Kakuhoshi façade restored in Kesennuma, Japan.

A Decade after Devastating Tsunami, Japan’s Kesennuma Historic Cityscape Wins Two UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards

Kakuhoshi façade restored in Kesennuma, Japan.

Reaching a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale, the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 triggered a tsunami that destroyed towns along the country’s northeastern coastline. In the coastal city of Kesennuma, the disaster claimed over 1,400 lives and endangered historic structures, the source of many families’ livelihoods. In 2012, following the site’s inclusion on the World Monuments Watch, World Monuments Fund (WMF) began working with the Kesennuma Kazamachi Cityscape Preservation Association for Community Recovery (KKCPA) to help restore and revitalize Kesennuma’s bay area as a driver of the local economy and community spirit.

On December 1, 2021, a decade after the devastating tsunami, the Kesennuma Historic Cityscape project was honored with the Award of Distinction at the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. The Asia-Pacific Awards, which recognize efforts of private individuals and organizations in preserving structures of distinct heritage value in the region, honored WMF and KKCPA in recognition of the project’s extraordinary technical achievements and skill in setting up seismic retrofitting, the recovery of building components washed away by the tsunami, and the use of vernacular construction techniques.

Noting the project’s focus on economic revitalization and disaster risk reduction, the jury also awarded the project with a Special Recognition for Sustainable Development, praising its potential to encourage rehabilitation in cities like Kesennuma by making use of cultural heritage to build urban resilience and sustainable development. The jury stated: “The inspirational rehabilitation of six historic buildings in Kesennuma from a state of severe damage marks a turning point for the town. The project rallied townspeople to restore not only these significant landmarks in the historic urban landscape, but their morale as well.”

After working together for more than ten years to rebuild their community and, more recently, to overcome the difficulties of the Covid-19 pandemic, the people of Kesennuma are starting to see signs of recovery in their city. Tourism is slowly picking up, bringing resources and hope.

"The timely news of this award inspires us to continue bringing our beloved town back to life and encourage its post-disaster vitality,” said Chie Sugawara, President of KKCPA. “We are seeing that the efforts to restore and preserve the historic cityscape of Kesennuma have invigorated residents and contributed to the rejuvenation of our community. And there, I believe, we can see a glimpse of the power of cultural heritage.”


WMF is grateful to The Freeman Foundation, American Express, and Hermès for their support of our work and help to rebuild vibrant communities afflicted by the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 including Kesennuma, Ogatsu and Sawara.