Monday, 8 September 2014

The Mother of the Sea - Kathleen Drew is a Shinto goddess

Here's what seems to me a remarkable and moving story. 

Phycology is the study of algae, and Dr. Kathleen Drew was a phycologist at Manchester University. In 1949 she published a paper in "Nature" which for the first time made clear aspects of the reproductive system of a certain seaweed.

The seaweed is  porphyra laciniata, and it grows along the North Wales Coast.

Gosh this is riveting, you're thinking. 

Hang in there. You're reading about a Shinto goddess.

The seaweed is closely related to Nori, the black seaweed they wrap round nori rolls, eaten all over the world but especially in Japan. It's a very healthy and nutritious food.

Her paper was read  by a Japanese scientist, Sokichi Segawa, who was gracious enough to pass all the credit to Dr Drew, although it was he and colleagues who realised that her discovery would enable the harvest of nori to be much more predictable and very much larger. In effect, it could be seeded and sown.

Japan was close to starvation in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the seaweed industry in particular was close to collapse. Drew's discovery revolutionised the production of nori, saved the communities that harvest it from great suffering, and contributed to Japan's resurrection as a prosperous nation. It's unlikely that any of us outside Japan would every have heard of nori were it not for her.

Every year  on April 14th, there is a ceremony by the sea in Japan in her honour., in gratitude to her. She is called The Mother of the Sea, and is regarded as a spirit, a goddess, in Shinto.

There was a lovely BBC Radio 4 documentary about her this morning, you can get it on iPlayer:

I just love the idea that someone unknown to almost all of us, I suspect, could be seen as a goddess in a far distant and very different culture, and built into their traditional annual celebrations.

There she is, peering down her microscope in Manchester in the Thirties, little knowing she is going to be pantheonised in Japan twenty years later. Blessings can emerge from unlikely quarters!


  1. Are there any Japanese gods or goddesses in the Welsh Olympus (Snowden?) I wonder.

    Delicious story, GM. I shall listen to the podcast a little later with a glass of wine.

  2. Thank you both for dropping by. So far as I know, there are no torii (gates) or shrines on Snowden or on the shores of Cardiff Bay, Charles, but who knows, kami is/are everywhere...