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The ‘miracle villages’

When addressing the questions asked last week about rebuilding Japan’s destroyed communities, some villages are clearly ahead of the curve.

As Japan Times writer Edan Corkill reports, the village of Yoshihama was spared the most terrible effects of the 11 March tsunami because of decisions made generations ago, after previous big disasters in 1896 and 1933, to relocate to higher ground.  It is an incredible story of warnings from the past, left on stone markers built at the point where earlier giant waves reached:

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

In case after heartbreaking case, those who heeded the warnings not to return to the shoreline to build houses were saved, while those who didn’t were washed away.  Perhaps this third tragedy will be enough to see the lessons of the markers learned once and for all.

Next time I hope that they can all be miracle villages.

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Rebuilding Japan under uncertainty

It is depressing but not surprising to learn from those back home that Japan has been largely ignored by the news recently, in favour of stories of footballers doing something somewhere to someone no-one can tell you anything about.

Meanwhile back in reality, as the clear up and relief efforts continue, others wonder what follows for the coastal regions of Tohoku and their vanished communities.  Architectural practice Bakoko this week considered the options for rebuilding available to the Japanese government, asking three critical questions:

  1. Rebuild on higher land at higher cost in a new location?
  2. Rebuild flood-proof buildings on existing plots?
  3. Rebuild as before and put faith in higher sea walls?

Returning to shoreline homes may seem inconceivable to many having seen the devastation inflicted on them on 11 March.  As Bakoku notes, if your life and that of preceding generations has been tied to the ocean, it may not be so simple to turn your back on the shore, even when the ocean has treated you so brutally.  Few people can live close to the sea for long without gaining respect for its power and love for its variability.  Those ties, coupled with the high cost of available land in Japan, are likely to mean that many will choose to return.

That being the case, the architects emphasise the importance of good evacuation procedures and drills.  Many people believed that they were safe on low-lying land because those areas had escaped previous tsunami damage.  Preventable deaths were also caused by a lack of wheelchair access at shelters.  In a country with so many elderly people, this seems little short of murder.  The son of the woman mentioned in the story is likely to have been in his 60s or 70s himself, faced with a terrible choice by the failure of the authorities to provide adequate facilities.

Rebuilding homes and workplaces is of prime importance, yet it will be useless without the regeneration of communities.  Education geared towards a better state of preparedness is also crucial.  It is my hope that in future situations such as this, which appeared in the Daily Yomiuri’s Troubleshooter column last week, can be avoided:

I tried to escape with my grandmother as the earthquake and tsunami hit our town. But at one point she sat down and said she couldn’t run anymore. I wanted to carry her, but she firmly refused, and angrily told me, “Go, go!”

I ran away alone, apologizing for leaving her. Three days later, her body was found some distance from where we had separated.

My heart goes out to all those who had such heartbreaking decisions to make, given brief moments to decide whether to run and save themselves or to stay and perish with their loved ones.  I have heard of and read so many similar stories since 11 March, yet their effects do not diminish.  Rebuilding efforts for towns and buildings must go hand-in-hand with care and support for the less-visible damage to the hearts and minds of the survivors, if it is to achieve anything at all worth having.

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