Projet Grand Maillet is named after the first new research vessel built for the International Coastal Research Center in Otsuchi since the disaster. The name of Otsuchi town means ‘big maillet’ in English and ‘grand maillet’ in French.

An Interview with Professor Atsushi Tsuda
By Maarja Yano

Professor Tsuda has visited Otsuchi town every spring since 1983. Year by year he has observed all that has changed in the town, and all that has remained the same. Otsuchi is surrounded by beautiful mountains on one side and by the sea on the other side. The sky is clear and the air is ‘tasty’ as the Japanese often say. 
The Research Center lies right by the sea and it has a great view of Otsuchi bay. In the middle of the bay there lies a small island called Horai. Because of its shape locals call it Bottle-gourd Island (Hyotan-jima).
A little red lighthouse used to stand on the island and one could visit it by crossing over a narrow bridge that joined Bottle-gourd Island with the mainland. Now the lighthouse has been replaced with a new one, while the bridge still lies somewhere at the bottom of the bay. The Center is now one of the few buildings that remain standing after the tsunami hit the area in March 2011. As professor Tsuda puts it: “Nature is an unpredictable partner.” 
Professor Tsuda loves bird watching and starts talking about birds as soon as I step into his office at the Kashiwanoha Campus of the University of Tokyo. But he resists calling bird watching his hobby, as he has a strict definition of what counts as a hobby. 
“A friend of mine claims that if you do not spend at least a million yen on what you do, you cannot call it a hobby,” he says. “Another definition of hobby is that you must do it at least once a week.” By this definition, he adds, his hobby is cooking.

How did you become interested in birds?

Actually it has to do with Otsuchi town. I was spending another spring in Otsuchi, when I was asked to accompany two visiting researchers who, it turned out, loved bird watching. They invited me to join them on a bird watching trip for the weekend. So I thought, why not, and I was surprised at how exciting it actually was! 
You can observe birds whenever and wherever you want and it can take only a few minutes of your time. In fact, birds can tell a lot about the environment they live in. For example one should think that here, in the midst of parks and green areas of the Kashiwanoha Campus you’d find lots of birds, but it’s not necessarily the case. Who knows the reason, but I suspect it might be the low productivity rate of the soil. On the other hand, Tokyo has plenty of bird species.

Your role in Projet Grand Maillet is monitoring the sea and collecting data. Could you specify?

My work is very similar to Professor Tanaka’s. Basically we measure seawater speed, salinity, temperature, and density. We collect data to create a model. 
Besides the physical qualities of the water there is also a very important role for the level of chlorophyll. 
Chlorophyll is vital for phytoplankton growth and by measuring the level of chlorophyll we learn how much phytoplankton there is. In other words, we find out how nutritious the water is, because phytoplankton forms the base of the ocean food chain and virtually all other life forms in the ocean depend on it.   
But measuring the previously mentioned qualities is not easy at all. Especially around the bay area it is very difficult to get accurate data. There are several difficulties to overcome. 
For instance, the landscape of the coastal area is very complex, the depth of the bay varies by area, and we have to pay attention to the wind that changes its direction several times a day. There are other setbacks too, for example just the other day the rope of one of the buoys broke.

What effect did the tsunami have on marine life?

My specialty in the field of marine biology is plankton and I must say it is surprising how little impact the tsunami had on it. 
A tsunami strikes the area once every 50-60 years, which is a very small interval in terms of natural history. This means that the organisms that inhabit the area must have developed ways to adapt to strong forces like a tsunami. 
Besides, marine life is much more flexible than we are used to thinking it is. We are used to looking at the world from our perspective, but what is our perspective? We are living on the land and therefore witness how disasters like this one destroy everything. But in fact, it is not the case in the ocean, where tsunamis are a recurring natural phenomenon. The only reason for the disruption of marine life is most probably the trash and toxic chemicals from land that was swept into the sea. 

So it seems that the only things that damage the environment or get broken, in these kinds of situations, are manmade. 

For instance, since the fishing industry in the area has shrunk in the last few years, marine life in the area has flourished.
It is the case of the tragedy of the commons, as Garrett Hardin first put it. Despite the fact that we understand that overfishing is a problem, with consequences we will soon face, we still do not act accordingly to what we know. Self-interest is above rational thought. 
And even if we stop, our neighbor will continue fishing. It means he will gain and we will lose profit. 
So, how to find a balance? It’s very difficult to make rules that everyone can follow and will be pleased with.
(Hardin argues that these problems cannot be solved in a technical way, but need a change in human values or ideas of morality   M. Y.)

Is there something you would like to say to the people of Otsuchi?

(Long pause.)
People often use the word ‘ganbatte’. (‘Ganbatte’ is a Japanese phrase used for encouragement and often translated to English as ‘hold on’, ‘go for it’, or ‘do your best’   M. Y.) It is crucial, of course, to hold on and the phrase is certainly said with good intentions, but sometimes it sounds irresponsible, doesn’t it? 
I mean, it takes the responsibility off the shoulders of the person who says the phrase. It pressures the receiver and basically sends a message that he is on his own. 
I think the worst thing to happen would be to forget. This is probably the fear of the locals, too. They fear that as time passes we forget and abandon them, but to pity them is also not good. We can’t even begin to imagine what they’ve been through. We shouldn’t make assumptions and we certainly don’t need to make great speeches about it. 
I think the best thing to do would be to continue going there, to continue talking with the local people and to help out as much as we can.

Do you have a message for other researchers?

My message would be simple: let’s work together. 
At the moment we have only one usable room on the third floor of the Otsuchi research center. (All the three floors of the building were damaged by the tsunami; the first two floors are not restorable   M. Y.) We all work there together and talk about all kinds of things. It doesn’t happen often in the corridors of Kashiwanoha Campus…
There is often a feeling of competition between researchers and universities, but it’s important to remember that we are all working for a common good cause and we need to cooperate. So this is my message: let’s forget competition and let’s work together. 

Atsushi Tsuda is Professor at the Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute of the University of Tokyo. 
Click here for Professor Tsuda’s profile (in Japanese) and the list of publications. 

This is the second article in the series of interviews with the researchers who are helping to reconstruct Otsuchi town and study its surrounding waters, after the disaster in March 2011.

October 20, 2013