View from the Linden Barn 9 (December 7, 2017)

December 7, 2017 

Concrete Walls, Cherry Trees and Post-tsunami Reconstruction in Japan

By Fumiyo Kagawa

After participating in the 11-12 November 2017 education for sustainable development (ESD) international symposium on regional revitalisation hosted by the ESD Research Centre, Rikkyo University, Tokyo, I joined a two-day trip to Kesennuma City in Miyagi prefecture and Rikuzentakata City in Iwate prefecture - cities that had suffered catastrophic damage during the 11 March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, often refereed to as the Great East Japan Earthquake. The trip had been organized by the Centre to showcase disaster reconstruction and local revitalization efforts in the two cities for international speakers attending the symposium.

The landscape I saw from the bus window was a mix of typical rural Japanese countryside that had escaped tsunami devastation, new-built infrastructure and buildings currently under reconstruction, and visible reminders of the enormous power of tsunami - empty and ravaged leftovers of schools and municipal buildings standing along the road as we travelled.

I was amazed at the scale of the vast open area that had been Rikuzentakata city centre before being completely washed away. Ten-meter land elevation work has been under way involving transferring massive amounts of earth from the top of a nearby mountain to create a base for a new city centre. Local government officials explained that one of their top priorities had been to build new houses on the heightened ground for those who had lost their homes. Their intention, too, was to use the mountaintop as a housing site after removing enough soil for land elevation. It was not, they said, that they had not considered the long-term negative environmental impacts of transferring massive amounts of soil from the mountain. But in a small rural city with a population of 24,000 before the tsunami, with half of its 8,000 houses completely destroyed, with about 7% of its population having lost their lives and with 800 households (about 1,200 people) still living in temporary housing complexes, there is enormous pressure on local government to provide safe and affordable houses as soon as possible. Without new houses, the high level of depopulation that had existed even before the tsunami would only be accelerated.

Rikuzentakata’s renowned 350 year-old pine forest consisting of 70,000 pine trees nestling the coast had been washed away by the tsunami, save for one tree. Local people had loved the beautiful white beach and pine forest, which used to attract many visitors each year. Along the seafront now was a massive new sea wall of two kilometres long. A wall had existed before but the new wall stands twice as high (12.5 meters) as the previous wall (5.5 meters). Along the new sea wall, pine tree planting started earlier this year with local residents involved. It would take some fifty years to grow a 20 meter-high mature pine tree forest but by that time, ironically, the new sea wall would be reaching its anticipated average lifespan of fifty years. Breakwaters have already been constructed using natural stones and the restoration of the white beach along the sea wall is also under way.

I had very mixed feelings as I stood on top of the sea wall. Notwithstanding enormous reconstruction efforts made by so many people to keep the city and its people safe, this massive sea barrier construction has the effect of cutting off local residents - who have lived in harmony with the sea over many centuries - from the sea. The sea wall at Rikuzentakata is only a small part of a staggering 405 km (252 mile) sea wall construction plan made up of 440 discrete walls. This plan was initially put forward by the Japanese central government and then affirmed by prefecture governments as a means of protecting the coastline of the three worst hit prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate from devastating tsunamis. It is to cost approximately £5bn. As of January 2017, one fifth of the seawall has been constructed [1, 2, 3]. Local government bureaucrats decide the height of each stretch of the wall based upon a formula provided by the central government. The sea wall will reach fifteen meters in height in some places. The new sea walls seeks to provide protection against tsunamis that occur in every 10 to 100 years, which means it will not withstand a once-in-a-thousand-year tsunami like in 2011.

According to government construction personnel I talked to in Rikuzentakata, future sea level rise due to the climate change has not been factored into the determination of sea wall height.

In terms of effectiveness of sea walls, the 2011 experience shows mixed results: while there was an example of a coastal village sea wall that withstood the devastating effects of the tsunami, most of the seawalls, including the then biggest sea wall in the world protecting Kamaishi City, Iwate prefecture, collapsed. One of the hard lessons learned was that a number of local residents who had felt ‘protected’ by the sea walls as well as those who could not see the tsunami approaching because of the wall’s height did not evacuate in time and as a consequence lost their lives. Sea walls can give a false sense of security [4, 5]. High concrete sea walls do not necessarily guarantee safety of coastal communities from tsunamis.

Even after the painful lessons learned in 2011, in a number of places plans to re-build or newly construct concrete walls - this time longer, higher and wider than before – have been quickly pushed through by government without sufficient dialogue and consensus building with local residents still deeply distressed by the catastrophic event. Construction of concrete sea defence walls seems to be a manifestation of the anthropocentric fallacy that human beings can control any force of nature rather than learning to live with nature in ways that Japanese people have practiced for millennia as part of their traditions and culture. Constructing massive concrete walls also seems to represent a very narrow and top-down view of ‘development’ that eschews listening to the voices of local people and fails to appreciate the value of natural environment that made each coastal village and town unique and vibrant. It ignores and undermines what nature has meant and means to local people. Pointing out the negative impacts on coastal ecosystems already caused by previous sea walls, a local plant ecologist comments, ‘the government has let slip a rare chance to start healing past harm by implementing new, more sustainable coastal management strategies’ [6].

