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Defense Mechanisms

"In our everyday understandings and experiences (close at hand or from afar) disasters and catastrophes seem to be fast violence, things that seem to come suddenly out of the blue, not part of, but apart from the normal fabric of life. Yet, we know them beforehand; they occur within historical and cultural contexts. They are known events coming at unknowable times."

Theodore Bestor, from "Disasters, Natural and Unnatural: Reflections on March 11, 2011, and Its Aftermath" (2013)

"The Sea:

The sea is not guilty. The sea provides so much to us. However, we do not always get what we want from the sea."

Keyword #79: The Sea, in "Keywords to Think about the East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami" in the exhibition Documentary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and History of the Tsunami at the

The Rias Ark Museum of Art, Kesennuma, Japan.


A new defensive wall in Kesennuma, Japan. 

Rather than dramatically raising the level of the land, like the town of Minami-Sanriku (see Higher Ground), or transforming its devastated districts into green space, like the city of Ishinomaki (see Borrowed Landscapes), Kesennuma’s strategy seems to be repossessing of the land at the sea’s edge, its fishing industry and housing alike. The town is not creating hills, but rather mounds: building up the land around the bay that it knows will sink. In this process, the town is providing a stronger foundation to bear new construction; the goal isn’t to seek much higher ground, but more to create firmer ground in the same place.

A didactic on a public board in Kesennuma, Japan illustrating the methods of “mound/piling construction” being employed in the rebuilding of residential housing in the 2011 tsunami zone, including the expected subsidence of the newly laid earth.

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Instead of re-naturing or significantly elevating in this part of the port, the defensive tactic that this district of Kesennuma is adopting is a new sea wall.  Standing some six meters high, the wall isn't the only defense mechanism for the town, but it raises a question given that the waves that hit this part of Kesennuma in 2011 were reported to reach upwards of eight meters.^ The industrial fishing fleet was washed from the bay over the town, crushing buildings left and right. A notice board at the base of the new wall-in-progress reads: “Sorry for the inconvenience. The sea wall that was destroyed by the earthquake is being repaired.”  This raises the above question in a slightly different way: If the last sea wall was not sufficient to stop the waves and was compromised by the earthquake, what exactly will a newly rebuilt one achieve? ^

Fraser et al. (2013) have an answer for this: "Observations show that many sea walls and breakwaters were overtopped, overturned, or broken up, but provided some degree of protection." In other words, "a defence that is overtopped but survives is better than no defence at all."

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"Let’s move forward with

recovery, Miyagi!” (the prefecture

in which Kesennuma is located)


character on

the sign proclaims:

This is the fundamental question facing hundreds of kilometers of the Sanriku coast as the Japanese government pushes forward with more and more concrete fortifications after 2011—as of this year, some four hundred kilometers (245 miles) at the cost of twelve billion dollars.  Many sea walls, levees, and dikes that were built to protect seaside towns failed catastrophically during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. In a number of cases, the fortifications were not only ineffective, but made matters worse. As the concrete of broken sea walls became projectiles causing further damage, the infrastructure meant to withstand and protect settlements from the waves actually added to their destructive force. Despite this, many of the recovery and rebuilding efforts in the region seem to be aimed towards doubling down, or even tripling down, on concrete defenses.^

Due to the Japanese archipelago's location on the Pacific Ocean’s so-called Rim of Fire—lying, as it does, at the intersection of three tectonic plates—earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and landslides are a characteristic part of life, with some going so far as to call Japan an “archipelago of disaster.”  But the relationship between geologic instability and human disasters is by no means one-to-one. For example, historian Alexander Meshcheryakov claims that records of earthquakes show up very rarely in Japanese history because earthquakes are mainly urban disasters. Before the density of modern cities, the advent of taller buildings, the use of fixed foundations, and other changes to the infrastructure of Japanese habitation, earthquakes simply didn’t cause as much devastation or loss of life. The plagues, flooding, fire, and drought that humans have suffered since time immemorial are just as real in their tragedy, but it could be argued that prior to the growth of larger settlements, they didn’t threaten the order of things so much as they were the order of things. In creating an otherworldly space of stability, an environment that is buffered from the vagaries of the non-human world, urbanism can be understood as a kind of gardening. In that context, disaster mitigation is foundational aspect of “civil” engineering, not an exceptional one.

