Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

'Building Back Better' along the Sanriku Coast of Tohoku, Japan: Five Years after the '3/11' Disaster

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

'Building Back Better' along the Sanriku Coast of Tohoku, Japan: Five Years after the '3/11' Disaster

Article excerpt

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This paper uses a Japanese example to addresses the complexity of long-term rebuilding after disasters, which is often seen as an understudied planning issue (Olshansky and Chang, 2009; Edgington, 2011; Daly and Feener, 2016). As noted by Olshansky et al. (2012) the study of post-disaster recovery is in its infancy, and there is as yet no united body of frameworks to guide researchers or practitioners. Few planners have conducted in-depth studies of recovery processes following more than one disaster, and this has further impeded the development of theory. Nonetheless, scholarly commentary and practitioner policy guidelines have stressed the concept of 'build back better. This is a long-standing public-policy aspiration, one that more recently became a guiding principle in reconstruction after the 2004 earthquake and devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean (Fan, 2013). 'Build back better' has been also adopted as part of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015-2030, by the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction held in Sendai, Japan, in March 2015 (UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015).

The present study contributes to our knowledge surrounding the complications of a 'build-back-better' approach in developed countries through a case study of reconstruction of the Sanriku coast in north-eastern Japan. This area is part of the Tohoku region of the country, an area that was devastated by a powerful magnitude-9 offshore earthquake and consequent tsunamis that hit many fishing villages along the Pacific coast on 11 March 2011; the so-called '3/11' disaster (Karan and Suganama, 2016). Figure i indicates the location of the Sanriku coastline in relation to Japan's major offshore fault lines and shows the eleven communities included in this research, together with the number of dead and missing after the tsunami event, and the number of houses destroyed. Since the catastrophe, national and local governments have attempted to reconstruct the battered coastline, focusing on rebuilding fishing harbours, relocating housing on higher ground away from the vulnerable coast, and trying to stimulate economic recovery in a region that was already losing jobs and people (Karan, 2016).

Conceptually, the paper addresses the many paradoxes of a 'building-back-better' approach to reconstruction. It explores the tensions inherent between a public-policy emphasis on increasing physical safety, through dramatic interventions such as the relocation of communities, and local residents' desires to return to pre-disaster conditions as soon as possible. Empirically, the research focuses on (a) progress made during the first five years in reconstructing the small fishing communities in the Sanriku region, (b) the Japanese government's official policy for rebuilding after catastrophic natural disasters and its 'build-back-better' philosophy, and (c) the problems incurred since 2011 through implementing disaster mitigation programmes and providing long-term housing for survivors. I argue that the ways in which build-back-better programmes have been carried out in Sanriku, involving construction of sea walls, introduction of coastal 'buffer zones', raising low-lying land and relocating people to higher ground, have not been without challenges, controversy and at times contestation, causing obstacles to speedy construction and delays in providing more permanent housing. These features have influenced the overall rapidity of recovery and the willingness of survivors to commit to their communities. I contend that the acceleration of population decline in the Sanriku region throws doubt on the usefulness of build-back-better approaches to reconstruction.

The research is based on a review of municipal reconstruction plans and over forty interviews conducted with government officials at the national, prefectural and local government levels; NGOs; academics; and private-sector agencies involved in the Tohoku reconstruction from 2011 to 2016. …

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