Maintaining remnants of disaster for future


Special To The Japan Times

Sept. 1, known as Disaster Prevention Day, was designated as such by the government in 1960. On this day every year, cities and towns nationwide, as well as schools, companies and even small community groups, run evacuation drills to prepare for natural disasters such as typhoons, landslides and earthquakes.

More and more, the younger generation doesn’t know why Sept. 1 is designated as Disaster Prevention Day. The government chose it because it was on that date that the massive Great Kanto Earthquake nearly Tokyo and the surrounding areas in 1923. The magnitude-7.9 quake resulted in more than 100,000 dead or missing.

Today, as reconstruction and rehabilitation projects are progressing in Miyagi, Fukushima, and Yamagata prefectures, damage caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, is being repaired, even as some areas experience delays. Today, the governments of those disaster-hit areas are fighting against something intangible; being forgotten.

“We have junior high school students visiting our city from other prefectures on school trips, and less and less of them know about the earthquake,” Yoshitaka Yamazaki, an official in the Commercial Tourism Division of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, said.

That is why the city will open the Tsunami Remains Taro Kanko Hotel on April 1, an educational facility for disaster prevention. The facility is the renovated former Taro Kanko Hotel that which was hit by tsunami five years ago. The tsunami reached the fourth floor of the six-story building, leaving nothing but the bare steel frame on the first and second floors when the waters receded. The city purchased the hotel in March 2014 and decided to maintain the building as it is and create a commemorative site.

“To enter the building, visitors have to climb the stairs outside the building up to the fifth floor and they can look down and understand how high tsunami can reach,” Yamazaki said in an interview. “We have to pass down the terror of tsunami as a lesson and we expect this spot to help improve disaster risk reduction awareness.”

Governments and residents of the quake-hit areas, including survivors of the earthquake and tsunami, recognize the significance of passing down their experiences and stories of what happened that day to future generations, creating a succession of memories and records.

But, not every razed seawall, turned-over house, or tsunami-ravaged building is suitable to keep. It is difficult to make decisions especially on sites where people died. In some areas, residents are split over the issue because some bereaved family members can’t bear seeing the sites.

Conflicting views

Hiroshi Kameyama, the mayor of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, will make a decision by the end of March on whether the city will leave the ruined building of the former Okawa Elementary School. There, 74 students, about 70 percent of the total, and another 10 teachers died in the tsunami that day as they failed evacuate.

Last month, the city held the first, and probably the last, public hearing on the issue, after conducting a research for two years and issuing a thorough report in December last year with help of civil experts.

In the report, the city proposed scenarios of demolishing the whole building, keeping part of the building and keeping the entire facility, presenting costs, as well as pros and cons for each scenario.

In a survey conducted for the December report, 60.4 percent of city respondents said they want the city to keep either a part of, or the whole building. But, of the residents in districts near the school, 54.4 percent want the city to demolish the whole building, while 45 percent said they support a plan to keep either a part of the building or the entire building.

If kept, the school will become a memorial for mourning, and a place to demonstrate the importance of evacuation, the city notes in the report.

“Keeping the building is just one way to tell our future generations what happened here. But no matter which scenario we choose, it will be a difficult decision to make,” said an official of the city’s Rehabilitation Policy Planning and Evaluation Division.

20 years to decide fate

On Dec. 22, Jin Sato, the mayor of Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, was photographed in front of the town’s former disaster prevention center. It was the first time for him to visit in five years. Sato, who was among those who were working in the center on the day of the earthquake, is one of a few survivors of the tsunami.

After the tsunami hit, the three-story building was completely submerged, and Sato barely managed to save his life, by holding onto an antenna and standing on the roof for hours. Of those who were at the building that day, 43, mainly the town officials, were killed or went missing. Sato’s grief for those victims held him back from visiting the building.

The former disaster prevention center is now nothing but a bare steel frame. On Dec. 22, the town had a ceremony in front of the building, handing it over to Miyagi Prefecture. The town had decided to demolish the structure, but the prefecture offered to obtain and manage the site until 2031, 20 years after the quake, to give local residents more time to consider the fate of the memorial icon.

“We hear some saying 20 years is too long to make the decision. But, I want them to know that, even five years after the quake, people here are reluctant to bring up the issue and are hesitant to talk about it even among family,” Mayumi Shiratori, an official at Provincial Reconstruction Division of Miyagi Prefecture Government, told The Japan Times.

Back in 1966 in Hiroshima, it was 21 years after the U.S. atomic bomb attack when the City of Hiroshima decided to keep the half-destructed building of the then Hiroshima products museum, now registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site as the Atomic Bomb Dome.

Delayed recovery

Fukushima Prefecture is lagging behind the other quake-hit prefectures in discussing the issue, partly because, according to the prefecture, almost 100,000 are still living in temporary housing, both within and outside the prefecture, making it almost impossible for them to have opportunities to discuss issue.

That is why the prefecture-run Fukushima Museum took the initiative to start constructing a digital archive of the damage and aftermath, before they are cleared away. It is using a technology known as Mixed Reality, which shows users three-dimensional images through a head-mounted display, allowing them to virtually experience the scenes. The museum is offering visitors a chance to experience the digital archive between Feb. 11 and March 21.

When considering whether or not to retain the quake legacies, it is indispensable for governments to make decisions when they have a consensus from residents.

“But, with this digital archive, those legacies can be retained in images without municipal government decisions,” said an official of the museum. “People of Fukushima Prefecture still have their hands full just taking care of themselves on a daily basis.”

Download the PDF of this 5-year memorial of Great East Japan Earthquake