The ‚Great Wall‘ of Japan – a shield against tsunamis


Aminath Shifleen, Taro, Japan, Haveeru Online
Oct 02, 2015 – 07:18
  • News reporters on top of the massive seawall in Taro District, Miyako City: great sections of the wall had been destroyed in the 2011 Pacific Ocean tsunami. HAVEERU PHOTO/AMINATH SHIFLEEN

In spite of the tsunamis, great and small, that the people of Taro District in Miyako City have to face almost every year, most of the residents harbour no thoughts of leaving the area.

Taro Kanko Hotel is situated some 100 metres away from the coastline in Miyako City, the easternmost point of Japan’s main island Honshu. Manager Satoshi Ito was awaiting his guests in the fourth floor of the hotel. It was the aftermath of a great earthquake in the area; by then, the meteorological centres had already issued possible tsunami warnings. However, for the people of Miyako, tsunamis are a norm of life.
Such disasters are almost annual incidents in the area, where residents seek shelter and protection from tsunamis behind gigantic seawalls constructed several years ago for that purpose. That was the reason why Satoshi remained calm as he waited for his visitors, despite the tsunami warnings.

A building in Taro District to indicate the height of tsunami waves: the highest wave to hit Japan was the 2011 tsunami. HAVEERU PHOTO/AMINATH SHIFLEEN
However, the tsunami triggered by the massive Pacific Ocean earthquake on March 11, 2011 turned out to be the greatest tsunami catastrophe to hit Japan in its history. The immense wave washed across the region, taking 20,000 lives and Japan’s economic strength with it.
March 11, 2011 – the Pacific Ocean tsunami
  • The fourth biggest tsunami in recorded world history. The third biggest was the 2004 tsunami triggered by the mega earthquake in Sumatra, Indonesia, which hit Asia.
  • Time of the earthquake – 2:46 p.m.
  • Richter magnitude of the earthquake – 9.0
  • Height of the tsunami wave – 128 feet (39 metres)
  • The wave reached 10 kilometres inland from the coastline
  • Tsunami affected 561 kilometres in Japan
  • Effects of the tsunami also reached some areas of the US West Coast
“The Great Wall of Japan”
In spite of the tsunamis, great and small, that the people of Taro District in Miyako City have to face almost every year, most of the residents harbour no thoughts of leaving the area. The people of Taro had faced another massive tsunami several years ago as well. The district is now popularly known among locals as “Tsunami Taro”.

The massive seawall built along the Taro District coastline: it was constructed half a century ago to protect the district from tsunamis. HAVEERU PHOTO/AMINATH SHIFLEEN
The livelihood of this seaside district revolves around fishing, and the harvest and trade of seaweed. 
The population of 4500 strongly believes in the reliability of the “Great Wall of Japan” constructed around the district to protect them from tsunamis.
This massive seawall is popularly nicknamed after the iconic Great Wall of China. First constructed around half a century ago, the wall was shaped like a giant “V”, with the converging point of the V facing inland. Built from boulders, the wall had stood five metres above ground, ten metres above sea level, and stretched on for 2.4 kilometres. Its V shape had served as a buffer to lower the pressure and impact of incoming tsunami waves.
With the fear that one seawall would not be enough to hold back a tsunami, two more identical walls were constructed along the first. The people of Taro District had then lived behind those walls, under their shelter and protection.
While the first wall was made with boulders, the latter dual walls were constructed with cement and concrete, using more modern technology. The doors cut into these high seawalls are always left open, except in the case of an earthquake in which they are immediately closed. This is done manually by volunteer firefighters stationed at the district.
When the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA), incessantly on alert for natural disasters, issued the tsunami warning after recording the mega quake in 2011, the people of Taro and other coastline districts of Japan did not anticipate a tsunami of so gigantic a scale. 
The incoming wall of water was first spotted by Satoshi Ito, who had been on the fourth floor of Taro Kanko Hotel. Even then, he had seen people walking along the roads and milling about their houses without a worry. The towering seawalls had veiled the impending danger from their sight.
The moment he saw the colossal wave on the horizon, Satoshi had yelled the warning at the top of his voice. Knowing there was no survival were he to descend, he had instead climbed to the sixth floor of the hotel. The wave, measuring some 17 metres in height, only took bare seconds to reach the hotel located 100 metres away from the coastline. The tsunami had reached as high as the fourth storey of the hotel, which had fortunately been empty of guests at the time.

