National

The seawalls of Tohoku

Since March 11, 2011, more than 350 kilometers of seawalls have been built along the Tohoku coastline

A man walks along the seawall near Watanoha, Miyagi Prefecture. “It provides great views of the galleon at the Sant Juan Bautista Park,” he told me. The original galleon was built in Ishinomaki during the Edo Period; the replica at the park survived the tsunami in 2011. | OSCAR BOYD
A man walks along the seawall near Watanoha, Miyagi Prefecture. “It provides great views of the galleon at the Sant Juan Bautista Park,” he told me. The original galleon was built in Ishinomaki during the Edo Period; the replica at the park survived the tsunami in 2011. | OSCAR BOYD
By OSCAR BOYD

Staff writer

People who survived the tsunami that hit Tohoku on March 11, 2011, describe a moving wall of muddy black water that engulfed land, homes, business and lives.

At its tallest, the water is estimated to have been 40.5 meters high, as the waves funneled into the town of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture. In the decade since, survivors of the disaster have attempted to rebuild, and in doing so protect themselves from a repeat of what happened on March 11.

In the run-up to the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, I have visited Tohoku twice: once to Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and then to Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, last month.

Between the two trips, I’ve driven 200 kilometers up and down the Tohoku coast, which is rugged, at times beautiful, and still recovering. Though the tsunami altered it permanently, the most obvious new feature of the Tohoku coast isn’t a natural one, it is manmade: vast concrete seawalls.

An opening provides access through the seawall to the port in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture. | OSCAR BOYD
An opening provides access through the seawall to the port in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture. | OSCAR BOYD

Around 350 kilometers of seawalls have been built since 2011 — with another 80 kilometers under construction — at a budget of ¥1.3 trillion (roughly $12 billion). Designed to protect Tohoku from any future tsunamis, these gray giants are at once visually striking and, to me, horrific eyesores that seem engineered to erase the existence of the sea.

Where the walls protect residential areas, homes are dwarfed by them, blocking the ocean entirely from view and estranging valuable fishing ports from the communities that work in them. Stranger still are the places where the walls seem to have no obvious purpose, protecting areas of land where people no longer live. Their mute, imposing presence gives the sense that Tohoku has been transformed into a large prison complex, intended as much to keep residents locked inland as to keep the sea separated from them.

The walls also pose an interesting question to me: Are they a premonition of our future under climate change? With more extreme weather and sea levels expected to rise by the end of the century, coastal communities around the world will increasingly need to reckon with the destructive power of the sea and defend against it. Sea walls seem an obvious answer, but I hope they aren’t the solution.

While neither of my trips to Tohoku have involved direct reporting on the seawalls, both times I’ve found myself drawn to photographing their construction. The area has recovered in many ways, but the walls are raised scars, a permanent dystopian reminder of the disaster. Gray, static walls of concrete that will remain long after the muddy black wall of water is forgotten.

The sea wall and sluice gate under construction in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, July 2019. | OSCAR BOYD
The sea wall and sluice gate under construction in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, July 2019. | OSCAR BOYD
The Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium, built for the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. Over 1,000 people were killed in Kamaishi on March 11, 2011. | OSCAR BOYD
The Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium, built for the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. Over 1,000 people were killed in Kamaishi on March 11, 2011. | OSCAR BOYD
Cross section of a seawall under construction in Taro, Iwate Prefecture, July 2019. Taro’s existing seawall, built in 1934 following the 1933 Sanriku tsunami was overwhelmed by the wave that hit on March 11, 2011, estimated to be between 12 and 15 meters high when it reached Taro. | OSCAR BOYD
Cross section of a seawall under construction in Taro, Iwate Prefecture, July 2019. Taro’s existing seawall, built in 1934 following the 1933 Sanriku tsunami was overwhelmed by the wave that hit on March 11, 2011, estimated to be between 12 and 15 meters high when it reached Taro. | OSCAR BOYD
An aerial shot of Taro Port and its new seawall. | OSCAR BOYD
An aerial shot of Taro Port and its new seawall. | OSCAR BOYD
The Nissan Cube is 1.65 meters high, less than the height of the smallest section of the seawall outside Tanohata Port, Iwate Prefecture. | OSCAR BOYD
The Nissan Cube is 1.65 meters high, less than the height of the smallest section of the seawall outside Tanohata Port, Iwate Prefecture. | OSCAR BOYD
The seawall in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, is the same height as the warehouses that serve the port. | OSCAR BOYD
The seawall in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, is the same height as the warehouses that serve the port. | OSCAR BOYD
The completed seawall protecting the Minamihama memorial park, built over the former Minamihama district of Ishinomaki, which was devastated by the tsunami. | OSCAR BOYD
The completed seawall protecting the Minamihama memorial park, built over the former Minamihama district of Ishinomaki, which was devastated by the tsunami. | OSCAR BOYD
Steps up the sea wall at Nagatsura Bay, Miyagi Prefecture. No buildings are anywhere near this sea wall, and as far as I can tell, it protects nothing. | OSCAR BOYD
Steps up the sea wall at Nagatsura Bay, Miyagi Prefecture. No buildings are anywhere near this sea wall, and as far as I can tell, it protects nothing. | OSCAR BOYD
Men complete construction on the seawall in Ogatsu, Miyagi Prefecture. | OSCAR BOYD
Men complete construction on the seawall in Ogatsu, Miyagi Prefecture. | OSCAR BOYD

Additional research by Haruka Murayama.


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