Japan’s Recovery Plans and California’s Preparedness

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Kotaro Nakamura, AIA, LEED AP
with Katherine Nakamura, J.D.

Throughout the world, there have been an increasing number of natural disasters affecting large urban populations, caused by natural disturbances and compounded by man-made system failures. After the first responders and the Red Cross depart, architects and engineers find themselves working with their communities and governments to develop master plans to create systems and conditions that are survivable, sustainable and renewable. In the Tohoku region of Japan, site of March 11, 2011’s unprecedented 9.0 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, three master plans have emerged from the three impacted prefectures, with urgent significance for conditions in California.

Four months after that catastrophic trifecta whose effects are still not completely known today, the Tohoku Chapters of the Japan Institute of Architects (JIA) and the Japan Society of Civil Engineers (JSCE) put together a small symposium in the city of Sendai, located at the center of the 150 miles of coastal devastation. Fortunate enough to be asked to speak, I was given a unique opportunity to talk with professionals and see the recovery effort’s progress firsthand. Meeting with countless architects and engineers, newspaper reporters, and clinical psychologists, as well as the spouse of one survivor who literally swam out of the tsunami to reach the second floor of their home, and a Baptist minister struggling to meet the needs of his community, their sincere efforts to recover and move their communities forward was often heroic.

Traveling through Tohoku, it was clear that looking into the future and beyond the present suffering is not an easy task. Many of the people I spoke with were trauma survivors themselves, either personally or peripherally. In a region where over 23,000 people were killed in roughly 30 minutes and countless structures destroyed, just living from day to day seems monumentally difficult as earthquakes continue and concerns about nuclear contamination set in. Yet, four months later the process of recovery was underway, although with varying degrees of success depending on the community and its location. Sendai, a city of over one million with far less actual damage, was already largely cleared and starting to rebuild, while in Kesennuma, a city of 74,000 about three hours farther north, the areas destroyed by the tsunami remained nothing more than debris fields with mangled buildings and cars atop piles of rubble.

For survivors on any scale, the process of recovery is never fast enough, but often communities also want to do more than simply rebuild, most frequently turning to sustainable reconstruction. Obviously, following such a traumatic event, actual safety is paramount, but in a healthy recovery, a strong sense of community and regained control are also critical. Strong survivors take immediate action to create a better future for their community, and for the most part, they have the education, economic and political capacity to make that future a reality. In these situations, architectural planning plays a critical role in the healing process, whether for an entire community or an individual client.

By July, 2011, the three prefectures in the Tohoku region that were most highly impacted by the earthquake and the tsunami – Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate – had already developed master plans. As one might expect, all placed safety as the top concern and suggested creating safety plans by relocating residential development to higher ground. Not as complete or as innovative as the master plan developed by Greenburg, Kansas following their 2007 tornado, nonetheless all stressed the importance of green, sustainable development.

Fukushima’s master plan was understandably the most controversial. Left with the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant not yet under control and about 10% of their land designated as an evacuation zone, the Fukushima Prefecture’s document is highly critical of the country’s energy policy and overreliance on nonsustainable energy, particularly nuclear energy. The document is also especially resentful that the Fukushima Prefecture is being forced to generate energy for the megalopolis that is Tokyo and its environs. It is highly unusual for a rural prefecture to criticize federal policy at all, and it implies that a return to a
Japanese system of decentralized governance when less power was concentrated in Tokyo would be in Fukushima’s best interest. (Read the English translation of novelist Hiruki Murakami’s speech in Barcelona, Spain in July 2011 for an excellent discussion, particularly in the context of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

The Miyagi master plan, written from the central city of Sendai where the damage was relatively less in comparison to other areas, although the city of Kessenuma referenced above is also located in Miyagi Prefecture, it is best described as a basic recovery plan. Attempting to cover all the issues possibly related to the recovery of the devastated area, the master plan seems to lose focus and becomes simply a general plan without a larger vision. Sendai is a critical hub for the east Tohoku region, so perhaps this master plan will evolve and grow with the recovery process.

In contrast, the Iwate master plan was especially innovative, containing both programmatic and physical solutions to address not only the next possible natural disaster, but also long term issues such as the declining population of young people throughout the region, and the need to diversify the local economy. Their safety plan calls for several options to prepare for the force of a tsunami, but also stresses the early warning system, evacuation plans, and the clear identification of “evacuation towers” that are high enough and strong enough to clear the next tsunami. This is particularly poignant when you consider that the town of Tarou in Iwate Prefecture erected a 10 meter (32.8 foot) protective levee after the 1933 earthquake and tsunami at great expense, only to have the 2011 tsunami be twice that height and cause greater loss of life due to the false sense of security.

In considering what this means for the future of California, also a long coastal region with the potential for natural disasters from annual wildfires to earthquakes, as well as our own possible tsunami and/or nuclear disaster, we must not only evaluate the systems in place to prevent them, but also the strength of our communities to cope with their aftermath. Is each politically and economically strong enough to recover? What can be done to decrease each community’s resource dependence in relation to food, water and energy, particularly nuclear energy?

We must realize that increasing population density, combined with our over reliance on technology and fossil fuels will create our greatest vulnerability.

World-wide commerce and security can be damaged by both natural and man made disturbances, and our long term sustainability, as well as survivability, requires creative solutions that are both global and local, physical and programmatic. After visiting Tohoku and surveying the damage, listening to our colleagues as they struggle to recover and rebuild, there is no doubt that California’s search for answers and solutions must be just as urgent as Tohoku’s.



The AIACC represents the interests of more than 11,000 architects and allied professionals in California. Founded in 1944, The AIACC's mission supports architects in their endeavors to improve the quality of life for all Californians by creating more livable communities, sustainable designs and quality work environments.

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  1. avatar
    Marv Lyons

    It would be highly responsible and in the highest professional integrity for the AIA to speak out for preparedness for potential and unanticipated natural disruptive forces, and to include long range planning toward resilience and sustainability in it’s programs.

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