While the events of 2011 brought about wide-ranging revisions to the standards for sea wall construction (Raby et al. (2015)), many questions remain about their effectiveness relative to their financial & environmental costs (Dumas (2016)).

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Cement cladding for landslide prevention in Ishinomaki. These kinds of interventions are ubiquitous throughout Japan, as the photography of Toshio Shibata captures so precisely.

Even still, Japan may be unique in its terraforming tendencies. Cultural scholar Alex Kerr has argued that Japan is a “construction state”  in which the threat of natural disasters—flooding, landslides, and tsunamis especially—has been used to justify exorbitant and often unnecessary construction projects that provide a false sense of security from natural hazards. In this regard, Kerr observes, “Japan is indeed imposing its exquisite sense of visual order on nature, on a scale almost beyond imagining.” 

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zone  along the

Sanriku coast

The formal resonances that I have drawn between traditional Japanese landscape/dry rock gardening and the large-scale domestication of the country’s natural features in concrete would appear to present a paradox in terms of a philosophy of human-nature relations. But maybe they are simply divergent manifestations of the same underlying tendencies, one that the idea of an “exquisite sense of visual order on nature” partly addresses. 


This is because the landscape garden composes nature as an ideal, as a representation of an essential form. Accordingly, perceptions of nature through the lens of the garden are, not surprisingly, really projections of nature from the mind’s eye. Although sea walls might interfere with the view of the ocean or concretizing rivers might seem antithetical to an appreciation of nature that Japanese culture is so known for, that “nature” is in fact an already derived image. It is an urbanized notion of the nonhuman as domesticated within the human sphere—enclosed, as the etymology of “garden” in both English and Japanese clearly allude. Stephen Kellert’s 1991 study of Japanese perceptions toward wildlife found, “greatest emphasis on the experience and enjoyment of nature in very controlled, confined, and highly idealized circumstances.Kellert continued, This orientation to nature was described as particularly pronounced in relation to certain species of plants and animals, especially valued landscapes, and in the practice of certain cultural traditions such as bonsai, rock gardening, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, etc. In these situations, the importance of control, structure, and definition were stressed.”


From Niwa (The Garden), 2007.

by Yuichi Yokoyama

"What is this part?"

“These seem like normal mountains.”

"Please look over here."

"The mountain is probably fixed down

by bolts, right?"

"If it wasn't fixed down in place, it could end up moving."

In this light, the control of elements such as rocks, trees, and water within a garden is consonant with the desire for control that is so evident in the terraforming of landscape for disaster mitigation. They operate on different spatial scales, but then also interpenetrate in the zones of borrowed landscape. The aesthetics of the garden is not simply appreciation nor perception of nature au naturel (as wilderness), but nature-as-culture in another form. The possibility aesthetics of the contemplative garden—of a larger landscape in miniature—may function as a kind of architectural maquette that models the control nature across a broader expanse. 

Terraforming against natural hazards emerges from the same desire to modulate, mediate, and buffer nature in the raw, but with the irony that some kinds of terraforming may actually potentiate disaster in the process.^ As a number of researchers have pointed out, the reconfiguration of landscape through cutting down hills and filling in valleys to create uniform surface sites for housing development contributed to landslides and other disasters. In other cases, the crumbling of defenses like seawalls and the subsequent projectile debris, actually created threats rather than mitigating them.” ^

“Danger, do not enter!”


Signs in the window of a construction site office in Kesennuma.

While construction zones are dangerous, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami showed how human constructions can be just as hazardous, whether it is an ineffective sea wall or a vulnerable, seaside nuclear power plant.

Under “Keyword #89: Natural Disaster,” the Rias Ark Museum of Art in Kesennuma reminds us that “A natural disaster is a disaster caused by rare natural phenomena. That is to say, rare natural phenomena are not disasters in themselves . . . . To be able to prevent a tsunami from causing as disaster, we must change ourselves.” 


What would that change look like?

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