The deserted white apartment building tells its story floor by floor. The street level has only gaping open spaces where there were once floor-to-ceiling windows. On the second story, pieces of aluminum protrude across some of those gaps. More metal appears on the third floor, delineating parts of window frames. The fourth floor has horizontal and vertical metal bars in the gaps, but no glass. The fifth and top floor reveals what each level of this 40-unit structure used to look like: a parapet of white panels encloses a row of identical apartments with sliding glass doors that open up to balconies.
The building in the city of Rikuzentakata is a vivid if eerie illustration of the power of the tsunami that ripped through the structure’s first four floors, the water’s force decreasing with height. The city recently decided to preserve the structure as a testament to the devastation wrought by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan’s northeastern coast on March 11, 2011.
Near the apartment building, yellow excavators work through mounds of debris-filled soil, clearing the grounds for new construction. As the region’s massive clean up races along with characteristic Japanese efficiency, the local governments face the sensitive challenge of deciding what if any items should be preserved as memorials of the tragedy. It is proving to be a testing process, particularly in the northern area’s conservative culture that reveres consensus.
Much of the opposition, understandably, comes from residents near the edifices who say they don’t need any more reminders of their losses. Japan doesn’t have a strong tradition of saving buildings, either, in part due to its historical use of wood as opposed to stone in construction. A major exception is the lone building that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima whose steel dome top has become a globally recognized symbol of the reality of nuclear warfare. Opponents also worry that the costs to maintain memorials will divert funds from reconstruction projects.
The unprecedented amount of visual records of this natural disaster and their widespread dissemination have opened the debate over preservation to a broad audience. People all over Japan recognize the image of the 330-ton ship washed into the middle of town or the red steel frame of the municipal building from where a young woman repeatedly broadcast evacuation orders before she, too, was swept away.
The artist Takashi Murakami started a conservation project after he noticed how quickly wreckage was disappearing while he was delivering relief goods just after the quake. “The ship on top of the roof, the twisted road signs, would be there one week and gone the next,” he said. Murakami began collecting whatever he could fit in his car — so far about 100 items, such as oil drums, fire extinguishers and street signs. The cultural critic Hiroki Azuma formed a group to explore making the decommissioned nuclear reactor in Fukushima Prefecture an educational tourist destination.
Miyagi Prefecture issued preservation guidelines for its cities. The buildings should have helped save lives or have the potential to educate future generations on disaster prevention. They must meet safety standards and not disrupt reconstruction plans. Rikuzentakata, located in neighboring Iwate Prefecture, decided not to conserve any buildings where people died; a stance that some say defeats the purpose of having the memorials enlighten viewers on the scale of the tsunami.
“Even items of negative legacy should remain,” said Akira Kugiko who guides visitors through areas of destruction. “We need people to know what happened here after we are gone.”
One of those adverse sites disappeared last month when excavators tore down the Rikuzentakata city office where, along with a neighboring building designated as an evacuation spot, scores of people died.
The old city office had offered a picture frozen in time of the immediate aftermath. Two crumpled cars sat inside the first floor, their wheels half submerged in the debris-strewn ground. A large red X was written on one wall indicating that a body had been recovered there. A sign that said “investigation completed” was pasted on a pillar.
Farther south along the coast, in the city of Kesennuma, lies the famous beached ship, its 60-meter-long hull even more striking today with the surrounding wreckage cleared. Many city residents support its preservation both as a reminder of the enormity of the catastrophe and as a source of revenue from the steady stream of tourists who visit the site. But the city faces difficult opposition from residents close by, including those whose homes were burned when the ship came barreling ashore in flames. Squashed beneath a charred section of the vessel are the metallic remains of a car and its rusty wheels. Who knows what else lies below.
In time for next week’s second anniversary, Rikuzentakata officials erected a restored version of what is popularly called the “miracle pine tree,” a single tree that remained standing after waves took out the rest of the shoreline forest. The 27-meter-high tree died last year after its roots rotted from exposure to seawater, but it has been hollowed out and filled with carbon fiber and adorned with replicated branches and leaves. The new tree won’t speak to the frailty of people in the face of natural calamities, but the city hopes the majestic replica will be an encouraging symbol of recovery.
Kumiko Makihara is a writer and translator.