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One Year After the Japan Earthquake: A Journey, Part I

The fishing port of Kesennuma on the border of Miyagi and Iwate prefectures on the east coast of Japan was heavily damaged in the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku area of Japan in March 2011. Images of huge fishing boats that were swept up by the tsunami waves and thrown inland and images of the spilled fuel from the town's fishing fleet that burned for four days were some of the mostly widely published photos of the disaster.

Today, I am traveling with Mitsuo Inagaki, World Monuments Fund (WMF) representative for Japan, to Kesennuma, a year later. Kesennuma and other cities and towns that were damaged in the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami have requested support from WMF through its listing on our 2012 World Monuments Watch. Sunday, March 11, will be the one-year anniversary of that disaster. It will be commemorated throughout the country. The Emperor has just been released from the hospital after heart surgery this week, but he is committed to making a public appearance with the Empress this weekend. With much of the humane relief underway during the past year, concerted efforts are now being devoted to rebuilding the communities—including historic sites and cultural resources—that were damaged and displaced throughout the Tohoku area.

Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, the Bunka-cho, encouraged WMF to join forces with the Japan-based Foundation for Cultural Heritage (FCHAR) to bring domestic and international resources to restore cultural heritage damaged in last year’s disaster. We’ve named this partnership Save Our Culture (SOC), and it is the first international response ever established for a domestic Japanese catastrophe. Such is the scale of the disaster. WMF and FCHAR will seek to raise international and domestic funds for this restoration effort, which includes rebuilding historic sites, movable works of art (art objects and collections), and the material culture necessary for the promulgation of the area’s rich traditions of intangible heritage. The latter includes festivals, dances, musical instruments, performances, etc. that anchor traditional life in these villages and towns.

Over 100 communities in this afflicted area have submitted requests to SOC totaling approximately $15 million for help to rebuild their historic sites, structures, and cultural heritage. We are taking this trip to look at two examples of the damage: Kesennuma, a historic port city badly damaged by the tsunami, and Murata, a historic machiya/merchant town that suffered earthquake damage.

We start our trip by taking the evening bullet train to Sendai, the largest city in Japan north of Tokyo with a population of about 1 million. It is a bit of a boomtown now with people flocking to work on the rebuilding of Tohoku after the 2011 disaster. It is the commercial center for the entire Tohoku region, whose industries include timber, farming, rice, agricultural products, and, of course, fisheries. Sendai, in fact, is often called the “Capital of Timber” in Japan. It is also home to some of Japan’s finest rice—and thus sake—which is big business here. The area produces much of Japan’s rice, with beef tongue and miso being local culinary specialties of national fame.

In order to get to Kesennuma we have to drive from Sendai for 3 hours by car. This is noteworthy for a number of reasons. Japan is a relatively small country that is well connected through a world famous network of fast bullet trains. You can get almost anywhere by train quickly and smoothly. The fact that it takes 3 hours to get to Kesennuma by car from Sendai tells you how rural and isolated this community is—as are many of the towns badly hit by last year’s disaster. In fact, Mitsuo has never had to rent a car in Japan until he came up here last year to visit Tohoku, because every other place in Japan is accessible by trains.