Why is there a festival held in Uto, a small Japanese City in Kyushu, to honour an English woman who never set foot in Japan? What do typhoons, pollution, seashells, and sushi have to do with anything? And just who is ‘The Mother of the Sea?’


I love sushi. These days the whole world loves sushi! It’s fashionable, tasty and everywhere.

Still youthful and fascinated by everything Japan, especially the food, I first saw sushi in the late 1990s. It was in a small shop, in a fridge, at an English train station. In fact, it was a branch of Boots, which is a pharmacist… what could go wrong?


It was disgusting: sweet and cold, with hard rice and wrapped in tough green stuff, I thought might be plastic, with little taste. This was maki, one of several types of sushi – but I didn’t care.

My youthful vision of Japanese awesomeness was in tatters. My world was shattered, and I knew nothing would ever be the same again. Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but I really was disappointed.

Thankfully, I was reintroduced to sushi when I met my wife-to-be. Using fresh, Japanese ingredients and made with typical Japanese precision, pride, and attention to detail – she restored my lost faith. It was wonderful. Japan was awesome again.

But something more profound had occurred. A crucial connection was made – one that was missed all those years before: my tastebuds became properly acquainted with seaweed. With nori.

It wasn’t inedible, it wasn’t tough, it wasn’t plastic, and it wasn’t tasteless. It was a revelation!

I love sushi. These days the whole world loves sushi! It’s fashionable, tasty and everywhere.



Nori wraps around my sushi like a protective blanket; it flavours countless soups and noodle dishes or is shredded and sits temptingly over any number of things I eat. In small sheets, it is used as a snack or to envelope rice and leftovers on the plate.

It is comfort after a tough day and joy on any other. It’s now very important to me. It was the food of nobility when first discovered and was an acceptable form of payment for taxes as early as 701AD (702 according to some sources).

In post-war Japan, however, it was so much more than any of that.

Famine & Desperation

Nori was referred to as ‘lucky grass’ or ‘gamblers grass.’ Harvested since at least the eighth century, it was an erratic and unpredictable crop. Some years it would be bountiful. In others, it would fail, seemingly for no reason. Its propagation was a mystery. There was a missing link.

This was a critical problem in the years after World War II. Japan was a bleak place. The country was in trauma, and food was scarce. People were starving, and nori was an important food source.

But with bombing during the war, pollution, the reckless use of chemicals, and a series of violent typhoons in the years after, Japan’s seaweed industry had been decimated. An unpredictable harvest at the best of times had become almost non-existent, and by 1951, nori farmers were desperate.

Japan is reeling from the effects of the war, pollution and a series of violent tsunamis.

Discovery & Hope

Their salvation came from a somewhat unexpected source – but heroes often do. If Kathleen Drew-Baker were alive today, there’s no doubt she would be the heroine in a series of manga comics.

Slight but fiercely intelligent, her superpower was the pursuit of knowledge. The obstacles she had to overcome to exercise that power were principally those associated with the fact that she was a woman, born in the early 20th century. Sacked from her job as a lecturer at Manchester University in 1928, for getting married, she continued her research unpaid.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Drew, as she was known to her friends, continued her study, earned her doctorate, had dozens of papers published, and raised two children. Through determination and dedication, she had become a leading authority on Rhodophyte

Working on the north coast of Wales, in the mid-1940s, in a seaside lab, she discovered that seaweed spores found their way into old shells in early spring, staying there and growing into a slimy bright pink ooze until the autumn. The ooze would then float out into the ocean, sending out spores of its own, and seaweed would then grow on rocks and other debris.

The missing link was found! What were, until then, thought to be two different species were one and the same.


Half a world away in Japan, at Kyushu University, another connection was made. If that were true for seaweed off the coast of Wales, could it also be true for seaweed around the shores of Japan?

Professor Sokichi Segawa had read Drew’s research paper detailing her discovery in the scientific journal Nature and, in those 100 lines or so, understood its implications perfectly. He sought the assistance of Fusou Ota, a technician at Kumamoto Prefectural Fisheries Experiment Station, and together with nori farmers, succeeded in creating a process for nori cultivation.

Japan’s nori industry was saved and a nation fed.

Kathleen Drew-Baker died in 1957, unaware of what a profound effect her research was to have in Japan and, as I munch some sushi, the world.


if you were to walk through Sumiyoshi Nature Park in Uto, the morning air would be cool. You may be a little breathless from the walk up the hill, having come through the stone tori that marks the park entrance.

The sound of Shinto prayer might carry on the sea breeze and ahead would stand a group of 100 or so people gathered by a small monument with Drew’s image upon it. You would see the Japanese and British flags, hear songs being sung, and perhaps watch as offerings of thanks were made.

Beyond is the Ariake Sea and the nori fields within.

If you continued to watch the ceremony, attended by the mayor, local councillors, members of the fishing associations, seaweed cooperatives, and indeed visitors from across Japan, old and young, you would bear witness to the preservation of historical memory through an event that has taken place every 14th April, since 1953, in recognition of the work of a woman who never set foot in the country. Someone barely remembered in her homeland but part of the national consciousness of this one.

You would be looking on at an expression of gratitude, shown each year in this small park, in this small city, in this astonishing country, to a woman they call ‘Mother of the Sea.’ Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker.

A Shinto priest leads to the Drew festival in honour of Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker and her discovery of the life cycle of seaweed.


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