The rugged Sanriku Coast of northeastern Japan is among the most beautiful places in the country. The white stone islands outside the port town of Miyako are magnificent. The Buddhist monk Reikyo could think of nothing but paradise when he first saw them in the 17th century. “It is the shore of the pure land,” he is said to have uttered in wonder, citing the common name for nirvana.
Reikyo’s name for the place stuck. Jodogahama, or Pure Land Beach, is the main gateway to the Rikuchu Kaigan National Park, a crenellated seashore of spectacular rock pillars, sheer cliffs, deep inlets and narrow river valleys that covers 100 miles of rural coastline. It is a region much like Down East Maine, full of small, tight-knit communities of hardworking people who earn their livelihoods from tourism and fishing. Sushi chefs around the country prize Sanriku abalone, cuttlefish and sea urchin.
Today that coast is at the center of one of the worst disasters in Japanese history. Despite the investment of billions of yen in disaster mitigation technology and the institution of robust building codes, entire villages have been swept out to sea. In some places little remains but piles of anonymous debris and concrete foundations.
I taught school in Miyako for more than two years in the 1990s, and it was while hiking in the mountains above one of those picturesque fishing villages that I came across my first material reminder of the intricate relationship between the area’s breathtaking geography, its people — generous and direct — and powerful seismic forces.
On a hot summer day a group of middle-school boys set out to introduce me to their town, a hamlet just north of Pure Land Beach. While I started up the steep mountainside the children bounced ahead of me, teasing me that I moved slowly for someone so tall. “Are you as tall as Michael Jordan, Miller-sensei?” yelled one boy as he shot past me up the trail.
“Not quite,” I told him, pausing on a spot of level ground to look out over the neat collection of tile roofs and gardens that filled the back of a narrow, high-walled bay.
“What is this?” I asked, pointing to a mossy stone marker that occupied the rest of the brief plateau. A chorus of young voices told me that it was the high-water mark for the area’s biggest tsunami: more than 50 feet above the valley floor.
“When was that?” I asked, but the boys couldn’t say. They had learned about it in school, they said, but like children everywhere they had little sense of time. Everything seemed like ancient history to them, but the thought of a wave reaching so high over the homes of my friends sent a chill down my spine, and I began to investigate the region’s history.
A major tsunami has hit the Sanriku Coast every few decades over the last century and a half. Waves swept the area in 1896, 1933 and 1960. The small monument was put there, high above the village, to mark the crest of the 1896 tsunami. The wave killed more than 20,000 people. The boys’ village, a place called Taro, was almost entirely destroyed. Seventy-five percent of the population died.
The force of those waves was amplified by the area’s distinctive geography. The same steep valley walls and deep inlets that make Sanriku so beautiful also make its villages and towns especially hazardous. The valleys channel a tsunami’s energy, pushing swells that are only a few feet high in the open ocean up to stunning heights. Fast-moving water topped 120 feet in one village in 1896.
In a landscape where earthquakes are a regular occurrence but major tsunamis happen irregularly, people naturally forget. The small monument — one of several commissioned for towns up and down the coast — was a mnemonic whose purpose was not commemoration but vigilance. “When there is an earthquake, watch for tsunami,” reads the rather practical poem engraved into one such slab.
Japan became a modern industrial state between the 1896 tsunami and the next major one, in 1933. The country’s radio and newspapers brought the story of rural fisher-folk swept out to sea to metropolitan audiences. Three thousand people died in the disaster and the humanitarian crisis elicited strong feelings of sympathy. The Sanriku region was portrayed as the nation’s heartland, a place where tradition remained intact, and the disaster threatened that preserve. Once again, Taro was particularly hard hit: all but eight of its homes were destroyed and nearly half of the village’s population of 1,800 souls went missing. The hamlet became an embodiment of agrarian loss.
It is paradoxical that the response to this threat to traditional ways was the application of cutting-edge engineering and technology. A huge concrete seawall was planned for Taro. Completed in 1958, that wall, 30 feet high at points, stretches over 1.5 miles across the base of the bay.
Faith in technology over nature appeared to be vindicated in 1960 with the great Chilean earthquake, a 9.5-magnitude quake that remains the largest ever recorded, which set off a Pacific-wide tsunami that killed 61 people in Hilo, Hawaii, before surging unannounced into the Sanriku Coast seven hours later. More than 120 Japanese died, but Taro remained largely unaffected, safe behind its sluice gates and concrete wall. Based in part on this success, a new program of coastal defense was initiated.
The Sanriku Coast is now one of the most engineered rural coastlines in the world. Its towns, villages and ports take shelter behind state-of-the-art seawalls and vast assemblages of concrete tetrapods designed to dissipate a wave’s energy. The region is home to one of the world’s best emergency broadcast systems and has been at the forefront of so-called “vertical evacuation” plans, building tall, quake-resistant structures in low-lying areas.
In 2003 Taro announced that it would become a “tsunami preparedness town.” Working with teams from the University of Tokyo and Iwate University, the town instituted a direct satellite link to accelerate the arrival of tsunami warnings. Public education was expanded and mayors from other towns visited to study this model village. Detailed maps showing projected maximum tsunami heights — using 1896 as a baseline — informed the selection of evacuation markers: a reassuring thick line defined the projected maximum reach of a tsunami. Evacuation sites were placed above that line on the maps. Similar calculations were made up and down the coast.
The lines were drawn in the wrong place. Despite the substantial infrastructure and technological investments in Sanriku, the wave on March 11 overwhelmed large portions of Taro and Miyako. Some of the evacuation points were not high enough. The walls were not tall enough. And the costs are still being tallied.
Thousands of people are missing along this beautiful, injured coast, hundreds in the town that I called home. I am still waiting to hear from one of the groomsmen from my wedding, the owner of Miyako’s best coffee shop and a sometime reader of this newspaper. Google’s people-finder app tells me he is alive, but I have no idea where he is or how our other friends fared. As for those rambunctious boys and all of my other students, I can only hope for the best.
Technology allowed me to learn my friend’s fate. It has also helped to inspire a worldwide humanitarian response. It may be, however, that a greater application of technology in the same direction is not the answer to the problems posed by the March 11 tsunami. As a historian, I am forced to recognize that there is nothing purely natural about this catastrophe. It is the result of a far longer negotiation between human culture and physical forces. Disasters have the counterintuitive tendency to reinforce the status quo. As the terrifying events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant continue to underline, there are very real costs to an uncritical application of technology.
I look forward to returning to my old Japanese home, but I also look forward to finding something new and different when I make that journey.
Ian Jared Miller, an assistant professor of history at Harvard.