The following was originally published as part of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals‘s “Speaking Out” series. It is republished with their permission.
The fifth ocean memorial service for victims in the Great East Japan Earthquake took place in Kesennuma Bay of Miyagi Prefecture in the spring of last year. Kesennuma suffered severe damage in the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear power plant explosion which struck northeastern Japan in March of 2011. I attended the memorial service in part to observe the reconstruction of Kesennuma and also of nearby Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture.
Private-sector volunteers sponsored the annual memorial service with support from the Kesennuma municipal government and other organizations. The service paid homage to the many people still missing now nearly six years since the disaster. While remembering the lives lost in the earthquake and its aftermath, during the memorial my thoughts also turned to the reconstruction of Kesennuma. When I looked at Oshima Island and Kesennuma from a ship which toured Kesennuma Bay after the memorial service, I was surprised to see an unusual alteration of the natural shoreline. My surprise deepened when I later visited Rikuzentakata.
Seawall represents destruction of nature
Kesennuma’s post-earthquake reconstruction plan carries the tagline “living with the sea.” This catchphrase is out of place with the 25- to 30-foot-high concrete seawalls which have been built on the coast of Oshima and many other islands in Kesennuma Bay. In some places, residents’ houses are completely hidden behind the giant walls. Even unmanned islands are surrounded by seawalls under construction.
“Such construction could kill the sea of Kesennuma in the near future,” I told a fishery union leader.
“We also oppose the construction,” he replied. “But the national government provides funding and the prefectural government controls the bay. We cannot raise objections if we are told that seawalls are designed to protect human lives and livelihoods from future tsunamis,” the fishery union leader continued.
I understood his points. Of course, protecting lives and property from disasters is essential. However, I am also worried about the effects of the seawall construction on oysters, sea squirts, scallops and seaweeds. The sea turned against the citizens of Kesennuma and Rikuzentakata in March of 2011, but the sea had long provided a living for the people of that area before 2011, and is beginning to do so again.
Coastal environment conservation is important for humans to live with the sea. Fishermen who live in Kesennuma are well aware that it is of paramount importance to conserve the environment closer to nature, such as in the mountains, inland areas, rivers and river mouths. All of these things greatly affect the vitality and sustainability of fishing grounds in the sea around Kesennuma.
Before the March, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Rikuzentakata’s Hirota Bay was surrounded by 70,000 pine trees, including a miraculous one which survived the disaster. The scallops and seaweed which thrived in the nutrients and clean water provided by this stand of trees may soon be choking in a sea cut off from its natural connection with the land around it.
Surprisingly, earth and rocks have been taken from mountains along the Kesen River flowing into Hirota Bay and moved by conveyor belt to Hirota Bay coast in order to fill in the towering seawalls. The miraculous pine tree is now so surrounded by backfill that it is nearly impossible to find. From Hirota Bay, we cannot even see the land behind the seawalls. As the 2011 tsunami moved up the Kesen River, it wiped out destroying the river’s banks. Seawalls are now being constructed along the riverside, as well. The seawalls do not represent the reconstruction of the natural environment, but, rather, the aggressive destruction of nature following the disaster of six years before.
It is not too late to reconsider
As a former member of the Maritime Self-Defense Forces who has spent his life at sea, I have devoted much thought to marine environmental use and conservation, and am well aware of nature’s awesome power. Humans have learned since ancient times that the sea is beyond human understanding and control. We can coexist with the sea, but we cannot tame it. Instead of countering nature by constructing 30-foot-high concrete seawalls against future tsunamis and storm waves, we should consider other measures to avoid tsunamis and protect human lives. It is not too late to reconsider the seawall construction plan. Thousands of lives were tragically lost in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, but even more livelihoods are now at risk as Kesennuma and Rikuzentakata cut off the natural commerce between the land and the sea.
Koichi Furusho is the Director of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and former Chief of Staff, Maritime Self-Defense Force.