Every year in Japan, people gather at a waterfront shrine to pay homage to a British botanist who has never visited the country but is credited with revitalizing its vital seaweed industry.
Every year in southern Japan, dozens of people gather at a waterfront shrine to pay homage to a British botanist who has never visited the country but is credited with revitalizing its vital seaweed industry.
Kathleen Drew Baker made pioneering discoveries about the propagation of nori seaweed — the dried, crunchy leaves that surround sushi rolls — which helped begin its cultivation on a commercial scale.
Her studies at the University of Manchester allowed Japan to increase production in the difficult period after World War II, when small farmers were having trouble meeting demand.
But she carried out her most influential work as an unpaid research fellow, after losing her post-marital academic job due to the university’s policy at the time against hiring married women.
Although Drew Baker passed away in 1957, her memory lives on in Oto City in Kumamoto, one of the largest nori-growing areas in Japan.
Dozens of people from the local fishery, as well as scholars and history buffs, congregate each April in the lush grounds of an oceanside shrine, where a stone plinth displays a metal plate inscribed on its face.
Flags were raised in honor of the botanist
The organizer, Fumichi Yamamoto, 86, told AFP that the great Japanese and British flags were raised at the event as a Shinto priest “thanks” Drew Baker.
“The seaweed producers were happy and grateful” to be able to grow more nori seaweed in the aftermath of the war, “when people were suffering from food shortages,” he said.
The crop has been harvested from the Japanese coast for centuries, and has been cultivated for 500 years.
Apart from its use in sushi, it is also a main ingredient in “onigiri” rice balls, a staple snack food in Japan, and is used to garnish ramen and other classic dishes.
But seaweed is known to be fragile and easily wiped out by hurricanes and pollution.
In 1949, Drew Baker published a landmark study in the scientific journal Nature about laver, another name for nori. The crop grows off the coast of Wales, and is used to produce a traditional dish called laverbread.
“Up until that point, the life cycle of nori was not well known,” said Yamamoto.
The research has given new insights into how the plant punctures seashells where it produces new spores.
Drew Baker contacted a professor at Kyushu University, and “sent him an academic paper with the question: Isn’t Japanese seaweed like that, too?” He said.
Then Japanese scientists and nori farmers began experimenting with using oyster shells to help marine plants thrive.
“It was a success,” said Yamamoto, the son of an herbal wholesaler who has run the memorial ceremony for 50 years.
Now, “Nori is one of the staple foods in Japan.”