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World / Asia Pacific

March 31, 2011

Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

In Japan, Seawall Offered a False Sense of Security

A ship that was swept ashore in the tsunami of March 11, damaging part of a breakwater, seen Wednesday in Kamaishi, Japan, 50 miles south of Taro. More Photos »

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By NORIMITSU ONISHI

ARO, Japan — So unshakable was this town’s faith in its sea wall and its ability to save residents from any tsunami that some rushed toward it after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of northeast Japan on the afternoon of March 11.

was reinforced by an outer one, and they stretched 1.5 miles across the bay here. The surface was so wide that high school students jogged on it, townspeople strolled on it, and some rode their bicycles on it. A local junior high school song even urged students: “Look up at our sea wall. The challenges of tsunamis are endless.”

After all, the sea wall was one of Japan’s tallest and longest, called the nation’s “Great Wall of China” by the government and news media. Its inner wall

But within a few minutes on March 11, the tsunami’s waves tore through the outer wall before easily surging over the 34-foot-high inner one, sweeping

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away those who had climbed on its top, and quickly taking away most of the town of Taro. “For us, the sea wall was a source of pride, an asset, something that we believed in,” said Eiko Araya, 58, the principal of Taro No. 3 Elementary School. Like several other survivors, Ms. Araya was walking atop the inner wall late Wednesday afternoon, peering down at the ruins of Taro. “We felt protected, I believe. That’s why our feeling of loss is even greater now.”

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Tsunamis are an integral part of the history of Japan’s Sanriku region, which includes this fishing town of about 4,400. People speak of tsunamis as if they were enemies that “take away” the inhabitants here. Perhaps because the loss of life over the decades has been so great, a local teaching, called tendenko, unsentimentally exhorts people to head for higher ground immediately after an earthquake, without stopping to worry about anybody else. Sanriku is also home to some of the world’s most elaborate anti-tsunami infrastructure, including concrete sea walls that transform seaside communities into garrisonlike towns with limited views of the ocean. About 50 miles south of here, in the city of Kamaishi, the world’s deepest breakwater was completed two years ago after three decades of construction, at a cost of $1.5 billion. The recent tsunami damaged, perhaps irreparably, Kamaishi’s breakwater, as well as countless sea walls and other facilities designed to shield communities against tsunamis. Researchers are starting to assess whether the sea walls and breakwaters minimized the force of the tsunami even as some experts are already calling for a stop to more coastline engineering, saying money should be spent instead on education and evacuation drills. As Japan undertakes the monumental task of rebuilding areas of its northeast, it will also face the hard choice of whether to resurrect the expensive anti-tsunami infrastructure — much of which was built during Japan’s economic ascendancy.

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“We have to provide a permanent feeling of security so that people will live here,” Mr. Shimozawa said.

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Osamu Shimozawa, a city official in Kamaishi, said a decision not to rebuild would be tantamount to “abandoning rural Japan.”

Kamaishi’s 207-foot deep breakwater — sections of which now lie broken in the harbor — blunted the force of the tsunami, according to preliminary investigations by independent civil engineers. In Kamaishi, 648 deaths have

been confirmed, while 630 people are still listed as missing. “The damage was limited, compared to other places,” said Shoichi Sasaki, an official at the Ministry of Land’s office in Kamaishi. It was an opinion shared by most people interviewed in Kamaishi, many of whom had witnessed construction crews erecting the breakwater from 1978 to 2009. Toru Yaura and his wife, Junko, both 60, were clearing the debris from the first floor of their home, several blocks from the water. “Without the breakwater, the impact would probably have been greater,” Mr. Yaura said, explaining that the water rose up to his waist on the second floor of his two-story house. Kantaro Suzuki contributed reporting. The Yauras, who are staying at a shelter, were initially trapped inside their home, alone without electricity, the night after the tsunami — which also happened to be Mr. Yaura’s 60th birthday. “It was a romantic birthday, with candles,” he said. “We laughed, the two of us.” Here in Taro, the number of dead was expected to rise above 100. Instead of protecting the townspeople, the sea wall may have lulled them with a false sense of security, said Isamu Hashiba, 66, who had driven here from a nearby district to attend a friend’s cremation. His wife, Etsuko, 55, said, “There were people who were looking at the tsunami from the sea wall because they felt safe.” The town began building the inner wall after a tsunami decimated Taro’s population in 1933. The wall was reinforced and expanded in the 1960s.

the most recent tsunami because she happened to be at a day care center for the elderly. “People say that those who live in Taro will encounter a tsunami twice in their lives,” Ms. Araya said. “That’s the fate of people born in Taro.” Perhaps because it was their fate, because they were used to rising from tsunamis every few generations, some of those walking on the sea wall were already thinking about the future. Ryuju Yamamoto, 66, peered down, trying to spot his house below, but was more interested in talking about the woman he was wooing. A tatami-mat maker, he pointed below to a spot where he had found his dresser and tatami mat, as well as a doll he had received as a wedding gift three decades ago. His father had forced him into an arranged marriage, he said, that lasted 40 days. “I learned that she already had this,” he said, pointing to his thumb, signifying a boyfriend. “And she refused to break it off.” Unexpectedly, at a year-end party for dog owners last December, Mr. Yamamoto said he saw a woman he had met while walking his dog. The woman lived with her mother, who, Mr. Yamamoto learned, teaches taishogoto, a Japanese musical instrument. So Mr. Yamamoto was now taking lessons from the mother, regularly visiting their home, which was unaffected by the tsunami. “That’s my strategy,” Mr. Yamamoto said, adding that he was making progress. After learning that he was now living in a shelter, he said, the mother had invited him to take a bath in their home. “I’m going tomorrow,” he said. Kantaro Suzuki contributed reporting.

In the 1933 tsunami, said Ms. Araya, the school principal, her mother lost all her relatives, except one uncle, at the age of 11. Her mother, now 89, survived

Copyright © 2010 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted with permission. For subscriptions to The New York Times, please call 1-800-NYTIMES. Visit us online at www.nytimes.com. For more information about reprints contact PARS International Corp. at 212-221-9595 x425.


In Japan Seawall Offered a False Sense of Security