitan urban areas of Tokyo and Yokohama. A sightseeing city since the Edo period, it is frequented by locals and foreign visitors for its gorgeous Sagami Bay views, and to visit its hilltop shrine and to enjoy Instagram-worthy shots of Mt. Fuji on a clear day. The Enoshima Aquarium celebrates the treasure trove of marine life associated with the Sagami Bay Zone. Most of the people enjoying this renowned sea community would likely be oblivious to a local nonprofit with a big aim: to keep that seaside town forever clean and beautiful, to educate about environmental protection, and to have fun doing it.

The NPO Umisakura Umi (“sea”) + Sakura (“cherry blossoms”) embraces collaborative seaside trash collecting as an experience that is both fun and productive. It dubs itself as “Japan’s most enjoyable beach cleanup with a slogan, “Let's clean the sea while having fun together in Enoshima!” Founded in 2005, it aims to be the most exciting gomihiroi (“trash picking”) organization in the world. It sponsors many themed events, even contests for the most efficient trash pickers. Pre-pandemic gatherings included hundreds and hundreds of volunteer participants to do service in the community while meeting and socializing.

Umisakura seeks to create a beautiful renowned seashore where the seahorses and other sea creatures that once thrived in the coral reefs will make a triumphant return. Picking up garbage is a community activity that is not only helpful to the environment, but also entertaining. Umisakura aims to make fun, functional trash picking through monthly theme-based events, occasional 24/7 garbage picking, involving ninja, samurai, and active sumo wrestlers, like the monthly garbage picking activities at Enoshima Eastside Beach.
Piles of trash mixed with driftwood on Enoshima Beach
Trash is an unfortunately common occurrence along the beaches, but Umisakura is working to keep the seaside clean.
Umisakura was first established to address community interest. Until its founding, there was no website (https://umisakura.com/enoshima/) where you could easily find out information about garbage picking groups. Working closely with the Nippon Foundation (https://www.nippon-foundation.or.jp/en), Umisakura aims to spark interest in ocean and seashore protection through encouraging many people to use the site to build environmental awareness. Recent activities include Blue Santa Claus. As Red Santa Claus is for Christmas, Blue Santa Claus is for Japan’s national holiday, Marine Day. On Marine Day, volunteers become a blue Santa Claus to clean up the seashore. Giving at least one day in a year to clean up the seashore allows everyone to see the splendor of the sea.
A discarded mask laying on the ground
As masks have become standard for just about everyone outside, mask litter has become more commonplace.
Throughout the global pandemic, monthly meetings to pick up trash have been cut back, but during this period, Umisakura has kept up its educational aims. It put the public on notice that hygienic masks have been littering the seashore. Pre-pandemic, their volunteers might pick up one mask per day, but in some half hour cleanings it is not unusual to find at least ten masks. Masks in the ocean affect the kami of the sea, as do plastics from take-out that have increased over dining in at restaurants. Their work is a model for us all and a reminder that we cannot take any life for granted from sea to shore.
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