• The city view from the hill showing that how life has returned to normal even though most of the bay area was wiped out. The new houses have been built on higher ground and are protected by a sea wall.
  • Daisuke Saito, right, at his family sake brewery shop Kakuboshi at Kesennuma, the first floor of which was rebuilt after being destroyed by the giant wave.
  • The permanent exhibition “Documentary of East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and History of Tsunami Disaster: at the Rias Ark Museum of Art at Kesennuma.

When the great wave came

lifestyle November 27, 2018 01:00


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The residents of the Northeast of Japan who lost so much in March 2011 when the coast was hit by a massive Tsunami are launching campaigns to encourage international tourists to visit and learn

MORE THAN seven years have passed since most of the Tohoku (northeast) area of Japan was wiped out by the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami of March 2011. More than 20,000 people died in the disaster but the Japanese have picked themselves up and brushed themselves down and while construction is still ongoing in many parts, the local people are doing everything they can to encourage international tourists to return. Their focus is a series of campaigns to underline that the revitalisation and reconstruction of tsunami-affected areas has been successful.

Thai visitors continue to flock to Japan to marvel at the koyo or momiji (red leaf) season of autumn, the snow in winter and the cherry blossoms in spring. Yet they are seemingly unaware of another type of tourism that has been gaining traction among Japanese and visitors from other countries – disaster prevention.

Known in Japanese as bosai kanko, this type of tourism uses the word bosai to refer to comprehensive efforts including prior countermeasures against disasters, emergency responses after a disaster, restoration and recovery. Indeed, bosai has even given its name to the World Bosai Forum, an international meeting focused on understanding the practical side of disaster risk management rather than mere theory. 

The Tohoku Tourism Office recently invited XP to visit the Miyagi Prefecture where many cities were heavily hit by the tsunami including Sendai, Ichinomaki, Kesennuma and Minamisanriku. The programme took in the disaster areas and also introduced me to local people and entrepreneurs, all of them eager to tell me what they experienced and explain how they are using bosai to proactively engage in preparing for possible disasters in the future. 

Local people like driver Kiyoshi Shioya have their own stories to tell to visitors. The picture shows the only house in this area to have survived the tsunami.

Miyagi is one of the premier rice growing areas of Japan and home to a famous sake brewery. On my first day, I am taken to the Urakasumi Sake Gallery at Shiogama, where life has returned to normal. When I ask about the disaster, the manager gives me the full details in English. Nearly 30,000 bottles of sake were damaged, the brewery’s buildings had to fixed or replaced and their sale of sake put on hold even though it was the peak of the Ginjo (premium sake) season, he tells me. Now they are giving back to the community based on the idea that “we cannot achieve a true recovery of our own without our region’s recovery”, donating part of every purchase towards the region's recovery. 

Even though the staff cannot speak English, foreign visitors are welcomed and are taken on a walking tour of the brewery and invited to taste to sake, “Please come to visit our shop and see how the sake has been made. Language is not a problem; we use a dictionary application to translate and talk to each other,” says a member of staff. 

We stop at another sake brewery, Kakuboshi in Kesennuma, and here too they are eager to talk about the after effects of the tsunami. In some ways, they were more fortunate: the big wave swept away the first storey of the shop but the century-old brewery is located on a hill and thus suffered no damage. 

Daisuke Saito, the managing director of Kakuboshi Brewery, takes us to visit the brewery. He’s the sixth generation and now overseeing his family business. He was studying in Tokyo when the disaster hit but had come back home for a holiday. 

“This is a fishing town so the homes and factories are scattered around the bay. If we know a tsunami is coming, we don’t think it will be too high so most of us just move up to the second storey of our homes. At that time we didn’t know how high the waves would be so, even with the announcement to evacuate, we didn’t run up the hill. My cousins headed to the second floor but when that flooded they had to climb up onto the roof,” he says.

Among the exhibits is the clock from the Kesennuma fish market, which stopped when the tsunami hit.

 Like other cities along the Miyagi Prefecture coast, Kesennuma has experienced several tsunamis. Saito had been told about them but this was his first experience of the real thing and it was far stronger and higher than those that had come before. 

Kessenuma is home to two interesting permanent exhibitions about the disaster. The one at the Rias Ark Museum of Art showcases a selection of items from daily life. The exhibition brings together 203 pictures and 155 articles from the disaster site, 137 documents, the clock from the fish market, which stopped when the tsunami hit, as well as a washing machine, electric rice pot, an old video game, a Tamagotchi, video cassette player and even a variety of tiles. The historical document section also showcases the 1896 Meiji tsunami in the Sanriku area, the Chilean tsunami that hit same area and the Heisei tsunami in 2011. 

The second exhibition is on at Karakuwa Peninsula Visitor Centre in the far northeast of Kesennuma on the border with Iwate Prefecture. This is the first tsunami museum in Japan and looks at the history of past tsunamis in Kesennuma as well as the history of the tsunami-ridden Sanriku Coast, as the Pacific coastal area in mid-Tohoku is known, and the menacing power of the great wave.

In addition to a comprehensive archive of pictures and video footage documenting the 2011 tsunami, visitors can also experience a live tsunami simulation with visual and audio effects including motion and vibrations and learn to prepare for them. The hilltop Tsunami Simulation Centre invites visitors to experience the sounds, oscillation and winds of a tsunami movie, the first in Japan to do so. It feels like you are in a 4D theatre with your seat shaking in the strong winds from giant fans while watching the gigantic waves on the screen. The movie was produced from data collected from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and made to promote disaster prevention education.

Both centres are some 20 minutes from Kesennuma, itself 120km from Sendai, and all the visitors are Japanese.

In addition to these tsunami centres, local people are also helping to educate visitors about their experience. In Arahama, about 10 km from Sendai, the residents tell us that the population prior to March 2011 was 2,200 people spread over some 800 households. When the wave came, many rushed to Sendai Arahama Elementary School about 700 metres away from the coast. The school was established in 1873 and was only the high and durable building in the Arahama area. Residents joined the 91 students attending it before the disaster hit and despite the wave reaching the second floor, 320 people including the children survived.

Today the school ruins remain open as a memorial to remind visitors of the real threat of a tsunami to future generations. Intended to pass on the lessons and never again fall victim to a tsunami, the building is preserved along with other records and open to the public. 

The Urakasumi Sake Brewery at Shiogama is open for customers to taste the sake and also provides a walking tour of the nearby brewery.

Kawamura Keita, who works as a guide to this memorial, shows us the lower floors, which have been left as they were found after the event, full of debris and with ceiling panels dangling. On the second floor, we see a mark showing where the water reached –40cm above the floor – while a model depicting the town of Arahama pre-tsunami serves as a contrast to the view of empty land through the windows.

On the fourth floor, a 15-minute documentary is screened telling the events of that day through the victims, from the principal to the elderly. Kawamura was a former student of Arahama school though he graduated years before the tsunami, which wiped out his family home. 

As the area is considered prone to more tsunamis, residents have been relocated further from the beach. Associate Professor Dr Anawat Suppasri, a Thai academic who works at the International Research Institute of Disaster Science (IRIDeS), Tohoku University, explains that the topography of Arahama is such that the great waves can go deeper inland. In 2011, the tsunami went 4km into the interior, wiping out everything along its path. Seven years on, here as elsewhere, the construction to prevent future tsunami damage is still going on due to endless public hearings among those who live in the area, construction troubles and disputes over land rights.