Photo/Illutration A Shinto priest performs a rite to pray for the safety of beachgoers in Kami, a town in Hyogo Prefecture, on July 1. (Koki Nakamura)

In Yasutaka Tsutsui’s short story titled “Kofuku no Genkai” (Limits to happiness), a bizarre scene unfolds at a seashore, where the entire sandy beach is overrun by a sheer crush of humanity.

Once you step into that tightly compacted mass, you are immediately pressed in from all sides, and there is no getting out. A voice from the PA system drones on, “Do not stand still.”

The crowd keeps shuffling on, silent, toward the water.

The protagonist is now chest-deep in the sea, which is tepid from the sweat of innumerable human bodies.

And only then does he start wondering, “What happens if I keep moving into deeper water until I can no longer keep my head above it?”

But it is already too late.

The scene is a dark caricature of extreme overcrowding that can result at any beach that’s too popular with holiday makers. And since many people are probably giving up a trip to the seashore this summer, I thought they might draw some consolation from being reminded of this dystopian scene. Was I right?

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many beaches around the nation are forgoing their annual opening ceremonies this year to prevent the spread of infections.

Perhaps that’s being overly cautious because those are all outdoor events. However, I suppose this is unavoidable, since overcrowding at some beaches will render social distancing impossible to observe, and it won’t be safe to use indoor facilities, such as food service concessions and restrooms.

One thing to bear in mind is avoid beaches with few visitors. Since such places usually have no lifeguards on duty, swimming may be unsafe.

Poet Kaoru Maruyama (1899-1974), who went to a merchant marine school, often wrote about the sea.

In “Umikaze” (Sea wind), he likens the winds that generate waves to people. The poem goes to the effect: “Someone stood there ... He is shapeless/ He only had eyes of bubbles/ And left straight for the hill that glistened with ‘susuki’ Japanese pampas grass.”

This is a fantasy that only a deserted beach can evoke.

This year, enjoying the beach may take a different form from usual. How about going just to look at the waves, or to relive a memory of a past visit to the beach with someone.

July 23 is “Umi no Hi” (Marine Day), a national holiday in Japan.

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 23

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.