Katoku, Japan. Standing on a mountain-bordered beach, there is not the slightest hint that the Japanese village of Katoku even exists. A handful of his houses hide behind a dune covered with morning glory and pandanus trees, the chirping of cicadas interrupted only by the rhythm of the waves and the cry of an azure-winged jay.
In July, the beach became part of a new UNESCO World Heritage Site, a Green Peak and Mangrove Sanctuary in Japan’s far southwest, home to nearly a dozen endangered species.
Two months later, the serene air was ripped apart by a new sound: the rumble of trucks and excavators preparing to rip off much of Katoku Dune and bury a two-story concrete wall inside it, designed to contain erosion.
The sea wall project demonstrates that even the most valuable ecological treasures cannot survive Japan’s obsession with construction, which has long been a response to the threat of natural disasters and a vital source of economic stimulus and political capital, especially in rural areas.
But the plan to erect a concrete berm on a pristine beach that is an endangered commodity in Japan isn’t just about money or votes. It has destroyed the village as residents fight deeper forces remaking rural Japan: climate change, an aging population, and the devastation of small towns.
The project’s supporters – most of its 20 residents – say the village’s survival is in jeopardy as it has been hit by heavy storms in recent years. Opponents – a group of surfers, organic farmers, musicians and environmentalists, many of whom live off the island – argue that the sea wall will destroy the beach and its fragile ecosystem.
The opposition leader is Jean-Marc Takaki, 48, a Parisian and half Japanese who moved to a bungalow behind the beach last year. A nature guide and former computer programmer, Mr. Takaki launched a campaign against the wall in 2015, moving to a nearby town to escape the stress of city life.
The battle epitomizes the clash fought in the countryside throughout Japan. Old-timers see their traditional livelihoods in industries like logging and construction under threat from newcomers dreaming of a pastoral existence. Villages may need new residents to support a crumbling population and economy, but their presence is sometimes annoying.
When Mr. Takaki first visited Katoka in 2010, it felt like the paradise he was looking for. “I’ve never seen a place like this,” he said.
Everything has changed. “If they finish this thing, I don’t know what we’re going to do here.”
Confronting nature with concrete
The countryside of Japan is teeming with construction projects similar to those planned for Katoku.
The country has built a dam on most of its rivers and filled them with concrete. Tetrapods – giant concrete jacks built to resist erosion – are stacked along every residential inch of the coastline. In the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast of the country and triggered the Fukushima nuclear accident, planners surrounded the region with sea walls.
“These projects often make sense for a country plagued by earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, landslides and typhoons,” said Jeremy Bricker, an assistant professor of coastal engineering at the University of Michigan.
The question, he said, is, “To what extent is this concrete here because of the need to protect, and to what extent is it part of Japanese culture?”
In some cases, concrete can be replaced with natural buffers such as extra sand or dense vegetation, Mr Bricker said. While some Japanese civil engineers are using such alternatives, he added, “Japan has been so focused on promoting work for traditional contractors, that is, concrete work, that there hasn’t been much focus on soft solutions.”
According to Hiroaki Sono, an 83-year-old activist who has successfully campaigned against major projects on the island, on Amami Oshima, Katoku’s home island, concrete relies more on concrete than elsewhere in the country.
Public works there are heavily subsidized by a 1950s law aimed at improving local infrastructure. Politicians seeking votes in the region update the law every five years, and Amami Oshima’s economy relies heavily on it, Mr Sono said, adding that most of Katoku’s residents are industry-related.
“This is building for the sake of building,” he said.
Environmental engineers describe beaches as a dynamic environment that grows, shrinks and changes with the seasons and tides. New elements like the sea wall can have unpredictable and destabilizing effects.
Rural communities are no exception.
At Katoku, change happened slowly and then suddenly.
For decades, residents have refused government proposals to reinforce the shore with concrete.
But in 2014, two violent typhoons washed away the beach and uprooted the pandanus trees that protected the village. The cemetery, built atop a high dune that separated the village from the sea, now loomed perilously above the ragged coastline.
The storms undermined the residents’ confidence in the bay’s ability to protect them.
“The waves went straight to the cemetery,” said Sayoko Hajime, 73, who moved to Katoku with her native husband 40 years ago. “After that, everyone was terrified; they panicked. “
After the typhoons, the village turned to the prefecture authorities for help. The planners recommended a 1,700-foot concrete wall to prevent the ocean from swallowing the beach.
Mr. Takaki, who was living nearby at the time, and several others objected. They hired analysts who concluded that the government had not demonstrated the need for concrete fortifications. These experts argued that tough defenses could accelerate sand loss, a phenomenon seen in nearby villages where the ocean hits weathered concrete walls.
To complicate matters further, the river, home to endangered freshwater fish, cuts a channel to the ocean, moving up and down the beach in a seasonal rhythm.
The prefecture agreed to reduce the proposed wall by more than half. They said it would be covered in sand to protect the aesthetics of the beach, and if that sand was washed away, it could be replaced.
Meanwhile, Mr. Takaki’s team reinforced the dunes with a new pandanus. The beach naturally recovered its size before the typhoon.
However, officials continue to insist on the need to build a berm. In other villages, “there is a strong feeling that when a typhoon comes, they are protected by their sea wall,” explained Naruhito Kamada, Mayor of Katoku, Setuchi. “And the typhoons are getting bigger.”
Other options are worth exploring, said Tomohiko Wada, one of several lawyers who filed a lawsuit to stop construction. “The villagers wanted to do something and the prefecture said concrete because that’s what Japan is doing,” he said.
Local authorities declined to comment on the claim. But Japanese law does not provide for orders to stop work in such cases, and the prefecture seems to intend to complete the work before the court ruling.
Competing visions of the future
The new UNESCO designation could attract tourists and support Katoku’s economy.
But the villagers are wary of outsiders.
The island culture is conservative. In crazy Japan, baseball is favored by the locals for sumo, an ancient sport of great religious significance. They also have an unusual affinity for the military, with a small museum near Katoku detailing Japan’s recent attempts to counter US forces in World War II. Pilots of kamikaze boats occupy a prominent place.
Chiyoko Yoshikawa moved to Katoku with her husband four decades ago because the river water was perfect for the local indigo dyeing craft. Her husband died, her daughter left, and the studio – Katoku’s only business – became a hobby.
Ms. Yoshikawa objects to the construction, but hesitates to intervene. According to her, even now she remains a “stranger.”
Perhaps she would be wise to stay away. Mr. Takaki’s efforts have fueled violent passions.
Last month, in the presence of two New York Times reporters, Norimi Hajime, a villager who works for a contractor building the Katoku Wall, confronted Mr Takaki on the village’s main road.
Waving a small sickle, which is often used for yard work in Japan, Mr. Hajime accused Mr. Takaki of plotting to destroy the village.
According to Hajime, no one needs the construction, but without it, the typhoon will wash away Katoka.
“Storms,” Mr. Takaki replied, “are not the biggest threat to the settlement. His elementary school closed years ago. The youngest resident, besides Mr. Takaki and his partner, is a woman in her 50s. Bus service is now by appointment only.
Mr. Takaki argued that the beach is Katoku’s most precious asset, something that sets it apart from dozens of other dying villages along the Amami Oshima coastline. According to him, trying to save the settlement, residents can kill him.
Standing on the main road to Katoku, there was not the slightest hint that the beach existed at all. Mr. Hajime could only see the village.
“If he dies,” he said, “he dies.”