Japan Update: the Post-Tsunami Landscape

Japan Update: the Post-Tsunami Landscape

  • by Architecture for Humanity
  • Sep 28, 2011
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The Sendai Mediatheque might be the most famous contemporary building in the northern half of Honshu known as Tohoku. The building is–along with its architect Toyo Ito–admired by designers and engineers around the world. A popular local tourist destination, the Mediatheque serves the one million residents of Sendai as a powerful community resource. In it, Ito has employed an innovative and elegant structural system that flows between its six floors of playfully reimagined library space. In August the building was only half open to the public.

August 2011: Sendai Mediatheque

The Mediatheque itself suffered only minor damage following last March's earthquake (tsunami flood waters did not reach most of residential Sendai), but at the close of Summer employees couldn't come for their shifts–their domestic lives still being in shambles. Many people working in Sendai lost their homes to the earthquake or the resulting tsunami. At the Mediatheque, and throughout the city, a policy developed to conserve electricity–rolling blackouts threatened the Tohoku region while the damaged Fukushima power plant conducted extensive safety tests. Indoor spaces remained dark and warm through the summer.

Yet these setbacks haven't stopped a modest art exhibition from occupying the Mediatheque's lobby: Minna No Ie, or "Everybody's House," shows drawings from many ranks of Japan's post-tsunami landscape, drawings from local schoolchildren sit beside those of world-renown architects Steven Holl, Tadao Ando and Frank Gehry. Prompted by Ito, the exhibition invited illustrated thoughts on "places for people to share memories" and "houses of hope through difficulty." The exhibition is one small attempt at correcting to an exacerbated situation–offering solace to a region in many ways paralyzed by bureaucratic sluggishness and the sheer volume of work required to simply prepare to rebuild. In an environment like this, small gestures become indispensable for the resolve of the disaster victims. It's a long road ahead.

Sendai, August 2011: Sendai Mediatheque

Sendai, August 2011: Sendai Mediatheque "Minna No Ie" Exhibition

Hiromi Tabei, our intrepid liaison between Architecture for Humanity headquarters, Students Rebuild and the Japan team, recently recounted her trip to Japan in August. On the one hand, there were the festivals, the design student charrettes, the Mediatheque exhibitions...and a characteristically youthful ambition to keep moving. On the other hand, the frustrations of meeting with community and government representatives have left a very real understanding of the invisible factors impeding a timely restoration of so many people to the familiarity and security of their pre-quake lives.

Sendai Saiwai-cho Center

Across town from the wounded Mediatheque, Hiromi had her first encounter with the complications of devastation, far worse than the Mediatheque's. The 20-year-old Sendai Saiwai-cho Community Center & Youth Center suffered extensively from the earthquake. The roof is caving in. Glass blocks have fallen out and continue to be knocked loose during aftershocks, to shatter on the sidewalk. The Center had flown under the radar of Sendai's City Hall, and thus no inspections have been made or action taken.

Sendai, August 2011: Sawai-Cho Community Center

Sendai, August 2011: Sawai-Cho Community Center, caved-in roof

Sendai, August 2011: Sawai-Cho Community Center, shattered glass blocks

During their stay in Sendai, Hiromi and fellow Fellow Kumiko Fujiwara (who in her spare time operates SOAT–Supporting Organization for Artists of Tohoku) saw to raising attention for the Youth Center from the City of Sendai, and pursue repairs. The two ended up leaving their pleas in a questionable status–City Hall was not immediately responsive, and the tour of Tohoku needed to continue.

Fixing things shouldn't be so hard. Students Rebuild has committed $500,000 to Japan through its Paper Cranes for Japan initiative–and private donations have more than doubled that sum. Still the Community Center turned down private funding. This is because a federal restriction prevents assistance to buildings, programs or institutions already receiving non-government aid. The result: owners of these hobbled buildings hold out for aid programs preoccupied with a failing nuclear power plant.

Inundation Zones

Tsunami-affected areas, despite their much more widespread damage, fair no better odds of receiving the federal attention withheld from Sendai. The Pacific coast through Tohoku is remote, its villages small and populations aging. A large disconnect has grown between this area that still struggles with clearing sites and the metropolitan Tokyo who largely expects reconstruction to be wrapping up.

Three hours Northeast of Sendai, only half of Rikuzen-Takata's 23,000 pre-quake inhabitants can still call the town home. Here at Headquarters, Hiromi pulls out an atlas of the Tohoku coast to show me the extent of the damage. The atlas, printed late last Spring, highlights the areas inundated by the tsunami. She sweeps her hand across downtown: "All this is gone." The village had been swept out, City Hall has vanished. And Japan has placed a moratorium on permanent construction all along the Tohoku coast.* Hiromi points to a couple bluffs, in white. "Markets have been built here." These markets are by necessity temporary: prefabricated structures with concrete block floors, no bells or whistles. )No permanent concrete foundations meets the definition of "temporary architecture.") Still, the newly-transient population needs places to shop.

Atlas showing tsunami inundation zones: focus on Rikuzen-Takata
Tsunami atlas showing the town of Rikuzen-Takata

All throughout Tohoku, temporary housing has sprung up to cater to the thousands of mainly families and the elderly who have nowhere else to go. These camps bear an eerie resemblance to what I've seen on my trips to Haiti–the anonymous gravel basin, the uncharacteristic row after row of fragile single-unit residences. The nonsensical jumble of people into impromptu neighborhoods. The lack of services, schools, or community spaces–and the disregard for their importance.

