On Friday 11 March 2011, at 2:46 in the afternoon, Japan’s largest earthquake in a millennium triggered a triple disaster along the country’s Pacific coast, in the north-eastern Tohoku region, leading to a massive tsunami wave, up to 40m in height, and a meltdown at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant. Some 20,000 people lost their lives or remain unaccounted for. CWA 49 carried reports of the impact on archaeology and cultural heritage.
What is the situation ten years on? Many archaeological sites have been investigated in advance of the recovery and rebuilding, including prehistoric coastal shell middens, burial mounds, and ancient industrial sites, settlements, and administrative centres. The locations of many of these sites, clustered on slightly higher ground overlooking the coastal flats that have been the focus of development in recent years, indicate that earlier inhabitants of the region were very aware of the ever-present danger of tsunami and had the wisdom not to live in the lower, most vulnerable locations. A new museum of the disaster opened in Futaba in Fukushima this spring. The Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures has been monitoring the impact on archaeology and museums since 2011 and has posted a series of new online interviews with specialists from the affected region.
Disasters are now regarded as ongoing processes rather than isolated catastrophic events. Ten years on from what is known as 3/11, more major quakes shook Tohoku – aftershocks of the 2011 event. In the Japanese archipelago, situated on the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, with its unmatched density of active volcanoes and frequent earthquakes (Japan is shaken by some 2,000 a year), people have learned to live with, and prepare for, all manner of disasters. A major quake at the southern end of the archipelago, in Kyushu, in 2016 caused substantial damage to the massive stone walls of Kumamoto Castle. The responses to these disasters now constitute what has become known as ‘disaster heritage’, with Japan at the forefront of developing effective strategies for dealing with them when they strike. Being prepared is key, and the Japanese Archaeological Association has just posted a comprehensive report on lessons learned at Kumamoto on its website.
Archaeology has become an important part of the recovery process beyond the rescue excavations undertaken in advance of rebuilding the devastated communities. Through the spring and summer of 2021, a series of events at the Urajiri Shell Midden, a site dating from the early Jomon period, c.6,500 years ago, has brought together local residents, archaeologists, museum curators, and artists to find multiple ways of responding to the presence of this site. Urajiri is in the town of Minami Soma, impacted both by the tsunami and the meltdown, evacuated as it was in the exclusion zone around the stricken power plant. Archaeology is providing a focus for rebuilding community identity.
This summer, Japan hosts the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, branded ‘the recovery games’ by the Japanese government. The Olympic Torch Relay, albeit lower-key than initially envisaged due to another ongoing disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic, started on 25 March in Fukushima, before moving on through all 47 prefectures in Japan, taking in some key archaeological locations along the route. We will be tracking its progress with our own ‘Jomon Relay’, dropping in on key sites and museums along the route, as part of an ‘Online Jomon Festival’ leading (pandemic permitting) to a special exhibition in the UK at Stonehenge later this year, introducing a number of Jomon stone circles and some little-known connections between Japanese and British archaeology. Some of these stone circles are included in the nomination of 17 Jomon sites in northern Japan for inscription as UNESCO World Heritage Sites this summer.
Further information Find out more about the archaeological discoveries made during the recovery and rebuilding process: http://archaeology.jp/en/trends-in-japanese-archaeological-research For the series of online talks from the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, see: www.sainsbury-institute.org/info/report-for-the-talk-online-lecture-cultural-properties-recovered-10-years-on-from-the-great-east-japan-disaster For more out about the damage to Kumamoto Castle, visit: www.wmf.org/blog/kumamoto-castle-town Details of the Online Jomon Festival can be found here: www.sainsbury-institute.org/info/online-jomon-matsuri-an-invitation-to-participate
TEXT: Simon Kaner.