Active Project

East Japan Earthquake Heritage Sites

Tōhoku and Kantō Regions, Japan
Did You Know?
On March 11, 2011, a powerful earthquake struck the northeast coast of Japan. In the wake of the resulting tsunami, thousands lost their lives and millions lost electricity and water for a period.
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 related catastrophic tsunami, many thousands lost their lives and millions lost electricity and water for a considerable period. In response to this humanitarian crisis the recovery effort was prompt, but it is expected to take several years to return many of these communities 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.

How We Helped

In October 2011, the East Japan Earthquake Heritage Sites were included on the 2012 World Monuments Watch. The following month, WMF and the Foundation for Cultural Heritage and Art Research launched Save Our Culture, an international effort to help cultural heritage sites affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

A priority project of SOC has been 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. WMF began working with the Ono River and Sawara Cityscape Preservation Association and the Chiba Prefecture Education Board to restore seven of Sawara’s most treasured machiya: Fukushin (1893), Kyu-Abuso (1798), Shobundo (1880), Koboriya Soba (1900), Shojo (1832), Nakamuraya (1860), and Nakamuraya Kanbutsu (1892), and with the support of American Express, WMF was able to restore each machiya between the summer of 2011 and March 2013. By repairing and replacing damaged walls, windows, doors, and even furniture, four shops were able to re-open, reinvigorating the local economy and boosting town morale. Visitor rates have returned to 83% of their pre-earthquake figures, and substantial funds have been raised to continue assisting local residents and business owners in their recovery efforts.

In March of 2013, WMF announced continuing support for areas damaged by the earthquake. The new grant will support the restoration of seven historic structures in Kesennuma, located to the north of Sawara, in Japan’s Tōhoku region. Six of these structures are nationally registered Cultural Properties, and the seventh’s status is pending.

The eighteenth-century Tenyuji Temple, which collapsed in the disaster, was one of nine recipients of awards from American Express for sites on the 2014 Watch. The award will support the restoration of the main hall of the building, enough of which survives to restore it to its original use. This act will serve as an inspiration to the community and a powerful symbol of possibility for other rebuilding communities in the region.

Why It Matters

The architectural heritage of the towns in this region is both a source of community pride and a driver of tourism that supports local economies. Before the devastating events of March 2011, Sawara’s historic townscape attracted more than 500,000 visitors a year, but tourism dropped to 60% of its previous levels in the earthquake’s wake. The restoration of Sawara’s damaged cultural properties has been helping to rebuild the tourist economy of Sawara through the preservation of its cityscape, and has also helped to rejuvenate the community’s life and culture. The restoration of seven buildings in Kesennuma, six of which are nationally registered Cultural Properties and which were key components of the city’s local identity, will help provide a boost to the community as it continues to recover from the disaster.

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