Danger zones

March 11, 2011, showed just how deadly a major tsunami can be. So what are Japan's coastal communities doing to avert another disaster?

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

Teruo Saito has lived most of his 79 years within a couple of hundred meters of the Pacific, in an area that has been overwhelmed by massive tsunamis twice in the last 600 years.

Until last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake, the retired company worker had almost never considered himself to be at risk. But now he has little choice other than to think about tsunamis when he regards his house 150 meters from the beach in Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture, some 40 km southwest of Tokyo.

Like all of us, on March 11, 2011, Saito saw the television images of the waves devastating low-lying coastal areas of the Tohoku region to the north. He’s also been on the receiving end of a concerted effort by his local government to increase citizens’ tsunami awareness. That started with a hazard map he received in July telling him the location of the nearest tsunami-evacuation building. He participated in a tsunami drill in October, and around the same time began noticing signs on telegraph poles indicating how many meters above sea level the land there was.

Next year, Saito is also likely to notice two other Zushi government initiatives: Arrows painted on roadways indicating the direction people should run if a tsunami warning is issued; and a revised hazard map that will declare not only his beachside neighborhood, but Zushi’s entire central shopping district, an “assumed tsunami-inundation” zone.

“In the past it never occurred to me that a tsunami could come to Zushi,” said the 50-year resident of this city that’s home to around 60,000 people. However, its government now appears determined to never let him forget.

And it’s not just Zushi. While the seismic aftershocks of last year’s quake have now mostly subsided, the reverberations in coastal communities and local governments around the country are continuing unabated. The goal, as one government official put it, is to remove sōteigai (anything that is beyond the realm of assumption) surrounding tsunamis — in other words, to avoid any repetition of what happened in Tohoku last year, when a sōteigai tsunami killed more than 15,000 people.

Still, some specialists worry that recent moves by bureaucrats like those in Zushi — including erecting warning signs and expanded inundation assumption zones — are hopelessly cosmetic.

Such critics claim that when the next big tsunami hits, those kinds of measures won’t save lives as much as they will save bureaucrats’ reputations: “We warned you,” the suits will be able to say.

That’s the cynical position. But perhaps a counterargument exists: Perhaps the forgiving Japanese public wishes for no more than such “cosmetic” measures against a danger that, after all, may not materialize for many hundreds of years.

The creation of so-called hazard maps is the responsibility of local governments, such as Zushi City, which in Japan form the third tier of bureaucracy below the national and prefectural governments.

Zushi’s hazard map — the one that Saito received last July — had actually been created in 2009. In addition to locating designated evacuation sites and buildings, it included assumed tsunami-inundation zones that were calculated on the basis of the most recent major tsunami event in the city’s history, which occurred in 1923.

That tsunami was a consequence of the Great Kanto Earthquake, which is of course better known for causing conflagrations in Tokyo and Yokohama that killed more than 100,000 people. The tsunami itself measured just five or so meters at Zushi, and so when it became the model for making the hazard map, only a marginal strip around the city’s coastline was predicted to be damaged. Saito’s house and surrounds, which are at an elevation of just three meters — but behind an elevated coastal road that will in theory block a five-meter tsunami — were declared safe.

But after last year’s quake and tsunami, many concerned residents in Zushi and other coastal areas nationwide began taking an interest in tsunami that occurred many centuries earlier than those on which most current hazard maps had been based.

One common reference point for such citizens in the Zushi area was the until-then generally forgotten explanation of why there is no pavilion housing the Great Buddha in Kamakura City, unlike ones at other similar sites around the country. That’s because the one in Kamakura, just a couple of kilometers west of Zushi, was destroyed in a tsunami in 1498 and never rebuilt. For a tsunami to destroy the Great Buddha’s pavilion, it would have had to reach at least 800 meters inland and be well over 10 meters high.

Concerned residents of Kamakura noted the discrepancy between those figures and the hazard map currently in use there, which, like Zushi’s, was drawn up on the basis of the much lower, five-meter tsunami of 1923.

“We started getting enquiries from residents all over the prefecture immediately after the March 11 quake,” explained Toshiaki Kawasaki, from the River Basin and Coastal Planning Division of Kanagawa’s prefectural government, which is the layer of administration above Zushi, Kamakura and other cities within the prefecture’s borders.

“In May we set up a panel to review tsunami preparedness throughout the prefecture and it soon became clear that we needed to consider plans for two types of tsunami: Those that occur once every 100 years or so, and much larger ones that occur once every 500 to 1,000 years,” he said.

The prefectural government thus commissioned experts to create maps of estimated inundation zones based on the massive tsunamis that struck in 1498, 1605 and 1703. The results, published in draft form in December 2011, were maps that simulate damage caused by waves up to two and three times higher than the five-meter breakers of 1923. They make it clear beyond doubt that Saito’s house — along with much of central Zushi and Kamakura — would be swept away.

Kanagawa Prefecture’s draft maps will be finalized by the end of March, and then passed on to its city governments. Then, it is intended that they will be incorporated into new hazard maps after fiscal 2012 commences in April. (Officials at Zushi and Kamakura city governments confirmed they plan to do just that.)

