Blog Post

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

For many cities and town in Japan, centuries of wars and natural disasters have taken their toll on the country’s historic fabric. This is no less true for Kesennuma. After a big fire in 1915, another fire raced through the entire city in 1929, reducing it to ashes. Thus, the oldest buildings date to 1929-1932. Three of the most historic buildings in town, all dating to this period, are located harbor side within blocks of each other. It is these badly damaged survivors that the town has asked WMF to look at for assistance. They are the oldest surviving structures in the Kesennuma, and there is a deep commitment on the part of the city to save and restore these buildings considered landmarks to the fishermen that return to port and to the resident community.

Otokoyama House, a wood building with a faux-stone, western-style façade sake store and brewery was swept off its foundations onto a neighboring lot; the lower floor was destroyed and only the top floor of three stories survived the tsunami. The harbor side street on which it sat is now almost 2 feet lower than the original grade. In addition to fishing, Kesennuma and it environs are famed for its sake. Kakuboshi, another sake shop and brewery, was also severely damaged by the tsunami, the ground floor was swept away, and the upper floor was swept to the back on the site and sits rammed into two neighboring buildings that are slated for demolition. Takeyama is a two-storey rice shop that was severely damaged by the tsunami. A portion of the ground floor was swept away and the second story sits on metal supports.

The prospect of restoring these buildings or their remnants raises some daunting questions:

  1. How does one restore the building when only the upper floor of a two or three-story building remains?
  2. What about the surrounding cityscape, since the lots around these structures are now devoid of an urban context?

Some of the issues are technical, others are about values. Even if all the resources necessary were available, it wouldn’t make sense to “restore” some of these buildings without first finding out what the overall master plan is for restoring the rest of the city - especially the harbor side.

A big question is the safety of the residents and the risk of future earthquakes and tsunami, which, in a country like Japan, are inevitable. While some coastal towns seem likely to be abandoned and not repopulated, that will not be the case for Kesennuma. The question is how to make it safe. Some options are now being looked at. One calls for building a huge dyke (about 20 feet tall) surrounding the entire harbor front. Many residents and officials are against this. Not only is the efficacy an issue, but it would also cut off the harbor from the community. It would be like living in a walled prison. Another option being considered is to rebuild the town as it was, but rezone the use. The harbor front and low lying areas would be used only for fishing and commercial purposes while all residential areas would be relocated to higher ground. This seems to be the current preference. A final decision by the local government will be made within the next few months.

In the meantime, the most urgent need for Otokoyama House, Kakuboshi, and Takeyama is to ensure their immediate safety, as their current position is precarious. The upper third floor of Otokoyama House sits on the neighboring property where it was deposited, subject to the elements and potential collapse. The upper second story of Kakuboshi is wedged up against two modern buildings that are slated for demolition. If it is to be saved at all, it will need to be moved before the other two buildings come down, lest it too be demolished. The footings under Takeyama are temporary and must be secured before the lower floor can be reconstructed.

Local carpenters feel confident that they can use the Japanese tradition of Hikiya—the moving and reconstruction of traditional Japanese wooden buildings—to move Otokoyama House and Kakuboshi, and eventually rebuild new lower floors for them. They would then place the surviving upper floors of these two buildings atop their new bases. Whether these newly hybrid reconstructed/restored buildings would be built in their original harbor side locations or on higher ground has yet to be decided, but the community would like to at least have that choice. They would like assistance with cost for moving these buildings to a safe location before wholesale demolition of any remaining buildings begins in April.