When the March 11 tsunami hit the village of Yoshihama in Iwate Prefecture, the water overran a seawall, smashed through a coastal pine forest, poured over a large embankment and then surged up a long, low-lying valley. It was a scenario almost identical to that being played out at dozens of settlements along Japan’s northeast coast, except that at Yoshihama, things were different.

Elsewhere, what the tsunami invariably found as it raged inland along coastal valleys like the one at Yoshihama were houses, schools, train stations, shops, businesses and people — many thousands of people. What it found at Yoshihama were rice paddies.

From an adjacent hill, the village residents watched as an 18-meter wave rampaged from the Pacific into the valley below. They watched in awe — both at the force of nature being displayed in front of them, and also at the foresight of their ancestors who, more than a century earlier, had relocated their village center from the valley floor to the safety of the hill where they now stood. More than likely, their ancestors had saved their lives.

Moving a village to high ground is not a complex idea. As a local historian in Yoshihama put it, “Anyone who has experienced a tsunami would think of it.”

Yet along Japan’s northeast coast, where horrific tsunamis struck in 1896, 1933 and 1960 — once each for the third, fourth and fifth most recent preceding generations — tales of relocated villages surviving unscathed the events of March 11, 2011, are rare.

That despite a report by the national government’s Central Disaster Prevention Council in 2005, which states plainly that relocation to high ground is “the best way” to mititgate against tsunami risk — better, that is, than sea walls or planting pine forests along the coast.

But where even informed opinion failed to galvanize many at-risk communities into action, a closer look now at relocations that saved lives this year, and in the face of past tsunamis, may serve to help people in Japan and perhaps far beyond to better prepare for these natural disasters.

Like most of the inhabitants of Yoshihama, Masatsugu Kimura’s house is built on gently sloping land. From the window of his study, the 64-year-old retired salaryman and local historian can still just make out beneath their shroud of mud the remains of hedges and ditches that once delineated rice paddies in the valley below.

“Some people have called us the ‘miracle village,’ ” Kimura said. “But we are not. The relocation that took place here happened in carefully planned steps after the devastation wrought by the 1896 tsunami and the one in 1933.”

Kimura explained that on the night of June 15, 1896, a Monday, many of the village’s young men had gathered at local halls to play doppiki, a gambling game in which players use pieces of string of different lengths. At the same time, one of the town’s leading families, the Kashiwazakis, were hosting a wedding celebration.

No one realized that one of the many small tremors they had felt earlier that evening had unleashed a tsunami that was bearing down on their coast.

As Kimura detailed it, the 24-meter wave that hit Yoshihama that night washed away 35 houses and severely damaged another. “But because of the events taking place in the village that night, 204 people were killed,” he said.

Just as in every other community washed away by the sea that night, the redevelopment project that later kicked in at Yoshihama was an initiative of the village itself. In fact, according to the late historian and geographer, Yaichiro Yamaguchi (1902-2000), it was the leader of the village, named Buemon Niinuma, who made the decision to rebuild the village on a new, safer site.

Niinuma first had the village’s major thoroughfare remade not along the coast where it had been, but up in the hills. He then provided land on either side of that road for those whose houses had been washed away in the tsunami.

The project was largely funded by relief donations collected from the private sector and distributed to affected towns and villages to use as they saw fit. Neither the prefectural nor national governments were directly involved.

Niinuma was of course not the only village leader to initiate a relocation plan. According to Yamaguchi, as many as 40 similar attempts were made, but the great majority either never really took off or were soon abandoned.

Although Niinuma’s decision to start with the relocation of infrastructure is often cited as the key to his plan’s success, Kimura mentioned another. “Only 11 of the 132 families in Yoshihama in 1896 were involved in fishing,” he said. “In other towns (where relocation was attempted), you had people who had to commute each day to the coast, often carrying 15-meter bamboo poles that were used for picking abalone from the seabed, and then back again with their catches.”

As the years passed, he explained, in those other towns the fishermen were inclined to prioritize convenience over an uncertain threat, and so they returned to resettle again on lower ground close to the sea. Then others would follow the fishermen’s lead.

It was precisely that scenario that played out in villages all along the coasts of Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, including at Kuki, Kirikiri, Urahama, Shimohorei, Ryori and Osawa. When the next tsunami hit, on March 3, 1933, each of those communities suffered losses on a par with those in 1896.

But the 1933 tsunami didn’t leave Yoshihama unscathed either. That time, when a 14-meter wave hit the village it washed away some of the houses that had relocated after the 1896 disaster, but had not been built on high enough ground. Nonetheless, Yoshihama’s toll in 1933 — 17 dead and 15 houses lost — was far lighter than the 204 fatalities and 36 houses lost in 1896.

“After the 1933 tsunami, the villagers were convinced they had done the right thing,” Kimura said. Consequently, the village leader at that time, Ushitaro Kashiwazaki (of the family that had been hosting that wedding party in 1896), initiated his own relocation plan for that portion of the village that had been damaged.