Similar shifts are now also playing out in the central Japan prefectures of Mie and Hyogo, and in the Shikoku Island prefecture of Tokushima.

Hyogo took the most drastic steps, announcing in October last year that it would simply double the size of its assumed tsunami. It then published new estimated inundation maps that encompass large swaths of densely populated cities such as Kobe and Akashi.

Since then, Kagawa and Oita prefectures have announced they too will undertake similar reviews of their tsunami maps.

When Kawasaki from the Kanagawa prefectural government identified two types of tsunami, he was in fact echoing discussions last year in the national government’s Central Disaster Management Council, which was then reviewing the nation’s natural disaster planning.

That review, which was completed in December, also covers how local governments should respond to the threats posed by those two types of tsunami.

“With respect to tsunamis that come with relatively high frequency, infrastructure for the protection of coastlines should be established with an eye to the protection of human life and residents’ property,” it said.

Although it sounds far-reaching, this requirement essentially describes the present state of affairs in most coastal communities, which is that sea walls and levies designed to reduce the impact of exceptionally high tides and relatively small tsunamis already exist. Zushi is no exception.

The report goes on: “With respect to the largest tsunami … the main priority is to protect the lives of the people.”

Thus the thrust of the response to the newly recognized category of mega-tsunami is that measures should be taken to save lives, and this thinking has quickly filtered down to all levels of government, including Kanagawa Prefecture and Zushi City.

Late last year, Zushi Mayor Ryuichi Hirai was asked in council whether he was considering any planning initiatives to mitigate against a mega-tsunami. “Saving lives through the provision of evacuation routes and evacuation centers is, I believe, the highest priority in terms of dealing with one-in-1,000-year tsunamis,” he said.

What this means is that governments at all levels are moving toward a position where private property — the countless thousands of houses nationwide that are currently in inundation zones, and those that will be in them when they have been expanded to cover mega-tsunami — will be sacrificed if such a disaster strikes. Hence the horrifying scenes of houses being washed out to sea that were seen on TV around the world last year, will play out again somewhere in Japan, sometime.

And this is what has prompted some commentators to question the motives of the national government and local governments as they rush to improve tsunami preparedness.

Hirotada Hirose is a specialist in disaster and risk psychology and an emeritus professor at Tokyo Women’s Christian University. He has spent many years researching people’s reactions to government warnings about natural disasters.

“In the 1970s, the national government started pushing what it called an earthquake warning system that it claimed would give a few days’ notice before a major quake struck. The studies were focused around Shizuoka, Aichi and Kanagawa prefectures and the governments there made a whole lot of plans about what to do if a quake warning was issued — schools would be closed and so on,” Hirose explained.

Noting that back then (as is the case now) the government carried out no pre-emptive mass relocation efforts in those at-risk areas, Hirose said he focused his research on “the effect of all this activity on the people who continued to live in those areas.”

For the first few years, he said, residents exhibited increased awareness of earthquake risk and made their own contingency plans accordingly. But then that awareness gradually decreased until it was only slightly higher than in other areas of Japan.

“Telling people that they live in a tsunami zone will have a short-term effect, but eventually people’s thinking will go back to the way it was,” Hirose said. Basically, he explained, the tsunami maps would not prompt any residents to take any concrete steps to ensure the safety of themselves and their property. “The only real, long-term effect of these measures will be to give the bureaucrats a chance to say ‘We warned you.’ ”

In explaining this, Hirose noted that there is an important difference in the minds of the Japanese people between preparing for an earthquake and preparing for a tsunami.

“Preparing for an earthquake means strengthening the construction of your existing house — making it earthquake-proof — and a lot of people living in at-risk areas have been happy to do this,” he said.

“But you can’t tsunami-proof a house. What is really required is for people to sell their houses and move to higher ground. But therein lies the problem: The most effective tsunami contingency plan is in direct conflict with a pillar of the Japanese lifestyle, and that is attachment to the physical house.”

Hirose pointed out that Japanese people have a tendency to prefer new houses to older ones previously lived in (this explains why house values tend to drop over time). So, once they have built their own new house, they tend to stick to it stubbornly.

He said that in the course of his studies, he has come across men who, having built a new house in Shizuoka Prefecture (a high-risk area in terms of earthquakes), will leave their wife and children there even if they themselves are transferred by their company to a region that is relatively quake-free. “They will go and rent a second house in Aichi or somewhere and live there alone while their family stays in quake-prone Shizuoka,” he said. In addition, Hirose noted that community and family bonds also deter people from relocating.

Another aspect of the problem, he believes, is the fact that Japanese people tend to see natural disaster preparedness as something that the government should deal with — not individuals.

“Japanese will take all sorts of precautions in their everyday lives, they will save money and so on, but when it comes to things like tsunamis, they believe it is up to the government to deal with them,” he said.

