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After the Tsunami, at the 'Women’s River'

January 23, 2014 /

Rebuilding-Japan-1-Kamaishi-Park-for-All.JPGMinna no Ie ('Home-for-All') where refugees can gather. Photo by Ulf Meyer

The towns in Japan's Tōhoku region were practically wiped off the face of the earth by the tsunami on March 9, 2011. What little remains is hastily being replaced by new settlements built on elevated plateaus. No memorials are wanted. But former residents - and architect initiatives such as Architecture for Humanity - disagree with the hasty reconstruction plans made up by the central government.

By Ulf Meyer

The sign with the name of the town of Onagawa is still standing. But the place itself is not. "Are we there yet?" I ask Miku Kani, who works for Architecture for Humanity in Japan. "Hai" ("Yes"), she says - and that is devastating because there is nothing here, only puddles and rubble The town of Onagawa was a port town with 12,000 inhabitants located in Miyagi Prefecture, the central part of Tōhoku, facing the Pacific Ocean, northeast from Tōhoku's largest city, Sendai. When we arrive after a two-hour drive in our little van, it is painfully obvious: The earthquake and tsunami two years ago not only destroyed the town; the town has simply ceased to be.

Even the last traces of its existence are now becoming blurred with great technical and financial effort. Abashedly we are standing around on some random tiles on what must have once been the floor in one of the houses that were flushed out by the tidal wave that swept up to one kilometer into the hinterland, completely crushing the town and pulling it back into the open sea.

"Ona-gawa" means "women's river" in Japanese. But neither women nor a river can be seen here - only excavators, portable toilets, construction containers with wood veneer-imitation, and some vending machines stand around in the dirt where the local shopping street once was. Japanese construction companies have received large contracts for the reconstruction and have come here to make everything shiny and new.

Onagawa shares its fate with many other towns along the Japanese Pacific coast. The tsunami caused heavy damage to more than 270 miles of shoreline. Within just a few minutes, about 200,000 houses were destroyed and 20,000 lives were lost.

Rebuilding-Japan-2-Kitakami-We-Are-One-Market.jpgKitami 'We Are One' market. Photo by Ulf Meyer

Residents want no recollection of the event

The neighboring town of Minami Sanriku once had 20,000 inhabitants. More than half of them are dead or missing. In the now devastated former downtown area, only the lonely ruin of the former disaster prevention center is still around. Today the three-story "Bosai Taisaku Chosha" is a gutted rusty red steel skeleton. Thirty helpless people had tried to take refuge on the roof of the building when the tsunami hit. Mayor Jin Sato was one of them. He had just attended a disaster prevention meeting when the tsunami hit. Soon the waters rose even higher and washed over the roof. Right here the tidal wave reached up to 52 feet in height. Of 130 official city employees, Sato was one of only ten survivors.

The remaining steel frame of the building - now adorned with flowers, incense, and a Buddha statue - was redefined as a makeshift shrine. Soon it will be torn down. Then nothing will be left of Minami Sanriku. The former residents say that they want no recollection of the event". Thus, the repetition of the tragedy in the future is already prescribed.

Rebuilding-Japan-3-Maeami_1.jpgHouse in Maeami. Photo by Ulf Meyer

Rebuilding-Japan-4-Maeami_2.jpgThe proximity of the towns and the sea will soon be a thing of the past, when the town get rebuild on a higher level/plateau. Photo by Ulf Meyer

The resurrection

Japan will host the Olympics Games in the summer of 2020 and thus will have the opportunity to show the world a different image of itself - and divert attention from the misery in the Northeast. In seven years, the balance will be drawn. How did Japan deal with the aftermath of the triple blow of earthquake, tsunami, and radiation leaks? To host the Games certainly is a great honor - but therein also lies a danger:

"The money will now be spent on the Games", says Miku-san. "That is simply much more attractive to politicians". She complains bitterly about the average Japanese citizen's lack of solidarity with people in the devastated and contaminated northeastern part of the country. The attention caravan has long moved on. Reeds grow on the bald spots where houses once stood - in Onagawa and Minami Sanriku, as well as throughout Tōhoku.

Rebuilding-Japan-6-the-destroyed-town-of-Minami-Sanriku-in-Japan.JPGLast remaining building in the neighbouring town of Onagawa. Photo by Ulf Meyer

Proper urban development concepts needed

The central government in Tokyo is desperately trying to make sure they look like they are acting determinedly to not let the Tōhoku region plunge into an economic tailspin without a fight by pledging billions of yens and sending squadrons of cranes to the area. But to turn the current tabula rasa into blossoming landscapes, everybody would have to return to their homeland. Even before the disaster, the Tōhoku region - like many other rural areas of Japan - suffered from a rapidly aging population and shrinking cities.

Miku Kani of Architecture for Humanity believes that instead of quick Yens and even quicker cranes, "the area needs proper urban development concepts for the reconstruction of the region. 'Consultants' design the new towns following the model of American suburbs of the '50s". This activism brings a new wave of destruction over the beleaguered towns. Architects and planners are hardly involved in the reconstruction of Japan's coastline.

Rebuilding-Japan-7-the-destroyed-town-of-Minami-Sanriku-in-Japan.JPGBosai Taisaku Chosha (public emergency training center) in the town of Minami-Sanriku. Photo by Ulf Meyer

The means of escape need improvement

Hidden behind high seawalls and turned away from the sea, Onagawa will be constructed 23 feet higher. To create this new plateau, the surrounding forested mountains are capped and soil and rock transported to fill the sink. Safety against earthquake cannot be achieved; even reinforced dikes and sea walls will not withstand a wave as powerful as that of March 2011. This is why the means of escape need to be improved. And how long will the new safeguarding against the sea withstand the urge of the fishing industry to have access to the sea?

Onagawa and its neighboring cities have been leveled, in the truest sense of the word - first by the waves, and now by the excavators. The new settlements get stamped up on the high plateaus, but they do not reach a higher level. The palimpsest is overwritten - the next tsunami is sure to come.

Last updated: January 27, 2014

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