Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Mayor’s Vision Saves Japanese Village from Tsunami

Japan is in the midst of starting recovery from the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011. Many of us have seen the horrific scenes of total devastation from the tsunami replayed on countless videos.

Seawall at Miyako City, Japan being overtopped
The city of Miyako in Iwate prefecture was devastated, despite a 10-meter (33-foot) seawall designed to protect the city from tsunamis. This time, the giant wave easily topped the wall, and surged into the city. The heartbreaking scene of Miyako’s destruction has been played over and over on Japanese TV, a grim tribute to the force of the earthquake and the tsunami.

As I watched the scene from Miyako, I thought, “If only that seawall had been a little higher...” If only the area had been protected just a little more, perhaps those people would have been spared the worst of the tsunami.
The Story of Fudai's Seawall 

Happily, there was such a place: the village of Fudai (普代) in Iwate prefecture. Fudai was protected by a 15.5-meter (50-foot) seawall, and the tsunami was no match for it. Fudai had no deaths in the disaster.

The story of how Fudai came to have such a high seawall begins with the great earthquake and tsunami in 1896, during Japan’s Meiji period. That year the village was struck by a 15-meter (49-foot) tsunami, and again in 1933, the village suffered another powerful tsunami. Altogether, 439 lives were lost.

Following those tsunami, village mayor Kotoku Wamura (和村幸得) pressed for a seawall at least 15 meters high, often repeating the tales handed down to him growing up: that the devastating 1896 tsunami was 15 meters.

The project was a huge one—a wall to hold back a surging wave five stories high and over 200 meters (650 feet) long. During the planning stage, there was strong opposition to building such an excessively high wall—after all, a 10-meter wall, dubbed “the Great Wall,” had protected parts of nearby Miyako City from the tsunami caused by a Chilean earthquake in 1960.

But Wamura did not budge, insisting on a 15-meter-plus wall. “明治に15メートルの波が来た” (In the Meiji earthquake, a 15-meter wave came), he was fond of reminding skeptics.

Wamura prevailed, and the seawall was ultimately completed in 1967. Floodgates were added in 1984.

Owing to Wamura’s steadfast insistence—and a vision of the protection Fudai needed, based on stories and knowledge handed down to him—this tiny village was spared the great tsunami of 2011. 63-year-old Sadaji Oota, gazing out at the wall from a Fudai izakaya he runs, put it best: “If we didn’t have this wall, we’d all be dead.”

As the tsunami approached on March 11, about 100 dock workers took refuge on the top of the big wall, and not one got so much as wet feet.

If you’d like to read this story in its original Japanese, please visit:

Forewarned Is Forearmed

Or, as the Japanese say:

            sonae areba urei nashi

In contrast to the accusations of inadequate disaster planning on the part of Tokyo Electric at their Fukushima nuclear power plant, Fudai is a reminder of the power of one man's vision and determination. Wamura knew what had to be done, overcame protests from all sides, and, in the end, saved his village and its people.

Fundraising for Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief 

Nihongo-Pro is raising money for earthquake and tsunami relief operations in Japan. In addition to a corporate donation, the company pledges an additional $10 donation for each contribution received via the Nihongo-Pro web site through April 30, 2011.