Tohoku, August 2011: Temporary housing

That's not to say conditions between Japan and Haiti are identical–you can see that each Japanese shelter is provided rigid walls and propane, a far cry from the disintegrating USAID tents still dominating the Caribbean nation (although that's changing). But unlike Haiti, Japanese shelters will have to be prepared for the winter, somehow. "It's going to be cold," Hiromi confirms. The temporary camps are slated for disassembly after two years–though similar camps set up after the 1995 Kobe earthquake were inhabited for five.

Another difference between the two affected regions are the demographics. For the Japanese disaster, the need to rebuild schools is hardly as urgent. The higher proportion of public schools means that more facilities will be guaranteed government support. What's more, Tohoku (as with the rest of Japan, to a lesser extent) has an aging population, and the pressures right now of overpopulated classrooms are much more manageable than those in Haiti. For Japan, the highest priority is housing–and the people that permanent homes can empower to return to their jobs.

Down the coast, a particular mountain of rubble is being amassed of what used to be the town of Ishinomaki. It's estimated that the tsunami created here 100 years worth of trash, and there's no infrastructure in Japan to process this much sheer MATERIAL. As part of this gargantuan effort, an estimated 1500 dump truck loads are brought to the collection site with each passing day. Crews have begun sorting out concrete, metal, and wood for potential recycling or reuse, despite the lack of clear direction how the material will enter the reuse stream.

Rikuzen-Takata, August 2011: A huge pile of rubble

And then there's the sludge. Every ground surface, over the floor every shop and home in the inundation zone, a layer of wet, pulpy goo has been left by the tsunami. Currently people are trying to work with the new-found resource, mixing it with concrete as an additive, for instance. No one knows what to do with the farmland turned into a barren seawatery wasteland.

A Future for Fishing

Next stop: Maeami-Hama, a typical Tohoku fishing village. Twenty or so fishermen's houses had been built on a series of terraces rising away from the water–this is the extent of the Maeami community. All but a handful of these houses have been destroyed, along with boat docks and fishing infrastructure. The village's only industry has completely shut down. Between June and August, site clearing throughout the village has proceeded at a snail's pace. This part of Tohoku is very remote and it's difficult for trucks, machinery and materials to move from place to place. By the 5th of August, however, sites in the village had finally been cleared. Now the fishermen are facing the choice of whether to build temporary structures on their old land, or re-site a permanent house farther inland and commute in...whenever the boat docks get rebuilt.

Maemi-Hama, June-August 2011: Site clearing

"It's a kind of chicken-and-egg thing,"Hiromi explains. At this point, the home- and business-owners are wondering whether it's even worth moving back. Suppose the Government never lifts the restriction to permanently rebuild along the coast–and the temporary housing reaches its two-year expiration date: Japan would be faced with the permanent relocation of thousands of not millions of people. The logistics of purchasing land to relocate schools, hundreds of buildings and institutions is mind-numbing. People don't know where to start. Permanent reconstruction is at a stand-still.

Urban Acupuncture

In tight situations such as this, the practice of "urban acupuncture," can bring immediate community relief within very small footprint budget constraints.

In this disaster, like any other, governments, businesses and organizations tend to make a lot of commitments, and then there's no follow through. During her trip, Hiromi repeatedly saw the impact of well-meaning architects and professors making designs and holding community charrettes that ultimately lead to nothing. The government hasn't been there recently to pick up and build projects–something the Japanese have been accustomed to since World War 2. "It's better by far to get something going on a small project, and start helping these communities right away." Make a partnership, develop a working plan, see it get built.

Take a couple projects in the village of Motoyoshi, 2.5 hours from Sendai. The Ooya Green Sports Park project is sited on donated land and will help a junior high school whose own athletic fields have become temporary housing. It's a simple project–a football pitch with spectator seating–but a crucial community resource. Architecture for Humanity is mobilizing funds to bring it online, and have projected completion by the end of November.

Motoyoshi, August 2011: Jr High School temporary housing and Ooya Green site plan
Motoyoshi, August 2011: Jr High School temporary housing; Ooya Green site plan

The Sports Park comes on the heels of the nearby Hikado Marketplace which opened in July. An outdoor deck has been built onto an existing restaurant building, inviting patrons to rediscover a community space. The deck has been assembled from salvaged materials and lumber with help from a team of shrine carpenters. The Marketplace (and host of "the hottest lunch hour in Motoyoshi") bears perhaps more significance than even its impeccable craft could lend it–and that's the point. People have been inspired.

Higashi-san, a Motoyoshi native, shares his enthusiasm: "Everybody is excited to have this community deck. This marketplace is going to become the new hub of this neighborhood. We're going to help each other to rebuild our community."

Bottom-Up or Bust

Though the Tohoku population is aging, Hiromi attests there is the overwhelming DESIRE to rebuild. That's about as much momentum that Architecture for Humanity really needs. The organization enters the scene as a grassroots catalyst, at the request of local communities to work with them to rebuild.

"The projects we finish establish a reputation that we make things happen. We're building trust with every grand opening." And getting a much larger ball on the roll. Small projects like the sports pitch and marketplace have a way of spreading the enthusiasm to other construction projects, and, against odds, structures enable life to return.

Incidentally, a couple weeks following Hiromi and Kumiko's campaign, the City of Sendai started repair work on the Sawai-cho Community Center.


*People not familiar with tsunamis may want to read this Outside magazine article. The article discusses a "sleeper fault" off the Oregon coast and explains how tsunamis work and how coastal populations tend to react. Also, recently a Youtube video circulated our office of a recording of the tsunami striking a village in Japan–warning, it's strong stuff.