Photo/Illutration Nouko Lighthouse stands on Benten-Iwa rock in the city of Itoigawa in Niigata Prefecture in 2016. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Nouko Lighthouse in Niigata Prefecture, perched atop a small rock jutting out in the Sea of Japan, was the object of my recent trip to the city of Itoigawa in the northern Japanese prefecture. 

The shiny white color of the tower stood out against the backdrop of the red of a bridge, the blue of the sea and the green of pine trees.

The national government put the lighthouse on a list of candidates to be decommissioned, but passionate calls for keeping the facility in service within the local communities prompted the municipal government to buy it three years ago to continue its operation.

Originally, the lighthouse was built by the government of the former Nou town for local fishermen. We negotiated with the Japan Coast Guard (which operated the facility) with the determination to preserve it at any cost,” says Koichi Isogai, 62, the head of the Joetsu fishermen’s cooperative.

Lighthouses used to be vital facilities to guide seafarers safely near the coast. Today, however, even small ships can navigate safely through dangerous areas without relying on lighthouses thanks to GPS. Still, fishermen say lighthouses are something special for them.

When we spot the light of the familiar lighthouse while sailing toward the port, we feel relieved that we have returned safe and sound to our port,” Isogai explains. “Lighthouses offer emotional crutches for seafarers.”

There are currently more than 3,000 lighthouses in service across the nation, according to the Japan Coast Guard. A total of 129 have been retired in the past 10 years.

A small number of lighthouses designated to be decommissioned have survived as tourist attractions in Kochi and Ishikawa prefectures.

Bluntly put, a lighthouse is nothing but a mark for maritime navigation. But lighthouses appear to uniquely appeal to people's emotions.

Standing alone as it is beaten by the waves, a lighthouse seems to embody the beauty of solitude. The way it works all night makes it seem to have inner steel. There is something about lighthouses that tempts us to personify them.

Nov. 1 is the annual lighthouse day. The day was selected because the construction of Kannonzaki Lighthouse in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan’s first Western-style lighthouse, began on Nov. 1, 1868.

Looking at a lighthouse while enjoying the breeze that comes from the sea takes my mind off my cares for a moment.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 1

* * *

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.