Tsunami-hit Japanese city now a post-disaster model for other nations

The Nobiru Community Centre, located in a neighbourhood built for residents whose homes were destroyed by the tsunami that struck Japan's north-eastern coast in 2011. Higashi-Matsushima city in Miyagi prefecture has demonstrated that reconstruction and ec
The Nobiru Community Centre, located in a neighbourhood built for residents whose homes were destroyed by the tsunami that struck Japan's north-eastern coast in 2011. Higashi-Matsushima city in Miyagi prefecture has demonstrated that reconstruction and economic revitalisation can be achieved if people work together, even in the wake of a crippling disaster.ST PHOTO: CHARISSA YONG

Japan has extensive experience in recovery and rebuilding in the wake of natural disasters. The Straits Times reports on how it is sharing know-how in this and other areas with countries in South-east Asia.

Six years ago, the seaside city of Higashi-Matsushima, famed for its bays and beaches, was destroyed in minutes by the tsunami that struck Japan's north-eastern coast.

The giant wave killed 1,134 people, or 3 per cent of the city's population, destroyed 73 per cent of its homes and submerged two-thirds of its urban area.

Today, it has become a model for other cities tackling reconstruction and disaster risk management.

The lessons it learnt are now being passed on to South-east Asian nations. Take Indonesia, where Banda Aceh province has yet to get back on its feet after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, and the Philippines, hit by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

Through the Japan International Cooperation Agency, Higashi-Matsushima signed a memorandum of agreement with Banda Aceh City to cooperate in disaster prevention, reconstruction, economic revitalisation and other areas.

So far, the Japanese city has hosted 30 officials from Banda Aceh, some of whom were part of a one-year training programme.

Said Mr Yagi Shigekazu, a section chief in the city's reconstruction department: "As two cities that suffered very much... they share an agenda of regional revitalisation."


  • 1 billion

    The amount in kg of rubble left by the tsunami in Higashi-Matsushima in 2011 - 110 times the amount of the city's general waste in a year.

  • 99%

    The percentage of disaster waste recycled by the city. It included wood scraps, concrete pieces and incombustible mixed waste.

The 2011 tsunami left 1 billion kg of rubble in Higashi-Matsushima - 110 times the amount of general waste generated by the city in a year.

Amazingly, it succeeded in recycling 99.2 per cent of the disaster waste, made up mainly of wood scraps, concrete pieces and incombustible mixed waste.

The process began by sorting the rubble from disaster-stricken houses into 14 categories on site. It was then processed, for instance, by smashing it into smaller pieces, using mobile construction machines. Finally, the rubble was sorted by hand into 19 categories.

The recycling was driven by the city's philosophy that the rubble could be turned into resources if sorted, said Mr Shigekazu. Otherwise, it would just be waste.

"This initiative can be implemented in any community if it is prepared in advance," he said, adding that the key is cooperation between local construction associations, the city and its citizens.

Higashi-Matsushima, in fact, had signed an agreement in 2003 with the local construction association, which promised the aid of its men and equipment should disaster strike the area.

​The story of the city's reconstruction is displayed in detail inside the community centre. The seaside village of Nobiru was devastated by the tsunami. ST PHOTO: CHARISSA YONG

The city's prescience was based on science. It had been hit by three earthquakes registering 5 to 6.2 on the Richter scale on July 26, 2003.

After these quakes, scientists warned of a 90 per cent chance of a large quake on the shores of its prefecture in the following 20 years.

Said Mr Shigekazu: "Higashi-Matsushima prepared for the 2011 disaster because it knew it was coming."

The tsunami also showed the city where it was vulnerable and, to avoid being crippled by floods in the future, it laid down stricter rules for new buildings in tsunami-prone areas.

Houses and medical and childcare facilities can no longer be built in the zone closest to the seashore.

Even buildings farther inland must have foundations made of reinforced concrete, as well as ground floors that are at least 1.5m higher than the adjacent road.

Along the coast, tsunami surveillance remote cameras were installed. To every house, new disaster-prevention radios were given.

To save as many lives as possible in the future, the city is teaching its citizens to evacuate to higher ground wherever possible.

This knowledge saved lives in 2011, said locals such as Ms Emiko Saitou of Miyato Island, the largest island in Matsushima Bay.

Ms Emiko Saitou at the centre. Her father and daughter survived the tsunami by climbing up a mountain on Miyato Island, where their home was. ST PHOTO: CHARISSA YONG

"We islanders have a folk tale - if you feel an earthquake, a tsunami is sure to come - so you need to go to higher ground if an earthquake happens," said Ms Saitou, 47.

"That's why only a handful of people died in my community. But my daughter saw the big black wall of water. She still doesn't want to talk about it to this day," she said.

Ms Saitou was working inland on the mainland when the tsunami hit, but her father, 77, and daughter, 14, were on the island.

They survived by climbing up the mountain on which their house had been built.

Higashi-Matsushima also hopes its Asean partners can consider some of its more creative solutions.

For instance, it needed to find a use for a park that had been damaged by the tsunami.

The land ended up being the site of the new Kizuna Solar Park, a mega solar facility that generates 2.1 million kilowatt-hours a year, equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of 600 families.

But the city, which counts commercial fishing and tourism as its main industries, faces an uphill task in wooing back tourists, whose annual numbers plunged from one million to 41,000 after the tsunami.

Many of the area's 40 guest houses were damaged, and only nine are open currently.

"We used to see many visitors," said resident Shinichi Kishima, 67, a local tour guide who takes small group tours to nature spots.

Tourism here has yet to recover fully. Last year, one of the six closed beaches was reopened, and sightseeing boats to Sagakei Gorge were restarted in 2015.

A top draw - an annual air show by the Japan Air Self-Defence Force's Blue Impulse aerobatic demonstration team - will resume this year after a six-year hiatus.

There are many requests for disaster education and study tours, and preparations are in progress, said Mr Shigekazu, adding: "True reconstruction needs time."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2017, with the headline 'Tsunami: Sharing lessons across borders'. Print Edition | Subscribe