Mother of the Sea
December 12, 2014 5:16 AM   Subscribe

Every year in Uto, a remote town at the Southern tip of Japan, a festival is held to celebrate a woman known locally as the Mother of the Sea. Dr Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker died without knowing her research would save the Japanese seaweed industry and lead to a world multi-billion dollar obsession with sushi. The story of nori in Japan.
posted by infini (20 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, thanks infini! One thing I like about Japan is the way people there will incorporate foreign things into ancient religion. Just outside Ueno Park is a shrine with, among other things, a religious monument to eye glasses that was erected soon after they were brought to Japan. As a glasses wearer myself, I agreed wholeheartedly with the idea.

I do wonder what Dr. Drew-Baker would have thought of being included in Japan's religions. I hope she'd understand. To me it seems altogether fitting.
posted by sotonohito at 5:37 AM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

I do wonder what Dr. Drew-Baker would have thought of being included in Japan's religions.

Somewhere in Northern Europe, there is a tribe that regularly worships the most outstanding people on the planet. Every year they hold this big religious ceremony in their capital, where they present offerings to the newly deified. There is also this gallery where they have little shrines (in form of pictures) of all their deities to remember and worship. This year, they newly included this Japanese guy who invented a blue laser diode. I wonder what he was thinking about the religious practices in Northern Europe.
posted by sour cream at 6:11 AM on December 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

Remarkable story. Thank you, infini!
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 6:25 AM on December 12, 2014

I get your point, sour cream, but I think there's a difference between an award ceremony and religious devotion.
posted by Sangermaine at 6:26 AM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's probably like the difference between a small festival with a shrine monument and religious devotion.
posted by automatic cabinet at 6:41 AM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Sushi is my comfort food. And I love a good seaweed salad. If I had to pick a single cuisine to eat exclusively, I would choose Japan's in a heartbeat. My gratitude is immense.
posted by carmicha at 6:51 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

actually a giant algae, like all seaweeds

wow, I actually did not know this.
posted by Artw at 6:51 AM on December 12, 2014

And in celebration, the kid and I will make spam musubi this weekend.
Not sure about our Hormel shrine, though. It might need a little refurbishing. Still looks a little 1950s.
posted by Seamus at 6:58 AM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

And I left out of my smart-ass comment the fact that this post is magnificently interesting. Thanks!
posted by Seamus at 6:58 AM on December 12, 2014

Fantastic. Thanks infini!
posted by Ziggy500 at 6:59 AM on December 12, 2014

It's probably like the difference between a small festival with a shrine monument and religious devotion.
Dr Drew-Baker is hailed in Japan as ``The Mother of The Sea'' and her children are treated as celebrities, thanks to her work, which saved the staple Japanese seaweed nori - a vital sushi ingredient - from extinction.

Now the researcher will finally be honoured in a major new exhibition chronicling her life at Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry.

Yesterday ,as he presented his mother's microscope to the museum,her son Dr John Rendle Baker said he was ``amazed'' by the attention his mother's work was receiving,46 years after her death.

Dr Baker, 64, who lives in Mold, said: ``My mother never went to Japan and never knew what a difference her work would make.

``She studied the seaweed for purely scientific purposes but without her work the entire industry could have disappeared.

``I don't know what my mother would make of it all now.She'd be surprised that what she did back then has now turned into a multibillion dollar industry but I don't think she'd like sushi - she wasn't very adventurous when it came to food.''

Dr Baker said he first saw the nori seaweed when his father brought some back after a visit to Japan.

``My father brought it back in a tin. I didn't see it as it appears in sushi until I went to Japan myself. They get through tonnes and tonnes of the stuff.''

He said he was mobbed as a celebrity when he travelled to Japan with his wife Rosa, 62, for an annual ceremony in Osaka.

``The Japanese were all over us,'' said Dr Baker, who met up in Japan with his sister Francis, 62,and her husband Tony, 64, who now live in Australia.

``We flew into Osaka and went to the memorial for a special ceremony. There were TV cameras and photographers to greet us.''

``We were interviewed on TV and radio and our pictures were all over the press. It felt like being a celebrity for three days.''
posted by infini at 7:04 AM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

This scientist's work is amazing and she is wonderful, but just for a moment:

The position of Honorary Research Fellow enabled Dr Drew-Baker to continue her research at the University, but her work was unpaid. Dr Henry Baker [her husband] supported Dr Drew-Baker’s work and built her a tidal tank in the laboratory to assist her research.

As they say, behind every great woman is a great man. No, wait, that's not quite it... Well, anyway, hooray for a story of a woman whose husband thought the whole "We're married so now you stay home and give up your life's passions" bullshit was bullshit, in an age when few thought like that.

