The Tsunami Stones of Japan
An Incomplete Atlas of Stones is a project that investigates a type of stone set into a coastal landscape, the “tsunami stones” of Japan, in order to carry those aims forward, in order to think collectively about how we design and conduct research, in order to develop a greater fluency about the relations involved in making landscapes.
“Landscapes are never given, they are made.”
In the early history of landscape architecture in North America Frederick Law Olmsted and some of his contemporaries worked as designers and, crucially, as advocates for public literacy, awareness, and ultimately the protection of landscapes that they considered essential to the overall well-being of the public sphere. In so doing, they expanded the field of possibilities for landscape architecture. This movement not only extended the influence of landscape architecture beyond the boundaries of the site, but it empowered a profession in its early stages to consider its agency at scales beyond the site, endowing it with the responsibility to consider the forces that shape landscape outside of design, including politics, economy, and material processes.
The landscapes of moving shorelines, defined as the are by the ebb and flow of coastal transgressions and regressions, pose many unique problems to disciplines ranging from geology to landscape architecture, and also affect the safety of those who live alongside them. An Incomplete Atlas of Stones is a project that investigates a type of stone set into a coastal landscape, the “tsunami stones” of Japan, in order to carry those aims forward, in order to think collectively about how we design and conduct research, in order to develop a greater fluency about the relations involved in making landscapes.
In Japanese traditions, there exists a continuity between nature and culture, insofar as the sense of a place can speak directly to the intricate interplay between human and natural forces. This continuity is most clear in the practice of naming utamakura. Storied places are shared through literature and art, which are imbued with geologic history, human history and cultural meaning.
In 1689, a poet named Matsuo Basho left Edo (present day Tokyo) on foot for a six-month journey along the shores and into the mountainous forests of northern Japan. Along the way, he wrote what would become the most well-known and treasured Japanese travel diary, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (“Oku no hosomichi”). Basho’s journey from Edo to the edges of the Tohoku region would amplify his already acute awareness of the impermanence of nature, developed through his practice of closely observing, recording and reflecting upon his immediate environment. As he journeyed north, from utamakura to utamakura, Basho was writing and drawing, weaving fragments of literature and history, in a rigorous way. Using prose, he would share geographic context and using haikun poetry, he responded to those great poets and artists who had, before him, written of each utamakura and their views.He travelled north to Hiraizumi before turning west, toward the Sea of Japan, and later still, returned to Edo. Five years later, after leaving home for another journey, Basho fell ill. He never recovered, but a lifetime of traveling and writing about his wanderings would engender future generations of writers, poets, and travelers with the value of seeing and documenting; that to name a place is to know a place, and that to do so in a place such as Japan is to call attention to the realities of everyday life in the face of knowable but unpredictable geologic forces.
Honshu is an island that feels alive in the most sensual of ways; temperate summers encourage exuberant flora, the ocean moves, desired and undesired, up and over the island, into the air; the earth shudders, from below. These movements, sometimes discernible and sometimes not, together define a precarious existence, an indelible part of Japanese life and cultural identity.
A stratovolcanic land form, the island of Honshu is the largest island in the Japanese archipelago. Almost 70 percent of the island is defined by steep, forested mountains and the remaining 30 percent tends toward deltaic or ria coastal landscapes. The geomorphology of the deltaic and coastal sites — that which makes them desirable for human settlement — also makes them vulnerable to geologic events and their attendant effects.
If one takes the long view, the recorded history of seismicity in Japan from the sixth century to 2011 shows a high incidence of large, shallow earthquakes along the riatic coastline. Earthquakes of this kind are more likely to trigger tsunamis, which are then amplified by the geomorphology of the Sanriku coast and its large, low bays and steep mountainsides.
On the eleventh day of March in 2011 at 14:45 local time, the Earthquake Early Warning system of Japan activated more than one thousand seismometers throughout the island nation, sending a warning to millions of people. Sixty seconds later, a 9.0 magnitude undersea megathrust earthquake hit Japan, the most powerful earthquake to have hit the island in recorded history. A second warning was issued by the Japanese Meteorological Agency; a major tsunami event was likely, but not certain.
As the earth moved near the convergence of the overriding North American plate and the subducting Pacific Plate, an undersea landslide was triggered. Between ten to thirty minutes later an earthquake-tsunami event occurred and the immense body of water that we call the Pacific Ocean was displaced. Along the shoreline of the Sanriku coast, the ocean receded, pulling itself away from the land. Slowly and then rapidly, it returned, rising into the hollowed out riatic sawtooth formations along the coast.
In many locations, the swelling of the ocean was exacerbated by too-high or too-wide seawalls and, rather than dispelling incoming energy traveling in the water, the seawalls trapped the tsunami waves, intensifying the swells and currents. The surges of water moving inland ranged from five meters to 40.5 meters, inundating an estimated total of 561 square kilometres of land. The tsunami would later be named the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake Tsunami and, as it swept into ports along the coast before retreating back into the sea, it resulted in the deaths of 15,890 people, injuring 6,152, with 2,576 people still missing and presumed lost.
The catastrophic loss of human life was not the result of warning systems that did not work; seismometers and tsunami warnings worked as they had been designed to. Instead, the loss of life was the predictable result of a series of choices that were made about where to build, what to build, where to work, where to live. And, in cases of emergency, when and where to evacuate. But as the days progressed following the disaster, there came stories of small groups, of villages, of school children who had escaped significant loss of life. Seaside villages with bustling ports claimed few to no lives lost despite 32 meter surges moving in, up and over schools, homes, villages. How was this possible?