This theory is borne out by the results of a survey conducted by Wakayama prefectural government late last year. In a region that suffered two large tsunamis in the 20th century (in 1944 and ’46), the government asked residents whether, in the event of future natural disasters, they thought the government had a responsibility to provide money to help people rebuild their houses if they were destroyed. Interestingly, the prefecture went to the trouble of publishing a breakdown of the responses between those who live in declared tsunami-inundation zones and those who don’t.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, of those living in declared tsunami-inundation zones, 76.4 percent said the government should pay for the rebuilding of houses. Surprisingly, though, the percentage outside the tsunami-flood zone who gave the same response was almost identical.

In other words, even among those members of a community who had chosen to live outside the tsunami-inundation zones — the people who would help foot the bill for natural disaster “bailouts” but be less likely to ever benefit from them — there was still a belief that the government should come to the rescue of victims of natural disaster. What this suggests is a society in which government-designated tsunami-inundation zones are not necessarily seen as spurs for drastic contingency planning at an individual level.

The response of Teruo Saito — the 50-year resident of Zushi who said he would remember to run to the evacuation building as quickly as possible — appears to be all that society as a whole expects from its members.

Indeed, many other Zushi residents echoed Saito’s sentiment. House-owners, renters, parents, singles, retirees and young folk — every one of dozens The Japan Times spoke to said the same thing.

In the words of 30-year-old Naoki Nakamura, who for three years has rented an apartment in Higashi Zushi (parts of which which will be declared a tsunami-inundation zone when the hazard map is updated): “I would never decide to move purely on the basis of the tsunami threat. I will just be doubly sure of how to escape.”

Still, even the task of providing quick escape routes for its citizens is going to be a significant challenge for Zushi and other local governments in the same position. That’s because as governments increase the height of tsunamis to be planned for, the bar must also be raised for buildings designated as tsunami-evacuation points.

Thus under Zushi’s old tsunami plans, a building needed to be of good construction and just three stories high to qualify as an evacuation point. Under the new tsunami height assumptions, however, only five-story buildings will qualify. Unfortunately, Zushi has few buildings that high, and so Saito and many thousands of others will have no choice but to head for higher ground several hundred meters away at the western edge of Zushi beach. (Incidentally, some researchers point out that, under some circumstances, a tsunami could arrive in Zushi within five minutes of an undersea earthquake.)

This situation has some wondering whether a “coastal protection” solution to mega-tsunamis can really be avoided. Even if the aim when dealing with such events were simply to save lives, perhaps adding signposts and making maps would not be enough.

Takao Kohinata is a 30-year Zushi resident who is currently serving in one of three rotating citizen positions on the Zushi City Planning Committee.

“Maybe you could approve high-rise developments along the coastline to act as a kind of tsunami barrier,” he suggested in one of the committee’s meetings in May last year. Earlier this month, though, he wasn’t quite so extravagant in his proposals — but he did mention another idea he said a number of people in the community were discussing.

“Some citizens are suggesting building an embankment over the top of National Route 134,” he said, referring to the coastal road that runs through Zushi almost all the way west to Shizuoka Prefecture.

“That road was initially planned as an embankment to stop tsunamis and exceptionally high tides, but it’s now obvious that it isn’t high enough. You could build an embankment over the top of it, so that the road becomes enclosed and forms a much higher barrier,” he said.

Asked how realistic he thought the plan was, he conceded it was probably going to cost too much money for the local government to be able to adopt. But, he continued, it has merit in that it is not simply designed as a tsunami measure.

“At the moment there is a lack of cafes and restaurants along the beach at Zushi, and by redeveloping the shoreline you could kill two birds with one stone,” he said. “If anything is going to work, it is going to have to be about more than just mega-tsunamis — which, after all, might not happen at all for another few hundred years.”

However, Daisuke Kurosawa, a representative of the Zushi City Planning Department, said that at present no such ideas are being given serious consideration.

It also seems unlikely that they would win the support of many residents either. In fact, none of those surveyed by The Japan Times said they would support such a drastic measure — which most said they thought would detract from the scenic beauty of their beach town.

The 79-year-old Teruo Saito also said he liked the beachfront the way it is.

Another resident, Sumito Hirai, agreed, adding that, after all, “the chances of the next mega-tsunami coming while I’m alive are small.” He is 42 years of age.

As Emeritus Prof. Hirose suggests, it certainly is conceivable that the rush to remove sōteigai and bolster tsunami preparedness following the Great East Japan Earthquake stems from a desire among politicians, bureaucrats and their specialist advisers to be able to turn around after a tragedy and say: “We warned you.” And thus avoid culpability.

But, judging from the proposed responses to the two different types of tsunami — and, in particular, the general acceptance of the idea that lives but not property be saved in the event of a mega-tsunami — it seems that perhaps Zushi resident Kojima’s “not-in-my-lifetime” approach might provide an equally clear insight into the dominant mindset.

Could it be that bureaucrats, politicians and specialists are suggesting that private property be sacrificed — that cosmetic solutions to the threat of mega-tsunami are sufficient — because, deep down, they don’t believe it will come to that during their own lifetimes?

And could it be that the public demands no more from people in such positions because, deep down, they think the same?