Disaster zones struggle with issue of saving 3/11 ruins


Tour guide Tsuyoshi Sawaguchi recently took an 11-member group from Kyushu University around the Taro district in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, to explain the impact of the tsunami that wrecked much of Japan’s northeastern coastline in March 2011.

“What is important is protecting your life by yourself. I want you all to think of that meaning with your loved ones,” said Sawaguchi, 36, after showing his guests from the southwest a DVD of video footage shot from the sixth floor of the former Taro Kanko Hotel immediately after the magnitude-9 earthquake.

It depicts the moment the sea rose as high as nearly 10 meters as a fierce wave suddenly engulfed the quiet town, including the squeaking of the seaside building.

The six-story building was submerged up to the fourth floor, while the walls on the first and second floors were washed away, leaving only a skeleton of its structure remaining.

“Although this area had been well maintained in terms of infrastructure, 181 people lost their lives. Many of them thought it would be fine because of the seawalls,” Sawaguchi said, referring to the double walls built in the wake of a tsunami in 1933. Parts of those walls, which were aimed at protecting the coastal district, were destroyed by the 2011 tsunami.

Residents in areas hit hardest by the disasters that left more than 20,000 people dead or missing are fighting to preserve the remains to pass down the lessons to future generations. Much of the ruins and other structures have disappeared over the past five years in the process of recovery.

The ruins of the Taro Kanko Hotel are one of the main stops on a “study disaster” tour that has attracted 100,000 people nationwide.

The city government has acquired ownership of the building, which is being refurbished for conservation so it can be opened to the public next month.

“Visible testimonies are needed to pass on (the memories) in a convincing manner,” said Yuki Matsumoto, 59, who managed the hotel.

But the “dark tourism” movement has left citizens divided.

Across the disaster-affected regions, some citizens are in favor of saving the remains to relay the experience to tourists or future generations, but others argue the structures should be immediately dismantled to prevent them from perpetually traumatizing the populace.

For example, the Sendai Municipal Government has chosen to conserve the Arahama Elementary School building, on top of which more than 300 people took shelter. The town of Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, is preserving items related to JR Tomioka Station, such as its ticket gate and signboard.

Debates on whether to keep these memorials are still underway in other towns.

Forty officials — including the town’s mayor — were killed while working in the former government building of the town of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture. Although Mayor Kozo Hirano was elected last August on his pledge to demolish the building, he was obliged to suspend the plan due to objections from the town assembly.

A group of high school students submitted petitions to the mayor in December, arguing the ruins should be kept.

Yuka Oguni, a third-year student at Otsuchi High School, hopes the building “will be saved for ourselves, our families and our children in the future.”

The 18-year-old, who has visited the sites of other tragedies around Japan, such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, said she was impressed by the power of these places.

It took 21 years before the city assembly in Hiroshima passed a resolution to preserve the rusting building after the city was destroyed by an atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945.

The icon of the globally known city, together with Nagasaki, was inscribed into UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites in 1996.

Families and citizens also remain split on what should be done with the former Okawa Elementary School building in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, where 84 students and staff died or went missing.

More than half of the residents in the region near the school were in support of razing it, while around 60 percent hoped for its conservation, according to a survey by the city government released in December.

A bitter court dispute has further confounded the situation.

The families of 23 students filed a lawsuit in 2014, demanding that the prefectural and municipal governments jointly pay ¥100 million in compensation for each child.

Mayor Hiroshi Kameyama has found himself under pressure to make a tough decision by the end of the month.

Over five years, a large part of the ruins in the disaster-hit areas have been scrapped amid a lack of local consent or as they were regarded as obstacles for reconstruction projects.

Among them were the Kyotoku Maru No. 18, a 330-ton fishing vessel washed ashore by tsunami in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, and the Unosumai district’s anti-disaster building in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, in which evacuees were killed.

Meanwhile, the Miyagi Prefectural Government has proposed a third alternative — putting the anti-disaster office building of Minamisanriku under its management by March 2031 to secure enough time for debates among the conflicting opinions. Forty-three people died when it was engulfed by the tsunami.

An advisory panel to the prefectural government said the building was worth preserving and called it a “symbol of the disaster” in its report compiled in January last year.

“What should we do to protect our lives? I’d like people in future generations to make the decision,” said Mayor Jin Sato, who initially planned to scrap the building but accepted an offer to preserve it from Gov. Yoshihiro Murai.