The Tsunami Stones
Hundreds of years earlier, in the wake of the 869 Jogan tsunami along the same coast — so the story goes — communities began to erect inscripted stone tablets called “tsunami stones”. These stones performed a dual function; they acted as warnings — markers of the edges of inundation, they indicate where to build and where to flee when oceans rise — and they are monuments, erected as part of a ritual that memorializes geologic events and those lost. Some stones have no message, as time has worn away their inscriptions; some record the past and project possible futures; some bear instructions for evacuation and rebuilding, such as Stone no. 31 (in the atlas), which tells its reader that an “earthquake is an omen of a subsequent tsunami. Watch out for at least one hour. When it comes, rush away to higher places. Never reside on submerged land again.”
Hundreds of these stones exist along the Sanriku coast, ranging in height from a few inches to a few meters. The messages inscribed on them vary from stone to stone, with each community utilising stones both as a memorial and as recorded, predictive knowledge. In some villages, the messages not to build below the inundation line were heeded. In others, not. In some villages, the messages to evacuate after an earthquake to an elevation above the stones were heeded. In others, not. This is how some people were able to survive. And, how some did not.
What is the effect of these markers on the way communities and governments understand the always present risk of an earthquake or tsunami? Or, what could the effect be?
These tablets – each like utamakura – are part of a multivalent knowledge exchange through time and space, and with another 500 stones planned for erection in the coming years to commemorate the Great East Japan tsunami and as Japan decides how and if to continue moving forward with almost 14,000 kilometres of seawalls, they are critical in establishing an understanding that the crisis facing coastal landscapes is an ongoing project.
An Incomplete Atlas
But, how to develop this understanding? How might we reveal the material labour of landscape?
In the summer of 2015, I travelled to some of the known tsunami stones along the Sanriku coast in order to explore the importance of on-site research and of bearing witness. And, through mixed-method research (archival research, field work, interviews, mapping, documenting), I came to compile what would become An Incomplete Atlas of Stones, a visual document as a way to unfold or see the archipelago’s unstable mineral base.
The atlas is organised stone by stone, following the coastline of Iwate prefecture from north to south along the Sanriku coast of Honshu. It is also a record of 50 days of travel, of 75 sites along the coast, a compilation of landscapes that are complex, responsive artefacts of materialised memories and cultures that have shaped the past and will shape futures.
Each tsunami stone is introduced with its geographic coordinates: latitude, longitude, and elevation. Latitude and longitude site each stone on the surface of the earth while elevation situates each in relation to the mean level of the sea. They are then further situated in relation to the boundaries of the village, town, or city they are located within; by administrative prefecture; and then by geographic region.
Since each stone was erected in response to a major tsunami, the year and name of the tsunami is listed in addition to the stone’s relation to that inundation line (below the line, on the line, or, above the line) of both its tsunami and the tsunami of 2011. Each stone, at the time it was inserted into the landscape, was engraved with a message, and so they may be considered as belonging to one of two categories: as a memorial, commemorating people and places lost to an earthquake tsunami; or as a lesson to future generations, providing a description of events and directions as to where to build, where to evacuate, and where waters have risen in the past.
The tsunami stone was then mapped, using a combination of primary map data and open access data provided by the Japan Meteorological Agency, in relation to the inundation of the Great East Japan tsunami by overlaying the location and elevation of the stone, the coastline, and the 2011 inundation lines. The maps are constrained to a consistent frame with the exception of the inundation, which leaks out, in all directions, to the limits of the page.
Each tsunami stone is then revealed at a scale related to the human body; first as a specimen, removed from its context in a front facing, scaled photograph and on the right, in a view portraying each stone in its surrounding. Each stone is shown unobstructed, in isolation from its context on the left, so that readers may attempt to discern the location of the stone in the street view displayed on the right page. Each view is taken from the nearest street or footpath, which, in the aftermath of an earthquake and in anticipation of a tsunami, would be used as an evacuation route. And it is along these pathways where people are forced (in moments of extreme danger and fear) to develop an understanding of personal vulnerability and respond accordingly. In addition to contemporary signage systems indicating evacuation routes and safety zones, known tsunami stones are an additional means by which to navigate these landscapes of risk.
In order to record change and constancy in relation to each stone and the reconstruction efforts around them, two aerial images are presented: one taken shortly after the 2011 tsunami and one taken after approximately five years of reconstruction, in and around the same time the field work was conducted. Each stone’s location may be determined by following the longitudinal and latitudinal markers found at the edge of the aerial photographs, and the precise dates of the imagery may be found at the bottom of each page.
Read (Y)Our Landscapes
An Incomplete Atlas is an attempt to illustrate the dynamics of a coastline as a place through the development and articulation of a nuanced, landscape-based atlas that makes technical information available to a range of readers. It uses basic tools — texts and drawings that borrow from representational conventions familiar to many — and deploys a consistent strategy and method at the site of each stone, proposing a type of visual and verbal language that is simultaneously simple and sophisticated, that is of a place and yet articulates a way of reading landscapes to help people recognize complex, shifting and varied landscapes.
Establishing a shared legibility of landscapes is not only an opportunity to extend the agency of design for landscape architects and the discipline, but perhaps, most importantly, it offers the opportunity to extend knowledge and agency to citizens. It is only then, when everyone has access to and is equipped with the information necessary to engage in conversations about immediate choices and long-term possibilities that landscape’s agency is revealed. With their neutrality lost and no longer detached or abstracted, it becomes clear that landscapes are complex, contested, and subject to the pressures of life — both slow and fast. These pressures, from sea level rise to climate change to tsunamis, are critical in establishing the understanding that the crisis facing coastal landscapes is an ongoing one, far from being limited to the aftermath of emergency.
(Text adapted from a longer essay first commissioned by and published in The Funambulist, issue #18, “Cartography & Power”, 2018 and a public lecture delivered at the AA in London, February 2018. This research was partially funded by the Peter Prangnell Research Travel Grant at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto.)