This time around, though, Yoshihama and other villages received both encouragement and funds from the prefectural and national governments to aid in their relocation. Those authorities also created “reconstruction zones” on high ground in tsunami-affected settlements like Yoshihama.

Kashiwazaki’s plan is of course now long completed and generations have known the village no other way than as it now remains on its upland site. Hence, Kimura said, there is a sense among Yoshihama’s roughly 1,500 residents that what their forebears did was not really so particularly special. “We look at other villages and think, well, of course, if you build on low land like that, you’re going to get washed away,” he said.

On March 11, just four houses were lost in Yoshihama and one person died. Tragically, that victim was hard of hearing and was busy working in a shed when the giant wave struck.

Yoshihama is rare in that a relocation effort begun after the 1896 tsunami paid dividends as soon as 1933. Elsewhere, it took the double tragedies of 1896 and 1933 — in addition to the leadership and deep pockets of the prefectural and national governments — to get villages and towns to move. Even then, they did so with varying degrees of success.

About 10 km north of Yoshihama is the village of Toni, which is comprised of the two hamlets of Hongo and Kojirahama located in neighboring coastal valleys separated by a high, narrow ridge.

Toni suffered huge losses in both the 1896 and 1933 tsunamis, and the devastation created by the wave that struck it in 1896 — which was around 15 meters high — elicited special mention in the June 27, 1896, edition of The Japan Weekly Mail (later purchased by The Japan Times):

“At Toni, out of 269 houses, 250 were washed away, and out of 1,206 people, 1,103 were drowned. Even among the 103 survivors, 82 received more or less serious injuries,” the grim report read.

In 1933, the data of death and destruction resulting from the 9-meter wave that struck then was no less shocking: In Hongo, over half the population of 613 were killed, while out of 102 houses, just one survived.

That house belonged to the grandparents of Shin Niinuma, who still lives there with his wife, Yoko. (He is not a relative of Buemon Niinuma, the headman of Yoshihama in 1896.)

“Hongo is in a valley, and back in 1933 most houses were down near the water, but ours is further up the valley,” he said — speaking over the counter of the ramen restaurant he operates near his home. “My grandmother got an award from the governor because she took in a whole lot of people who were trapped in the village.”

Listening to the experiences of their grandmother prompted Niinuma’s older brother, Hiroshi, to collate into a book everything he could find on the history of tsunamis affecting Toni. Hiroshi, who also had his own first-hand experience of a much smaller tsunami in 1960 to draw on, now lives in Nagoya and is unwell, but the book he self-published back in 2004 is a trove of information.

Explaining in his book’s introduction his motivation for creating it, Niinuma cites a telling study by Iwate Prefectural University which found that although 93 percent of the residents of Hongo said they had direct experience of, or had heard about, past tsunamis, only 56 percent actually knew how high those waves had reached.

The book also contains hand-drawn maps of where the houses were located in Hongo prior to 1933, and where the prefectural and national governments established a reconstruction zone for subsidized rebuilding on high ground afterward.

Visiting the hamlet now, it’s easy to identify the 1933 reconstruction zone — even without a map. That’s because the triangular section of land for the zone that was cleared on the side of the valley is pretty much the only part of the hamlet where houses are now left standing. (The Niinuma house, located further up the valley, is also still there.)

Like those in many other villages, Hongo’s reconstruction zone was out of reach of the March 11 tsunami. But unfortunately, in the years between 1933 and 2011, many houses were built on the low-lying valley floor — where the debris from around 50 of them is now all that remains.

“Everyone forgot,” said Isao Ito, a Hongo villager whose house is in the post-1933 reconstruction zone.

“After 1933, they made rice paddies in the valley. Those paddies were a sign from our ancestors that you shouldn’t build houses down there. But people forgot,” he said. “Soon they started building houses next to the paddies.”

Talking to other locals, it becomes clear that it wasn’t just forgetfulness, but issues of practicality that tempted people down to low-lying land.

Standing high up in the reconstruction zone, at the top of a steep road running straight down to the valley, resident Kotaro Kinno said, “In winter it’s hard up here. The roads freeze and, you know, there are a lot of old people around. I have to get up each morning to clear the ice.”

Meanwhile, in the other half of Toni, the neighboring hamlet of Kojirahama, there were still other factors that lured people back down to the coast.

Like Hongo, a reconstruction zone was established in Kojirahama after the 1933 tsunami. It consisted of a lateral band around the top of a steep-sided coastal inlet.

Kotoku Endo’s house stands on the lowest point of the zone, and he said that on March 11, though its first floor was flooded, it remained standing and will be repaired. However, the several hundred houses below his were all washed away.

“Everyone around here knew about tsunamis and the 1933 one,” Endo said. “But, you know, one person builds a house down on low land, then another follows, and another,” he said, suggesting that those who chose to move down there lured themselves and each other into a false sense of security.

He added that the construction of an elementary school near the sea had also been a problem. “It was controversial when it was built,” he said. “People said it’ll get washed away. But of course, once the school was built down there, then people wanted to live near the school.”

And yes, Toni Elementary School was completely inundated on March 11 — but all the children managed to evacuate and survive.

The size of Toni, which had a population of around 2,200, probably encouraged a tendency towards forgetfulness. As young families were drawn to the village from smaller communities around it — attracted by its train station and other infrastructure — connections between the past and the present gradually faded.

In another, much smaller village, those connections remain palpably strong, even today.

Viewed on a map, Aneyoshi is just a speck on the coast of the Omoe Peninsula in Iwate Prefecture. It is within hiking distance of the Todogasaki Lighthouse, which is the most easterly point on Japan’s main island of Honshu. Not surprisingly, then, it has borne the brunt of tsunamis many times before.

“In the 1896 tsunami, every single house was destroyed. In 1933, every single person was killed,” said Tamishige Kimura, the current village headman.

Looking today at the damage inflicted on the inlet on March 11, it is easy to imagine how tragedies of such magnitude were possible. What used to be a more-or-less V-shaped valley has been gouged into a “U.” Not only has every trace of human habitation disappeared, but even the topsoil has been sheared from the landscape — not just on the valley floor, but up to an astonishing height of 40 meters on either side. With very little but bedrock remaining, the inlet now resembles the surface of the Moon.

Yet all that was lost in the valley on March 11 was the small port, several boats, a carpark, a small campsite complete with toilets and cooking facilities, a grove of cherry-blossom trees, a stand of cedars, a road and several storerooms for the seaweed that villagers used to harvest. No houses had been built down there since 1933.

Previously, Aneyoshi’s tale had been one of tragedy, forgetfulness and then regret. After the 1896 tsunami killed all but two of its inhabitants, Kimura explained, it was repopulated by relatives of the deceased and inhabitants of nearby communities. As those new arrivals had not experienced a tsunami themselves — and because there was a mood at the time that such bad luck couldn’t possibly befall the same region twice — they built their houses in the same places as those that had been destroyed.

However, Kimura said that by the time it became necessary for relatives to repopulate the village for a second time, in 1933, they had learned their lesson. That time, a strip of land was cleared much higher up the winding valley, about 600 meters from the sea, and the village was re-sited there.

Like at Yoshihama, the villagers of Aneyoshi remained resolutely committed to their new, more elevated abodes, and, according to Kimura, “no one ever even suggested relocating back down by the water.”

Unlike at Yoshihama, though, most of Aneyoshi’s residents made their living from the sea — collecting seaweed, sea urchins or abalone — or from the management of the small, low-lying campground. Even so, they remained committed to their houses higher up.

Seeking to explain why the residents of Aneyoshi bucked the predominant trend of gradually returning to low ground by the sea, some have pointed to an unusual feature of the landscape there: a stone marker, erected soon after 1933, that is inscribed with a stark message designed specifically to guard against forgetfulness:

“High dwellings mean peace for descendants. Remember the disaster of the great tsunami. Do not build houses below here.”

Beneath that inscription, another brief text carved in the stone explains that the monument was created using leftover donations from a relief fund set up by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper company.

But if it was this marker that discouraged the inhabitants of Aneyoshi from moving back down by the water, then it begs the question of why similarly worded markers elsewhere, at settlements such as Kawadai and Hirota, for example, didn’t have the same effect.

When asked why his 39 fellow Aneyoshi villagers hadn’t ever moved back down close to the sea, Kimura had his own answer. “We’re such a small community,” he said. “If someone had moved down to the water, those who were left behind would have got lonely. Those who moved from the group would have got lonely too.”

How to explain the variety of responses that Japan’s northeastern villages made to tsunamis? Why did some stay put and die while others moved and survived?

As disarmingly simple as it may seem, Kimura’s explanation — loneliness — hints at a factor that could answer all those questions.

In Yoshihama, there was a strong leader who moved the road and then moved everyone who had been affected by the tsunami to high ground. “No one was left behind,” said the local historian Kimura. “The whole town moved as one. That’s why it succeeded.”

The ties that bound the community of Yoshihama together, even as it was relocated, were strong. Yes indeed, that’s why it succeeded.

Paradoxically, a similar explanation can be given for those villages that didn’t move to high ground after 1896 — and even those that tried to move, but ultimately returned to their original locations.

In old communities, where ancestors’ graves are often located within the village, strong ties between community members will naturally translate into strong ties to the place where the village is located.

In Yoshihama, the distance of the relocation was not great, so the question of who would look after the graves was less of an issue. “And if it was, there’s a chance that they took their graves with them,” said the village’s local historian, Kimura.

In Aneyoshi, it was this same issue that prompted the initial reestablishment of village after 1896. “It’s amazing to think of it now, but back then our ancestors felt so strongly the need to care for the graves that relatives and even non-relatives were brought here to reestablish the families,” said Aneyoshi’s Kimura. “Even on land that had been destroyed by the tsunami.”

And thus when the foibles and traditions surrounding human nature are taken into account, Yoshihama and the other villages that managed to adapt quickly may well be miracles after all.

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