March 11th, 2021, marks the tenth anniversary of the Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. These events devastated the coast of Tōhoku and shattered local communities. The Sainsbury Institute has continued to follow Japanese colleagues’ efforts to recover and preserve cultural heritage in the aftermath of the disasters. For the first anniversary in 2012, the Institute was granted a Daiwa Award from the the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation formed a small research group to investigate the consequences of the Tōhoku earthquake on Japanese heritage, in partnership with Professor Matsui Akira, Nara National Institute for Cultural Properties, and Professor Fukasawa Yuriko of Tohoku University. The team consisted of three MA students, Megan Nash Good, Ioanneta Vergi and myself, led by Dr Matsuda Akira, then at the University of East Anglia and now based at the University of Tokyo. The February Third Thursday online event offered a series of insights into the situation in the region ten years on, and got me thinking about what I saw during our study visit.
In July 2012, we travelled to the affected areas and other parts of Japan to interview people involved in rescuing cultural heritage and see how the tsunami was being commemorated. The tsunami all but destroyed some of the locations in Tōhoku we visited, including Rikuzentakata city, Iwate and Onagawa, Miyagi. In just over a year after the disaster, both had undergone thorough cleanup operations. A flat plain of gravel and soil covered the former layout of the urban areas. Only a few structures were still in situ that depicted the tsunami’s force; several were left intentionally for consideration as preserved monuments. Two we saw were selected to be kept as examples of the tsunami’s power and height. One is a koban (police box) at Onagawa that the tsunami tore from its foundations and deposited on its side. And the second a three-story building at Rikuzentakata, where the owner had only survived being washed away by clinging to the roof’s highest point.
Over the last decade, Rikuzentakata has become an interesting example of how local governments have negotiated their communities’ commemoration and rebuilding. Rikuzentakata sat in a bay protected from the sea by a natural sandbar covered in 70,000 pine trees, designated a place of scenic natural beauty in 1940. However, the 2011 tsunami overwhelmed the sandbar, leaving only one tree. This was dubbed the ‘miracle pine’ and soon became a symbol of hope and recovery for the region. However, due to contamination of the roots from salt water, it was dying. Since then, the Iwate Prefectural Government developed the Takatamatsubara Tsunami Reconstruction Memorial Park. The complex extends beyond the sandbar and has preserved the miracle pine’s remains. The Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum opened at the park in September 2019, displaying objects destroyed by the tsunami and information about the disasters. Furthermore, the complex reaffirms a sense of security for the town, featuring a 12-meter tall sea wall to guard against a future tsunami.
After our time in Tōhoku, the head of the Centre for Arcaeological Operations at the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Professor Matsui Akira (1952-2015), invited our research team to visit their headquarters in Nara. In reaction to the disasters, Nabunken had joined the “the Committee for Salvaging Cultural Properties Affected by the 2011 Earthquake off the Pacific Coast of Tōhoku and Related Disasters” on March 30th 2011, at the request of Bunka-chō (the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs). We were shown a small part of their efforts continuing to take place over a year after the events to recover damaged cultural properties from museums and storage facilities. This included the emergency treatment of historical paper materials water-damaged during the tsunami using an industrial freeze-dry lyophiliser. Along with historical documents, they also treated thousands of unpublished archaeological site reports, as the loss of the record they represented would effectively mean the loss of those sites. In 2014, the Committee developed into the Bunkazai Bōsai Centre. Over the last ten years, the Centre has made remarkable progress in working with other organisations to protect Cultural Heritage and apply the lessons learned at Tōhoku to other areas of Japan affected by natural disasters. It was very interesting to see the establishment of the new Cultural Heritage Disaster Risk Management Centre, a national centre located at Nabunken, and to hear of its work from the Director Kouzuma Yosei.
The disasters’ effects continue to be felt. And in many ways, how the redevelopment in the area will fully affect buried heritage remains to be seen. Nevertheless, there have been and continue to be tireless efforts made towards preserving Tōhoku’s cultural heritage.
Dr Luke Edgington Brown
Luke completed his PhD at the University of East Anglia in partnership with the British Museum, funded through the ARHC Collaborative Doctoral Award Scheme, on William Gowland’s collection of Kofun period material at the British Museum and his work at Stonehenge. Luke has subsequently had post-doctoral Fellowships at Kyoto Prefectural University and the Kyoto Institute, Library and Archive.
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