Lessons from Minamisanriku: What does place mean to us?

Minamisanriku is in many ways an idyllic setting, a place of extraordinary beauty on the northeast cost of Japan in the Sendai province. It sits on the Shizugawa Bay and is made up of four districts, Shizugawa, Togura, Utatsu and Ikiya. Approximately 1,000 of the population of 17,000 lost their lives in the earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011. Two years after the disaster, 250 were still described as missing. Thanks to the commitment and sacrifice of the municipal worker Miki Endo, who broadcast evacuation warnings over the town’s PA system until she herself was swept away, most of the population had evacuated to higher ground when the tsunami hit. Nevertheless, 3300 households were affected by the tsunami and more than 10,000 people were forced to live in refuges.  Some stayed in those refuges until the end of August 2013. In November 2014, 2,200 households were still living in temporary accommodation.

As the painstaking process of reconstruction moves forward, even in this community that has shown great unity in the face of disaster, the complexity of people’s sense of place emerges.

Minamisanriku municipal building

Visiting the shell of the municipal building where evacuation broadcasts were made from

Take the case of the municipal building from which the town’s Crisis Management Department broadcast evacuation announcements.  You can watch a video from the Tsunami on YouTube.  The voice you here at the beginning is the evacuation warnings broadcast through PA system at the municipal building.

In a now barren landscape, this steel frame is what was left of the building which came to symbolise many different things to different people.  To some it evoked the heroic sacrifice of municipal worker Miki Endo, who broadcast evacuation warnings over the town’s PA system until she herself was swept away. To some, it was the symbol of resilience, where a small group of people who had managed to hang onto the large radio antenna and survive the surge of water huddled together through the long cold dark night. To some, whose loved ones were still among the missing, it was the place where they went to try to find a sense of connection with them.  To some who live high up on the hill overlooking this area, it fuelled survivor’s guilt. To others, it was merely a jarring reminder of death and destruction.

To the community as a whole, it became an iconic symbol of the tsunami disaster and a sort of shrine where many went to pray and pay their respects.

Visiting the shell of the municipal building where evacuation broadcasts were made from

There was much debate between central and local government about whether to tear the remaining structure down or to keep it.  While opinion remains divided, the structure was deemed to be “on par in terms of symbolic power with the Hiroshima Peace Memorial”, and will be preserved at least until the 20th anniversary of the tsunami.

 

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, ‘Bridging the Gap between Academic Theory and Community Relevance: Fresh Insights from American Pragmatism’ (AH/K006185/1) was a collaborative research project involving Keele University, Brunel University, the Open University, University of Edinburgh and Seinan Gakuin University (Japan), and community partners New Vic Borderlines and The Glass-House Community Led Design.

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