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Sunday, June 12, 2011

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Life and death: After major tsunamis in 1896 and 1933, many houses in Toni, Iwate Prefecture, were relocated from low-lying valleys to "reconstruction zones" on higher land (background, above). But tragically, many others were built in their place (foreground). YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO


Heights of survival

As Edan Corkill found out in Tohoku, on March 11 it was a fine line between life and death, and that line was often drawn generations ago

Staff writer

When the March 11 tsunami hit the village of Yoshihama in Iwate Prefecture, the water overran a seawall, smashed through a coastal pine forest, poured over a large embankment and then surged up a long, low-lying valley. It was a scenario almost identical to that being played out at dozens of settlements along Japan's northeast coast, except that at Yoshihama, things were different.

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Day of reckoning: The tsunami lays waste paddies below the "miracle village" of Yoshihama, Iwate Prefecture, where the houses, relocated higher up, were safe. KINJI KOMATSU PHOTOS
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Elsewhere, what the tsunami invariably found as it raged inland along coastal valleys like the one at Yoshihama were houses, schools, train stations, shops, businesses and people — many thousands of people. What it found at Yoshihama were rice paddies.

From an adjacent hill, the village residents watched as an 18-meter wave rampaged from the Pacific into the valley below. They watched in awe — both at the force of nature being displayed in front of them, and also at the foresight of their ancestors who, more than a century earlier, had relocated their village center from the valley floor to the safety of the hill where they now stood. More than likely, their ancestors had saved their lives.

Moving a village to high ground is not a complex idea. As a local historian in Yoshihama put it, "Anyone who has experienced a tsunami would think of it."

Yet along Japan's northeast coast, where horrific tsunamis struck in 1896, 1933 and 1960 — once each for the third, fourth and fifth most recent preceding generations — tales of relocated villages surviving unscathed the events of March 11, 2011, are rare.

That despite a report by the national government's Central Disaster Prevention Council in 2005, which states plainly that relocation to high ground is "the best way" to mititgate against tsunami risk — better, that is, than sea walls or planting pine forests along the coast.

But where even informed opinion failed to galvanize many at-risk communities into action, a closer look now at relocations that saved lives this year, and in the face of past tsunamis, may serve to help people in Japan and perhaps far beyond to better prepare for these natural disasters.

Like most of the inhabitants of Yoshihama, Masatsugu Kimura's house is built on gently sloping land. From the window of his study, the 64-year-old retired salaryman and local historian can still just make out beneath their shroud of mud the remains of hedges and ditches that once delineated rice paddies in the valley below.

"Some people have called us the 'miracle village,' " Kimura said. "But we are not. The relocation that took place here happened in carefully planned steps after the devastation wrought by the 1896 tsunami and the one in 1933."

Kimura explained that on the night of June 15, 1896, a Monday, many of the village's young men had gathered at local halls to play doppiki, a gambling game in which players use pieces of string of different lengths. At the same time, one of the town's leading families, the Kashiwazakis, were hosting a wedding celebration.

No one realized that one of the many small tremors they had felt earlier that evening had unleashed a tsunami that was bearing down on their coast.

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Yoshihama historian, Masatsugu Kimura YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

As Kimura detailed it, the 24-meter wave that hit Yoshihama that night washed away 35 houses and severely damaged another. "But because of the events taking place in the village that night, 204 people were killed," he said.

Just as in every other community washed away by the sea that night, the redevelopment project that later kicked in at Yoshihama was an initiative of the village itself. In fact, according to the late historian and geographer, Yaichiro Yamaguchi (1902-2000), it was the leader of the village, named Buemon Niinuma, who made the decision to rebuild the village on a new, safer site.

Niinuma first had the village's major thoroughfare remade not along the coast where it had been, but up in the hills. He then provided land on either side of that road for those whose houses had been washed away in the tsunami.

The project was largely funded by relief donations collected from the private sector and distributed to affected towns and villages to use as they saw fit. Neither the prefectural nor national governments were directly involved.

Niinuma was of course not the only village leader to initiate a relocation plan. According to Yamaguchi, as many as 40 similar attempts were made, but the great majority either never really took off or were soon abandoned.

Although Niinuma's decision to start with the relocation of infrastructure is often cited as the key to his plan's success, Kimura mentioned another. "Only 11 of the 132 families in Yoshihama in 1896 were involved in fishing," he said. "In other towns (where relocation was attempted), you had people who had to commute each day to the coast, often carrying 15-meter bamboo poles that were used for picking abalone from the seabed, and then back again with their catches."

As the years passed, he explained, in those other towns the fishermen were inclined to prioritize convenience over an uncertain threat, and so they returned to resettle again on lower ground close to the sea. Then others would follow the fishermen's lead.

It was precisely that scenario that played out in villages all along the coasts of Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, including at Kuki, Kirikiri, Urahama, Shimohorei, Ryori and Osawa. When the next tsunami hit, on March 3, 1933, each of those communities suffered losses on a par with those in 1896.

But the 1933 tsunami didn't leave Yoshihama unscathed either. That time, when a 14-meter wave hit the village it washed away some of the houses that had relocated after the 1896 disaster, but had not been built on high enough ground. Nonetheless, Yoshihama's toll in 1933 — 17 dead and 15 houses lost — was far lighter than the 204 fatalities and 36 houses lost in 1896.

"After the 1933 tsunami, the villagers were convinced they had done the right thing," Kimura said. Consequently, the village leader at that time, Ushitaro Kashiwazaki (of the family that had been hosting that wedding party in 1896), initiated his own relocation plan for that portion of the village that had been damaged.

This time around, though, Yoshihama and other villages received both encouragement and funds from the prefectural and national governments to aid in their relocation. Those authorities also created "reconstruction zones" on high ground in tsunami-affected settlements like Yoshihama.

Kashiwazaki's plan is of course now long completed and generations have known the village no other way than as it now remains on its upland site. Hence, Kimura said, there is a sense among Yoshihama's roughly 1,500 residents that what their forebears did was not really so particularly special. "We look at other villages and think, well, of course, if you build on low land like that, you're going to get washed away," he said.


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