Yay science!
posted by IAmBroom at 7:21 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

The third article in the post described it as a "small festival" -- on that particular occasion, infini, it sounds very much not! It also sounds even less like religious devotion.
posted by automatic cabinet at 7:23 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's probably like the difference between a small festival with a shrine monument and religious devotion.

I don't think you'll find much religious devotion in Japan. Except perhaps in some remote Buddhist monasteries, and maybe not even there.

Basically, Japan ist just a never-ending series of small festivals with shrines.
posted by sour cream at 7:26 AM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

'splained. in my own fpp ;p
posted by infini at 7:40 AM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I always thought it was super cool to see seaweed farms from the air. For example, here is one near Tokyo. (Link is from this blog post, which has more photos.)
posted by caaaaaam at 10:48 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have always wondered how laverbread was made. It seems like it's pretty simple, and here's a recipe for it using nori.

It's not exactly something you can easily find in California, USA, so I've no idea how authentic it is to the real thing, but given how ridiculously nutritious seafood is, and how easy it is to find nori now (partially thanks to this woman, it seems), I've always been curious to try and incorporate it into my diet.
posted by offalark at 11:18 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

That is amazing. I didn't know there was such a thing as seaweed aquaculture. I thought the stuff was omnipresent and will grow anywhere it can attach itself. The last time I went swimming in the Sea of Japan, I walked out of the water, up on the beach and there was a 20 foot long piece of kombu wrapped around my ankle. I kicked it aside and then suddenly a woman ran up and grabbed it, took it to the water to rinse the sand off, and carefully folded it up.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:15 PM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Japan and religion is... complicated.

Most Japanese are married in Shinto ceremonies and buried in Buddhist ceremonies. Most Japanese celebrate the new year and many do go to a shrine to ring the bell (that wakes up and/or gets the attention of the gods) and toss a few yen into the box. Most Japanese will attend a Shrine festival at least once a year (though that's also a social gathering, entertainment, etc). Most Japanese will also self identify as non-religious. Few identify as being Shinto, though again that gets complicated because going to Shinto shrines is all but universal and to many Japanese "being Shintoist" means being a priest not just doing some Shinto things.

So yeah. Complicated. And Japanese often incorporate foreign stuff into ceremonies that have long histories. I wouldn't be surprised if the origin of this was a nori related festival that Dr. Drew-Baker got incorporated into and then sort of became the focus of. I'd also not be surprised if they just invented a whole new festival for her.

Some Japanese object to foreign stuff in their ceremonies and festivals, including some Japanese who identify as non-religious and therefore, you'd assume, see the festivals in a purely secular light.

Some Japanese think including foreigners is fine. When I lived in Japan I had the opportunity to be part of the team carrying mikoshi (a sort of portable shrine and/or vehicle to transport a god) for a festival in Machida. In conversation I learned that the shrine associated with the mikoshi I helped carry was regarded as liberal, and some priests from other shrines didn't like that the priest at "my" shrine let foreigners participate. But most people who were watching as I helped carry the mikoshi didn't seem to object to me and the other foreigners doing it, though since this was Japan mostly those who did object would have done so by aggressively ignoring us which is sometimes hard to notice.

Is this more religious than the Nobel ceremony? Absolutely.

Is it of the same "entirely religious" category as a Catholic mass? Not even slightly.

No one is worshiping her like a god, that'd be silly. But OTOH, the line between divine and mortal is kind of blurry in Japanese religion. The souls of the war dead at Yasukuni Shrine, including foreign war dead who were conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII [1], are considered to have become divine, though they started mortal. Though again, what "divine" means in Japan isn't really the same as in the West.

Plus remember that this is local. There aren't going to be many people in Tokyo celebrating her festival. Different places have different festivals and important holidays.

So, yeah. Complicated.

[1] Which is itself a source of controversy. Various groups from the places those people were drafted from have petitioned the priests of Yasukuni Shrine to return the souls of their dead ancestors, and the priests at Yasukuni (among some of the most ferociously arch conservative in Japan) have refused on the grounds that once they died and were deified their souls became inherently and irreversibly Japanese.
posted by sotonohito at 2:11 PM on December 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

What a cool story. I'm tempted to make April 14th an official sushi-eating day in remembrance and appreciation of unexpected (and tasty) downstream impact of seemingly isolated research.
posted by deludingmyself at 10:48 AM on December 15, 2014

« Older Beautiful Forest   |   Bitcoin Bowl Brings Virtual Currency to St. Pete Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments