Residents volunteer to preserve monuments to disaster


Yuichi Yonezawa believes he owes his life to the three-story building that used to house his company in the tsunami-damaged city of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture.

On March 11, 2011, Yonezawa ran up to the roof of the building and climbed the chimney, narrowly escaping the onslaught of seawater that surged about 14 meters above ground level, just below his feet.

Grateful for surviving unscathed and determined to hand down his memories of the horrors of the catastrophe, he decided to preserve the building, which is situated in a central part of the city where most other structures have been removed and land elevation work is progressing.

Yonezawa, 53, has so far given about 2,500 people tours of his building. He accepts as many requests as possible and has also been interviewed by a foreign TV station.

Every time he gets a good response from their faces, he renews his sense of mission to preserve the architectural remains.

Maintaining the building comes with a heavy financial burden, however. He has to pay more than ¥500,000 in fixed asset taxes beginning this year. Demolition alone would cost ¥5 million.

“Sometimes I think I’ve done a stupid thing,” Yonezawa confessed. “But without the building, I wouldn’t be alive and I couldn’t share my experience with others.”

With few other buildings offering testimony to the disaster, Yonezawa said he is bearing up under the burden “at least in my generation.”

He is determined to continue preserving the building as long as he can but wants to avoid passing the burden to his daughter, who is now of elementary school age.

In a similar vein, residents of the Tabito district of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, are continuing private efforts to maintain a fissure caused by a strong earthquake on April 11, 2011, the biggest aftershock from the 9.0 magnitude quake on March 11.

The crevice, as deep as 2.1 meters at some points, stretches about 14 km. One specialist calls it “a geological heritage that deserves to be designated as a natural monument.”

Inspired by the government of Iwaki’s decision to preserve a heavily damaged coastal levee in remembrance of the disaster with the help of state subsidies, residents led the initiative to preserve the fault.

Hoping to prevent memories of the disaster from being forgotten, residents plant gingko trees and build a stone monument by the fault on April 11 every year, in a slow but steady project that covers one site at a time.

A 2-meter-deep section of the fissure is on land owned by Fujiyo Saito, 72.

She allows visitors unrestricted access to the site. “I’m delighted just by visitors coming,” said Saito, who serves tea to such guests.

It is uncertain, however, how long the project can be maintained. The district has a population of only 1,500, with those 65 or older accounting for 45 percent of the total.