Active Project

East Japan Earthquake Heritage Sites

Tōhoku and Kantō Regions, Japan
Did You Know?
When an earthquake struck East Japan in March 2011, the rebuilding of heritage structures became a major part of the recovery process for local communities.
A Closer Look

East Japan Earthquake Heritage Sites

On March 11, 2011, a powerful earthquake struck the northeast coast of Japan. In the wake of the catastrophic tsunami that followed, many thousands lost their lives and millions lost electricity and water. In response to this humanitarian crisis the recovery effort was prompt, but it was expected to be several years before many of these communities returned to stable conditions.

The repair and restoration of built heritage has proved to be an important social element for communities recovering from disaster. According to Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, more than 700 national landmarks were damaged by the earthquake, most located in the Tōhoku and Kantō regions. In addition to these sites, many other traditional buildings and historic townscapes were damaged, in places such as the coastal city of Kesennuma in the Tōhoku region. Although traditional Japanese architecture is known to withstand earthquakes, in this instance the force of the earthquake and tsunami was so severe that countless historic buildings suffered from damage, deformation, and partial or complete collapse.

Institutional and community collaboration yields results

The East Japan Earthquake Heritage Sites were included on the World Monuments Watch in 2012 and 2014. In November 2011, WMF and the Foundation for Cultural Heritage and Art Research launched Save Our Culture (SOC), an international effort to help cultural heritage sites affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Since then, SOC has worked to rebuild Sawara, a picturesque, historic canal town in the Kantō region of Japan. The town flourished during the Edo period (1603–1867) and is characterized by more than 300 historic examples of a distinctive style of Edo townhouse known as machiya, which functioned as both residence and workspace. More than a third of these buildings were damaged by the disaster. With support from American Express, we worked with the Ono River, Sawara Cityscape Preservation Association, and the Chiba Prefecture Education Board to restore seven of Sawara’s most treasured machiya between the summer of 2011 and March 2013.

We continued our support for areas damaged by the earthquake in Kesennuma, a fishing port on the border of the Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. Before the disaster the town was renowned for the beauty of its cove and surrounding mountains. Its long-standing historic significance began in the twelfth century when it was a post-station toward the eastern end of Japan’s Golden Trail, a string of gold-mining towns. Unfortunately, the Miyagi prefecture was hit particularly hard by the tsunami, which almost completely destroyed Kesennuma’s historic port and started raging fires with a spillage of fishing fleet fuel. Starting in 2013 we supported an ongoing restoration of seven historic buildings in the town, with the third set for completion by September 2016. Six of these are nationally registered Cultural Properties, and the seventh’s status is pending. All have been owned and operated by the same families since their original construction, a pattern which can now continue in future generations.

In October 2012, the first Watch Day event held in the region took place in the town of Sawara during the annual autumn festival, a centuries-old tradition. A parade of traditional floats from Sawara’s communities converged on the center of the town, amid traditional music and dances.


After the second inclusion of the East Japan Earthquake Heritage Sites on the 2014 Watch, between October 2014 and May 2015, we worked with the Executive Committee of Ishinomaki Cultural Heritage Restoration and Reconstruction to restore the Kannon-do (main) Hall at Tenyuji Temple in Ogatsu. The eighteenth-century building had collapsed in the disaster, but enough of the hall survived to restore it to its original use. The restoration was supported by American Express and served as an inspiration to the community and a powerful symbol of possibility for other rebuilding communities in the region.

Two towns in the Miyagi prefecture celebrated the region’s second Watch Day event in November 2014. A variety of events including exhibitions, guided tours, and workshops for schoolchildren were held at six historic sites in the city of Kesennuma and at the eighteenth-century Tenyuji Temple in Ogatsu.

Our work in these three towns located in the Tōhoku and Kantō regions of Japan aims to help reinvigorate the local economy and boost town morale by rebuilding the tourist economy. Each year visitor rates continue to grow closer to their pre-earthquake figures, and substantial funds have been raised to continue assisting local residents and business owners in their recovery efforts.

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