The public, industry and academic sectors in four northeastern prefectures hit by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami are collaborating on a project to highlight disaster-related monuments and remains across the region.

Dubbed the “3.11 Densho Road,” the initiative aims to link disaster-related sites across the prefectures of Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima to boost visitor numbers and revitalize the region.

It also seeks to raise disaster awareness, amid concerns that nine years on people are starting to forget the horrors seen in 2011.

The 3.11 Densho Road project is designed to establish a system that helps visitors learn about the disaster effectively. Recommended activities include creating maps listing major disaster sites, and signboards have been put up at the sites using an original pictogram depicting a tsunami and a building.

Disaster ruins and monuments for people who lost their lives in the disaster will be noted as spots where disaster lessons can be passed on, based on recommendations from relevant local governments and private-sector organizations.

“The quake and tsunami were a widespread and complex disaster with differences in the extent of damage and levels of recovery among affected regions, and there also is a culture of passing on stories of tsunami orally,” said Fumihiko Imamura, the head of an organization launched last summer in Sendai to spearhead the initiative.

“People can deepen their understanding of the quake and tsunami (if they visit disaster sites), so the organization aims to be in a guiding role,” said Imamura, who also heads Tohoku University’s International Research Institute of Disaster Science.

As of the end of January this year, 224 disaster-related sites have been registered in the project, with four in the prefecture of Aomori, 80 in Iwate, 111 in Miyagi and 29 in Fukushima. Some of the sites have guides and videos about the March 2011 tsunami, helping visitors learn extensively about the disaster.

One such facility is the Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum in the city of Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture. Displays at the museum, which opened last September and is run by the prefectural government, include a firetruck damaged by the tsunami and videos of the day the waves hit the region. It also features information on past tsunamis that have struck the Sanriku coastal area in northeastern Japan.

The facility is staffed by 10 guides, some of whom can speak English or Chinese. The museum saw visitor numbers top 100,000 in just four months after its opening.

“We’re aiming to become a global hub for learning about tsunami,” said Masanori Kumagai, deputy manager of the museum. “We hope to collaborate with the Densho Road initiative and reach out to the public.”

Well-known disaster ruins registered under the 3.11 Densho Road project include the Taro Kanko Hotel in the city of Miyako, Iwate, which saw its first and second floors stripped away by the tsunami, and the former Kadonowaki Elementary School in the city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.

Namie in Fukushima is considering applying for the registration for Ukedo Elementary School in the town. A committee comprising town residents and experts proposed last year that the site be preserved, and work is underway to open the school facility to the public from fiscal 2021.

Although the elementary school was hit by the tsunami in 2011, its 82 students safely evacuated to a nearby mountain.

University student Wakana Yokoyama, 21, who was an Ukedo Elementary School sixth-grader when the tsunami struck, joined the committee to support the campaign to preserve the school.

“If it was decided that the school building would be torn down, I was planning on collecting signatures (against the decision),” she said. “I want to pass on the story of how all the students evacuated safely.”

The Ukedo district where the school was located was designated a disaster danger zone following the destruction caused by the tsunami, and residents are still unable to move back to the district due to restrictions on construction there. The elementary school serves not only as a reminder of the horrors of the tsunami, but also a place of fond memories for many residents.

“The elementary school is the only thing that remained in Ukedo,” Yokoyama said. “I hope that, once the site is opened to the public, it can be filled with cheerful voices of former residents coming back together.”

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