This article was originally published by Kansai Scene in 2009 under the name W.F. Tyrman.
Tetrapods, sounds like a new animation coming your way. Maybe, it will involve dinosaurs or giant legged robots. Some school boy, maybe called Shinji, is the only person in the world able to pilot super Transformer-Gundam style machines to protect the Earth from these four-legged creatures. Some teen model-actress-singer would make herself very popular by singing the theme tune.
Only they are not. If Japan decided it ever needed a propaganda drive to bolster support for its coastal defence programme then this anime would be the one to use. As it is, Tetrapod means four-legged in Greek, or quadruped in Latin, and refers to all four-legged animals. To residents of Japan a tetrapod is a four-legged piece of concrete hugging the coastline in an effort to starve off erosion and Tsunamis.
You know how these things look. Go to any beach in Kansai. For example, go to Pichi Pichi Beach in Sennan City. Sure the beach is nice but if you want to see the sunset over the horizon, forget about it. The view is blocked off by banks of tetrapods sitting about twenty meters out to sea. Even an isolated paradise like Taketomi in the Yaeyama Islands is not free of them. Sure, the main beaches are spared because of their coral reefs. But, the harbour still has great agglomerated Tetrapodal mandibles around its entrance.
The scale of the problem is best summed up by Alex Kerr. In 1993 he notes “55 percent of the entire coast of Japan had been lined with dement slabs and giant concrete tetrapods.” That is approximately 16,000km of concreted land.
But where, you may ask, do these abominations to the eye come from? Well, whisper it in high culture circles, but the answer is, France. Yes, the home of Rococo, Poussin, Le Monde, Jean Reno and Carla Bruni also invented the Tetrapod. But no worries Francophiles, where Frances leads others are bound to follow. Roll on the British Shed, American A-Jack, Irish Diahitis and the Australian Seabee. However, not every country loves them quite as much as Japan.
As with many things this has moved beyond normal channels. They are beloved of not just construction magnates and government officials but also of a small group of tetrapod otaku. Cannot afford concrete moulds? Do not worry, you can make your own paper tetrapods. You can even buy tetrapod pencil erasers. Any chance of a tetrapod concrete eraser?
Japan can be a deadly place with earthquakes, tsunami, volcanoes, landslides and typhoons to contend with. It is natural to hold a certain amount of fear of the environment and to seek to manage it. However, things have gone too far with coastal cladding on this scale. There needs to be more awareness about how land can be protected and maintained without making it ugly.
One example Japan can learn from is the sea defences at Sandwich, southeast England. Here the tetrapod sea-wall has been buried at the back of the beach under shingles. It does its job but the beach still looks nice. Another idea would be to expand beach drainage systems. These are less expensive and more effective than hard systems like tetrapods though do not pay the construction companies as much.
One way to beautify Japan’s beaches would be to take advantage of its famed competitiveness, especially with regional rivals. Europe operates a Blue Flag scheme where each beach is inspected and only the cleanest, nicest beaches are awarded the coveted Blue Flag. Such a scheme would focus the minds of Japan’s bureaucrats.