Rescuing Archaeology and Culture: The Impact on Cultural Heritage of the March 11 East Japan Great Earthquake

Wednesday 26 October, 2011


The speakers at this event were: Professor Matsui Akira (Head of the Centre for Archaeological Operations, Nara Research Institute for Cultural Properties); Ms. Lisa Hammond, (UK based potter, involved in supporting affected cultural properties at Mashiko); and Dr Matsuda Akira ( Lecturer for Artistic Heritage, University of East Anglia). The symposium was moderated by Dr Simon Kaner (Head of the Centre for Archaeology and Cultural Heritage at the Sainsbury Institute and Director of the Centre for Japanese Studies at the University of East Anglia).

About the symposium

As a result of the March 11 earthquake and related disasters that struck eastern Japan, many cultural heritage sites in the affected regions suffered severe damage or loss. While of course acknowledging that the primary focus in the aftermath of the disaster has to be rescuing people and securing a livelihood for the survivors, the Sainsbury Institute recognises that saving heritage assets is also important as they have an important role to play in sustaining and reasserting the cultural richness of the affected region and hence the future of the people who live there. This symposium was held to raise awareness of this issue.

Professor Matsui Akira, who travelled from Japan specially to participate in the symposium, discussed his experience of the operation mounted to rescue cultural properties. Although no such activities were possible for a month after the disaster, Professor Matsui has since travelled extensively in the affected region, visiting affected museums and cultural heritage sites, some of which were very badly damaged or destroyed. The photographs he showed of shattered buildings, wrecked museum storerooms, unsalvageable gallery space and devastated areas demonstrated the sheer magnitude, horror and scale of the destruction. He also mentioned the close friends and colleagues working in the cultural heritage field who had lost their lives.

Professor Matsui went on to explain why most of the shell middens from the prehistoric Jomon period were basically unaffected due to their location on higher ground. He suggested that Jomon people were well aware of the danger of tsunami and intentionally built their settlements away from lower-lying coastal areas. Professor Matsui touched on the sensitivity of raising these issues while life for the survivors of the disaster remains very difficult with no clear prospects for the future. He also mentioned a potential clash between the desire to develop the higher, safer ground in the affected areas for new housing and the need to preserve the important cultural properties located in those areas. In concluding his presentation, Professor Matsui emphasised that the rescue work on cultural properties and the restoration of museums would require many years of dedication, commitment and support.

Ms Lisa Hammond, a studio potter trained in Mino, Japan and who has many connections with the world of Japanese ceramics, spoke about the devastation the disaster brought to the small town of Mashiko in northern Tochigi, an important centre for traditional Japanese pottery making. Ms Hammond explained that Mashiko is where the late Living National Treasures such as Hamada Shoji and Shimaoka Tatsuzo , strongly associated with Bernard Leach, one of the most influential figures in British studio pottery, created their work. The earthquake seriously damaged the majority of kilns and the Hamada Shoji Museum where the works of the late potter had been exhibited. As the whole town is dependent on the pottery industry, the impact has been very severe. Ms Hammond has helped raise a considerable sum through fund-raising auctions and other events to help rebuild the communities, their kilns and livelihoods.

The final speaker, Dr Akira Matsuda, moved the discussion to look towards the future considering the remembrance of disasters as a form of cultural heritage. He introduced the example of Hamayuri, a cruise ship which was deposited on a three story building by the strength of the tsunami, causing a heated debate in the local community. Some people argued that it should be conserved as a monument to the disaster, while others wanted it removed as they attempted to move on. Dr Matsuda presented images of historic and recent monuments and museums commemorating past disasters. He argued that cultural heritage connects people in the past, present and future, and its reinterpretation through time is what helps bond communities over the generations.

The symposium was well attended, the audience including specialists in related fields, demonstrating the strong interest in the UK on issues relating to the aftermath of the March 11 disaster. The Sainsbury Institute is committed to continuing to gather information about the plight of cultural properties in the affected region, maintaining dialogue on this issue, and searching for ways to provide further support in this area.

The Sainsbury Institute is grateful for the generous support from the Embassy of Japan, to the sponsors of this event, the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and the Japan Foundation, and also to the Japan Society.

Organised by the Centre for Archaeology and Heritage at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures and the Department of Archaeology, Faculty of Letters, Osaka University in conjunction with the Japanese Section, Department of Asia, the British Museum

co-hosted by the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures and the Embassy of Japan







Image: Sifting through the debris looking for archaeological treasures at the remains of the Ishinomaki Culture Centre in Miyagi

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