It is interesting to note that when the English term ‘resilience’ is introduced into disaster management discourse in Japan, the Japanese government translates it as ‘kokudo kyoujinka’, which literally means creating a ‘robust/strong’ nation or community. Some see this Japanese translation, with its narrow interpretation of resilience as giving licence to government to promote large-scale public infrastructure-driven disaster prevention initiatives. They prefer to appropriate into Japanese the English word ‘resilience’ as carrying a cocktail of meanings, including flexibility, adaptability, lateral innovation, responsiveness, resourcefulness and rapidity of response [7].

There are other ways of reducing disaster risk and making coastal communities and people more resilient. For instance, as early as 1977, after realizing the negative impacts of large coastal engineering structures on the environment and its tourism industry, Hawaii decided to regulate coastal construction development. Instead, residential areas were relocated inland for their safety thus keeping settlement at a sufficient distance from the coast. Such an approach is based on a more comprehensive view of land management and a vision for long-term community revitalization [8]. Promoting and maintaining healthy ecosystems that can serve as natural buffers against natural hazards and so increase the resilience of communities and people by sustaining livelihoods and meeting basic needs, an approach called ‘ecosystem-based DRR’ (eco-DRR) [9], is another way forward. In post-disaster reconstruction and community revitalization efforts, what is vital is to create communities where local people want to live and work now and in the future through a consensual process and this objective can be married with restoring and maintaining healthy eco-systems as part of an holistic process.

On the evening in Kesennuma City, I happened to watch a local TV news story about cutting some tsunami-survived cherry trees along the Kamiyama river that runs through the city. Cherry trees have been planted and cared for by the local residents over more than 40 years. The cherry trees stood as collateral damage in the building of new concrete levees to protect local residents from future tsunamis and river flooding. Later, I learned that although the prefectural government was initially going to cut all fifty-eight cherry trees down, strong opposition from a local residents group and subsequent discussions between the local government and the group resulted in preserving seventeen trees and the relocating of two within the city [10, 11]. From a local schoolteacher I also learned that as a form of protest, anonymous residents wrote and hung their haiku poems to some cherry trees. Two of the poems are included below (in my own English translation):

Survived and silent trees have messages
Having gone through that day together
We are both alive today

Walking in the wind carrying cherry blossom petals
Walking in a shady path under green leaves
Walking in a path filled with fallen leaves
Silent trees being part of my life


The symbolic meanings of the cherry trees as expressed in these haiku poems are an important reminder of our place-based identity, and our often overlooked but deep embeddedness in nature. The value attached to cherry trees surviving the once-in-a-thousand-year tsunami is not quantifiable yet that value will only be undermined at ultimate cost to the human psyche. The sense of encouragement and joy that local people expressed when these cherry trees began to grow and flower again must have brought with it emotional security, a genre of security of a fundamentally different order from the sense of security attached to concrete levees. Defending the silent cherry trees, protecting place-based identity and restoring ecosystems are – or should be, if we really care for the future – integral to post-tsunami reconstruction and disaster risk reduction efforts.



[1] ‘Just 22% of new seawalls are finished in areas hit by 2011 tsunami’. The Japan Times. 11 Mar 2017.

[2] Mucurry, J. ‘Tsunami proof “Great Wall of Japan” divides villagers.’ The Guardian. 29 June 2014.

[3] Mcneill, D. ‘Japan’s sea wall: Storm brews over plans to construct giant £5bn barrier against tsunamis.’ Independent. 5 March 2016.

[4] Onishi, N. ‘In Japan, seawall offered a false sense of security’. The New York Times. 31 March 2011.

[5] Mucurry, J. ‘Tsunami proof “Great Wall of Japan” divides villagers.’ The Guardian. 29 June 2014.

[6] Bird, W. ‘In post-tsunami Japan, a push to rebuild coast in concrete’. Yale Environment 360. 16 May 2013.

[7] Kawata, Y. 'Comyunitii no chikara de shukusai wo mezasu'. [‘Disaster risk reduction working with communities’.] Shizen Hogo [Nature Conservation]. No.550. March/April 2016. 4-5.

[8] Okada, T. 'Bouchou tei ni tayoranai kaigan no machi zukuri’ ['Costal community development without sea walls’.] Shizen Hogo. [Nature Conservation]. No. 534. July/August 2013.

[9] For explanations of ecosystem-based DRR, see ;

[10] ‘Tsunami taeta sakura wasurenai Ichibu battusai e anzenn kigan Kesennuma.’  [‘Won’t forget tsunami-survived cherry trees. Cutting some trees. Giving prayers. Kesennuma’.] Kahoku News. 16 August 2017.

[11]  ‘Tsunami ni taeta sakura namiki no battusai niten santen jyuumin ni shikori’.  [‘Cutting down tsunami-survived cherry trees. Changes  in decisions. Uneasy feelings among local residents'.] Kohoku News. 16 August 2017.

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