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Interpretation's role in rebuilding communities: the East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

In 2011, the East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami devastated the northeast coast of Japan. Although it is difficult to capture the whole picture of the disaster, here are some of its terrible dimensions: 15,886 lives lost and over 2,620 still missing as of May 2014; 330,000 people lost their homes and of these, 260,000 are still displaced; 16.9 trillion Yen ($210 billion) in economic losses, including buildings, social infrastructure, and damage to agriculture and fisheries. The nuclear disasters in the Fukushima Prefecture continue, with no known estimates of their ultimate costs. Furthermore, the earthquake caused widespread land subsidence, which has turned low-lying coastal lands into estuaries. For people who live along this coast, their communities and the landscape in which they grew up are either gone--or dramatically changed.

Every natural disaster invites opportunities to tell the story of what happened, and also to place it in a larger context. Earthquakes and tsunamis have a long history along Japan's Sanriku Coast, both in the geological record and in historical accounts. Learning how people have lived with earthquakes and tsunamis in the past can offer important insights about living with these natural forces in the future. Yet, with events as painful as this one was, there are understandable debates about who should tell the story and how the story should be told--both for the benefit of local people and for visitors to the region over time.

In Kesennuma City, Miyagi Prefecture, several interpretive projects have emerged to interpret the disaster--and in one case, not to interpret it--that are contributing to rebuilding the local community. I came to Kesennuma as a staff member of a non-governmental organization (NGO) for disaster relief and recovery. After the NGO finished its work, I decided to continue living in and working for the city in various capacities. The natural environment and culture of this region is fascinating, and I have been privileged to become involved in some interesting environmental education and interpretation projects here.

Kesennuma is located about 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) north of Tokyo, facing the Pacific Ocean. The economy and almost everyone's lives revolve around the fishing industry. Kesennuma leads pelagic fishing in Japan, as well as coastal fishing and aquaculture farming along the coast. Geologically, this coast is termed a "Rias coast"; it is characterized by steep mountains and narrow valleys close to the sea. Seventy percent of the city is forested, and farms are common both in the flat and mountainous areas. Nearly 1,200 residents of Kesennuma lost their lives in the disaster and 234 are still unaccounted for--about two percent of the city's population of 73,000. In addition to the destructive earthquake and tsunami, a huge fire engulfed Kesennuma's downtown; it burned for nine days.

With a disaster this immense and this tragic in cost, its story needs to be told for generations into the future. But what interpretive stories are to be told? Who should convey them and how? In this article, I will describe four examples that reveal different answers to these questions: the city's decision to create a new slogan, an interpretive opportunity that was rejected, a mural created by children, and a formal museum exhibit.

After the earthquake and tsunami, the newly established Kesennuma Citizens Committee for Disaster Recovery discussed the future of the city. The public administration, local businesses, and other organizations together envisioned how to build back a better Kesennuma. The committee decided on a provocative new slogan for the city, "Living with the Ocean." At first, this slogan was a source of consternation: hadn't the violent ocean just destroyed their community and swept away their loved ones? However, within six months, the local citizens began to recognize that they always have lived near the ocean and they receive privileges from it. The new slogan has begun to offer a new perspective about coexisting with the ocean, rather than fighting or attempting to control it.

A more controversial decision concerned a relic of disaster and whether to make it an interpretive site. The tsunami had pushed an enormous fishing vessel nearly a kilometer inland from the port, destroying buildings and homes in its path. For more than two years, the ship was stranded in what had been a downtown neighborhood. The ship became a symbol of the disaster and many visitors stopped to see and photograph the vessel. Without interpretive signs, the vessel was left standing there, inviting visitors to ponder the immense physical energy of the tsunami--but perhaps not the buildings or people that the ship had crushed on its last journey. Local residents shared strong differences of opinion about the ship. Was it an appropriate symbol of their community destroyed by the disaster? Was it an appropriate touristic site? Should it be protected in some way? Finally, the vessel's owner, in a gesture to the feelings of the disaster victims, decided to remove the ship entirely.

However, if there had been opportunities to discuss what this vessel and its resting place could interpret, some important stories could be told. The area is an alluvial fan, an expanse of flat land at a river's mouth. Over time, human use has greatly changed this landscape. In the 16th century, taking advantage of the sea and tides, people created salt fields. In the early 20th century, rice paddies were here. More recently, the development booms of the 1960s transformed the landscape to a residential and fishery related commercial area. Now, because of the earthquake and tsunami, there is land subsidence, and an important opportunity to reconsider how, or whether, to develop this area again.

Another interpretive project attempted not to interpret the past, but rather to envision a future. Several fifth-grade classes created a mural, "Our Dream, Our Future, and Our Omose Community." Their school is located just 500 meters from the seashore; the tsunami had come within 50 meters of it. Nearby the Omose River descends from the mountains to the sea; its seashore area, quite close to the school, was devastated. Some of these 10- and 11-year-olds had lost their homes and family members. Working with their teachers, a museum curator, and NGO staff as part of the school curriculum, these children first reflected on what had happened to their community. Then they were encouraged to imagine a safe and healthy community 10 years from now. To create the mural that would portray their dream community, they confronted questions such as, Can people live in the devastated area? What should happen now to the devastated area near the shore? Should there be homes or factories or places for fishermen to work? Where should an evacuation center be? After much discussion, the students started drawing--and then painting. Along with the built environment, they also included fireflies, frogs, birds, mammals, and various water bugs in the mountain and river areas, because, they said, they wanted to be sure to sustain nature within their human community. The completed mural was placed on the walls of the large emergency storage box in the schoolyard. The school held an unveiling ceremony, at which the children introduced their mural to other students and shared their thinking about what they had created. The colorful mural remains on the storage box as a point of reflection and imagination for passersby.

The most formal interpretation about the earthquake and tsunami is at the Rias Ark Museum of Art in Kesennuma City. This 20-year-old museum was founded to foster appreciation of the unique cultural history of the region. The exhibition, "Documentary of East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and History of Tsunami Disasters," opened in 2013. It is a large, daring exhibit that explores complex issues from various perspectives. The exhibit's introduction states, "To reflect on past experience, perhaps, is to think over the future. Why was the damage that catastrophic? Looking back on our experience, what should we think now? The museum would like to share these challenges with you and play a role in reconstruction and development of community for our collective future." With hundreds of photographs, artifacts, and historical documents, the curators have made an intricate exhibition that is careful not to offer a definitive opinion or conclusion about the disaster. Rather, it invites visitors to examine the disaster's scope and effects and to reflect on both the region's history and its future in this tsunami- and earthquake-prone region.

A natural disaster is just a part of nature's cycle. Interpretation reveals its dimensions and tells the human story of how people are coping with it. As people's memory fades, new perspectives may develop and the interpretive messages may change as well. However, capturing this disaster right in its aftermath, interpretation has an important role to play, creating knowledge and understanding of the local natural and human history. Here in Japan, interpretation is challenging the entire region to consider how to live more harmoniously with natural forces along the Sanriku Coast. Kesennuma is rebuilding its community. At the same time, interpretation is building new perspectives about living with the ocean.

Maki Kitabayashi works at Kesennuma City Board of Education as an environmental educator and "glocal" interpreter. She has previously worked on interpretive projects at the Wildlife Conservation Society, Lake Nakuru National Park, and Uganda Wildlife Education Centre. Special thanks to Jean MacGregor for her support writing this article.
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Author:Kitabayashi, Maki
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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