The Great East Japan Earthquake and Cultural Heritage: Towards an Archaeology of Disaster

Article excerpt


The earthquake that struck Japan on 11 March 2011, named the Great East Japan Earthquake by the Japanese government, was one of the largest seismic events the world has seen for generations. Akira Matsui reported his experience of visiting the areas devastated by the earthquake and tsunami soon afterwards, outlining the initial assessment of damage caused to museums and cultural heritage assets, and the plans for their rescue (Kaner et al. 2011; Matsui 2011 a). The present contribution reports how far the implementation of these plans has been successful, the prospects for the future, and situates all of this in a broader context of archaeological response to earthquakes.

This is not the first time that Japan has been obliged to address these matters. Within recent memory, the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake, which struck the city of Kobe and the surrounding region in 1995, resulted in the loss of more than 5000 lives and caused immense damage to cultural heritage. A systernatic rescue of cultural heritage assets, including archaeological sites, was then organised. The fact that Japan has experienced two major earthquakes within just 16 years compels us to start thinking seriously as to what we as archaeologists can do to prepare for future disasters of equal magnitude. In this globalised world, we also feel strongly that our experience, and what we have learnt, should be shared with colleagues the world over.


The event (Okamura)

The Great East Japan Earthquake affected a vast area, covering parts of the Tohoku and Kanto regions, and stretching for more than 500km from north to south (Figure 1). In Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures there was particularly severe damage. The consequent tsunami tidal wave reached more than 30m in height in some areas, inundated areas up to several kilometres inland, and destroyed virtually everybody and everything in its path. To make matters worse, the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station of the Tokyo Electric Power Company was catastrophically damaged and has since been causing serious radiation contamination. This has resulted in the evacuation of residents within a 20km radius of the plant. The serious radioactive contamination of the evacuation zone might make any excavation or other archaeological investigation, let alone re-habitation, impossible for many years to come.

The damage caused to cultural heritage was very serious and wide-ranging. Speaking only of designated national cultural properties, more than 700 are confirmed to have been damaged, including five national treasures (i.e. recognised as monuments of the highest importance for the nation), 160 important cultural properties, 90 historic sites and buildings, as well as hundreds of paintings, carvings, crafts, ancient documents, ethnological and archaeological artefacts (Agency for Cultural Affairs 2012). Museums and archives located near the coast were damaged by the tsunami, and those located inland by the strong tremor. The local administrative officers who are normally in charge of matters concerning cultural property protection and management naturally concentrated their work on the reconstruction of people's everyday lives. In many cases they themselves, and their families, were victims of the devastation.

Assessing the damage (Fujisawa)

Accurate estimation of the nature and scale of the destruction to cultural heritage remains impossible in many areas of the devastated zone, although assessment of the damage caused to important cultural properties has made some progress. Access to privately- owned cultural properties is particularly difficult, and it will be a long time before a complete and detailed picture of the devastation becomes available.

More cultural properties were damaged by the earthquake than the tsunami. The stone walls of many castles and fortresses were shaken, and numerous tohroh stone lanterns and monuments in temples and shrines collapsed. …