Houses of Taro District destroyed in the 2011 tsunami: majority of Taro’s residents lost their lives in this incident
Satoshi had begun to record a video of the tsunami wave on his phone almost as soon as he saw it. (He still has the video, but is not permitted to publicise it. However, he showed the video to the gathering of international news reporters who arrived to observe the damages of the tsunami’s aftermath.)
The video depicted that most of the residents remained unaware of the wave even by the time it reached the seawall. However, people on the coast had witnessed the incoming wave and run to take refuge on rocks and higher ground.
Hence, the highest amount of casualties was among the people living in the shelter of the first seawall. The impact of the tsunami had destroyed a part of that massive structure. The seawalls had also prevented victims’ bodies from being washed out to see by the receding wave.
Satoshi witnessed one of the greatest tragedies to ever hit Japan first-hand. There had been no way for him to escape the hotel as the wave flooded the streets and wrecked houses. He had also been the only person at Taro Kanko Hotel at the time.
Speaking to reporters at his new hotel, which is built on a hill overlooking the area devastated by the tsunami, Satoshi said that, from the first moment, he had realised that the tsunami would be bigger than usual, but he had not anticipated how dangerous it would be. 
With no way of escaping, Satoshi had spent that night in the hotel, which had been flooded up to its fourth floor and greatly damaged. Surrounded by the demolished remains of his livelihood, Satoshi had had no choice but to wait, in hopes that his family was still alive.
People of Taro during the tsunami
Those who witnessed the incoming tsunami had immediately run for the roads leading to higher ground. Since Japan frequently experiences earthquakes and tsunamis, nearly every city of the country has “Evacuation Route” signs indicating the directions with arrows. The residents of Taro district had run for these higher grounds, along narrow roads cut into the hillsides.

News reporters climb one of the Evacuation Route roads leading from Taro: around 300 Taro residents had fled for higher ground using these route during the 2011 tsunami. HAVEERU PHOTO/AMINATH SHIFLEEN
A school is located not too far away from the Taro seawall on higher ground. The survivors of the tsunami had taken refuge there, but was forced to evacuate and go even higher when the wave began to reach the school. However, 300 people running for safety along tiny, narrow roads was a huge ordeal.
Students from the school had taken the initiative to carry the elderly on their own backs. The survivors of Taro were saved by the efforts and support of those young teenagers.

One of the Evacuation Route roads leading from Taro: around 300 Taro residents had fled for higher ground using these routes during the 2011 tsunami. HAVEERU PHOTO/AMINATH SHIFLEEN
Still behind the walls!
Taro has begun to inhabit again after the calamity of that day. The broken seawall has been restored and projects are underway to increase the heights of the rest. As for the people of Taro District, they still desire to live behind the shelter of those walls, in their own homes.
Mayor Masanori Yamamoto of Miyako City, where Taro District is located, declared that was not a good decision as they may not be able to estimate the scale of the next tsunami to hit the region.
The mayor explained that while some residents of Taro had moved to the new housing units built on higher ground by the government, there were still some locals who refuse to relocate – the reason being that most of them are elderly folks who cannot challenge the difficult walk up and down the hills. Relocation would also remove them farther from the train station and stores.
Yamamoto said he respects the decisions of people who do not want to leave the only homes they have known from the very beginning, and that he would not force them to relocate. He is prepared to offer all the services they require as they see fit.

An ancient stone tablet in Taro, warning people what to do during tsunamis: such stone tablets were used around Japan before the era of media facilities. HAVEERU PHOTO/AMINATH SHIFLEEN
The 2011 tsunami caused damages worth billions of dollars to Miyako City. However, the city is being rebuilt and inhabited again with the financial aid of international benefactors and the Japanese government.
Though the tsunami washed away the homes of Taro’s residents living in the shelter of the seawalls, the Taro Kanko Hotel is still standing. It now remains only as a memorial of the tragedy that struck Japan that day. A new hotel has been built for Satoshi, on a high hill not too far from the old hotel. However, it presents Satoshi with a view overlooking his district devastated by the tsunami only a few years ago.

Taro District in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture, Japan: an area boasting of natural beauty. HAVEERU PHOTO/AMINATH SHIFLEEN
Bittersweet, Satoshi commented that despite the destruction of his home, he is grateful that his life was spared.