Post-Earthquake in Kumamoto, Japan: Preventing Needless Further Destruction and Losses

On April 16, 2016, a series of earthquakes struck Kumamoto and its neighboring communities. Almost all buildings either partially collapsed or were totally destroyed. There were many houses that were crushed and only the upper floors were left on the ground. This reminded me of the scene I saw in the Tohoku region after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

From May 3-6, 2016, I joined the on-site survey of damaged cultural properties led by Japan ICOMOS with members from the Architectural Institute of Japan and Japan Institute of Architects. We visited more than 20 sites in Kumamoto City, including the Kumamoto Castle, and neighboring Ozu Town and Nishihara Village. Our visit was only three weeks after the devastating earthquake.

Images of the severely damaged sites of the Kumamoto Castle and Aso Shrine are some of the most widely publicized photos of the disaster. And yet the damage is more wide spread and many types of buildings were afflicted, ranging from machiya architecture to modern architecture, such as the reinforced concrete structure designed by William Merrell Vories in Kumamoto City. Each architectural type represents some aspects of the living culture which has been handed down over generations in the communities: some comprise Kumamoto's castle townscape; some illustrate Kumamoto's history of education and/or healthcare in the era of modernization of Japan and some have been overlooked for a long time but has been preserved by a local community.

In Kumamoto City alone, the earthquake damage to its built heritage is about 30% of the total built heritage (72 out of 258 officially designated important cultural properties ). If the damage in neighboring cities, towns, and villages in Kumamoto Prefecture as well as neighboring prefectures is added, the total number of officially named built heritage damaged by the earthquake amounts to 364. The number increases if you add the cultural properties which are unspecified by the governments.

After a natural disaster, a first effort is to demolish and clean up a site, but there's a risk that historic sites will be unnecessarily destroyed. This happened after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. We should learn a lesson from this, and put our utmost focus on saving these historic buildings at immediate risk of demolition.

When we visited the area, it was when humanitarian aid was a priority. As in the case of disaster relief all over the world, recovery of cultural heritage will come, but there is always something we can do immediately to ensure sustainable heritage preservation. During our visits with property owners and local preservation groups, we not only consulted on technical matters such as urgent measures to avoid likely collapse of the buildings, for example, but also on safely securing family treasures that were scattered inside by putting all in temporary storage, protecting them from theft. Our efforts were very much appreciated. We were also asked by the locals to evaluate the damage of their buildings. They wondered if their buildings could be restored. And our affirmative professional assessment or advice to save them surely encouraged them. 


Image top: Kumamoto Castle, 2016