Blog Post

Reflecting on the March 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami and Looking to the Future

“This is all about going back to basics of cultural properties preservation.” That is the phrase echoed by my counterparts in Japan. It’s become the core principle of the SOC (Save Our Culture) project to save cultural heritage that has the most meaning nationally and locally. In normal days, even with peaks and troughs affecting our daily lives, there are always people and communities that live and work here. It is within this environment that I’ve been working in cultural heritage conservation, but I’ve never had the thought, what if both are lost? Four months passed following the events of March 11, 2011 until I was able to make my first eye-opening journey to tsunami-afflicted communities in Tohoku, including Kesennuma. Since then, determining how best to rebuild the afflicted societies remains the most pressing issue.

During my 17-hour effort to get home following the first tremors of March 11, relentless images of the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami flowed on TV screens at bars, coffee shops, or other places accommodating hundreds of thousands of people stranded in streets across the Tokyo metropolitan area. For many of us in safety, glued to the screens, these images only stirred up feelings of helplessness, leaving a gnawing sense of loss in our mind. Since that moment, worries about people in the afflicted areas remain a shared concern among all Japanese. It is ubiquitous feeling, exemplified by the total humanitarian aid of about US$5.5 billion raised in Japan during the past year. Recognizing that a priority needed to be put on humanitarian aid, World Monuments Fund (WMF) started to liaise with Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs (Bunka-cho) and the Foundation for Cultural Heritage and Art Research (FCHAR), preparing for the work ahead to help rebuild the physical and social infrastructure required for a civil society in the region, including education, civic life, culture, and heritage. Now, our big challenge through SOC partnership has begun.

My first trip to Tohoku was in August 2011 with my long-time friend, Masayuki. Masayuki (Mr. Inoue), as Deputy General Manager in Cultural and Business Projects Bureau of Nikkei Inc., has been active in helping rebuild afflicted communities in Tohoku through supporting cultural events such as a planned Art Exhibition, “Musée du Louvre,” in Morioka (Iwate Prefecture), Sendai (Miyagi Prefecture), and Fukushima (Fukushima Prefecture). As an individual volunteer, he has been working hard as a founding member of SOC since his first meeting with Bunka-cho on two weeks after the desiaster. Together we visited two coastal cities, Kesennuma and Ishinomaki, in Miyagi Prefecture. On the prefecture level, Miyagi (with a population of about 2.3 million) recorded the largest number of casualties in Tohoku, with approximately 11,200 including those missing, followed by Iwate (1.3 million population) with about 6,000, and Fukushima (2 million population) with about 1,800. Tsunami damage partially or completely destroyed about 223,000 homes or buildings in Miyagi, followed by about 82,000 in Fukushima, , and about 25,000 in Iwate,. At the local level of Tohoku, Ishinomaki City in Miyagi suffered the largest number of casualties, with approximately 3,800 including those missing, followed by Rikuzen Takada (about 1,800) in Iwate and Kesennuma (about 1,400) in Miyagi. With respect to damage to cultural properties, thousands were damaged either by earthquake or tsunami throughout eastern Japan and the Tohoku and Kanto regions.

On our first on-site study of the scale of the disaster and its impact on communities, we headed for Tohoku by train and a rental car. Four months after the disaster, debris and heavily damaged buildings remained all over flatlands, which stretch from the coastline to the hilltops and mountains. At Ogatsu, a remote area in Ishinomaki, we visited Tenyu-ji Temple, a city-designated cultural property that stood at the foot of the mountain. Only the roof architecture of the temple’s main hall remains, but is heavily damaged and rests on top of destroyed lower architecture. Miraculously, its guardian god worshiped by its community people and enshrined in the architecture was found totally undamaged and safe. The priest installed a small prefabricated structure in the vacant space at a higher level of the mountain, housing the god statue, to hold memorial services and pray to console the spirits of tsunami victims in the community. Of course, Masayuki, the local government’s officials who guided us, and I had a moment for prayer in the temporary housing structure but could not stay long before being overcome with tears and emotions in front of the many portraits of victims laid out on a makeshift altar. Asked about the temple’s reconstruction, the priest said that the temple had held meaning for the community for hundreds of years. After so many perished or relocated following the devastation of 3.11, he could not predict when all in the community would be able to get rid of the fear of the tsunami and return to the community. In fact, we did not see a soul in the devastated area and only a couple of heavy machines were within eyesight, and these unmanned. Even today, over a year since the tragedy, this scenery is still visible in many other areas.

In Kesennuma, north-east of Ishinomaki along coastline facing the Pacific Ocean, the devastation caused by the tsunami was apparent not only in the bay front but within the city, including old streets lined with historic buildings. In the city area, many trucks carrying debris came and went on unpaved roads, leaving only dust behind. Few local people can be seen in the streets, and there is no place to eat meals. Meeting and speaking with the owners of three iconic historic wooden buildings—Otokoyama, Kakuboshi, and Takeyama—was moving. They are all deeply committed to recovering from the disaster, and remain stoic as we fight back tears. Massive sections of Otokoyama (third floor) and Kakuboshi (second floor) remain after lower floors were destroyed by flowing debris and swept away in the tsunami. Takeyama’s second floor remains, while its floor level was lost. Remarkably, it sits with only a supporting metal pole, making us believe in miracles and the strength of Japanese traditional wooden architecture. Seeing this and meeting the people still there, I felt certain that those of us working in cultural properties preservation could surely do something to help them to rebuild their communities.