G r o u n d    T r u t h i n g

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I had no idea that everything would be so raw. The ground was not soil but dirt, or just as often gravel, carted from some other place and piled in loose geometries. The southern Sanriku coast is one massive and contiguous construction zone. My lack of awareness was born of so many things: geographic distance, lack of local Japanese connections, and the remarkably abstract quality that global disasters can take on. The internet's constant stream of geophysical, economic, and political tumult creates a condition in which there are too many disasters to try to make sense of. Experiencing disasters virtually means grasping the crudest of outlines through an overwhelming supply of documentation.

Twenty years ago, I lived in the of the general area of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, but inland. I had been to Japan a number of times since then, but typically ended up in TŌkyŌ and points south where most contemporary art and academia are centered, where supposedly “things are happening.” The last time that I visited the northeastern region at all, known as TŌhoku, was in 2009. In 2011, I hoped to visit the area after a summer study trip that I was scheduled to lead to Japan, but the trip was cancelled. The state of shock and uncertainty that enveloped the country after March 11, and the months of aftershocks and nuclear meltdowns that followed, was something I could only watch from what felt like an otherworldly distance.

I made this visit to the coast in the summer of 2017 out of a sense of both curiosity and responsibility to know more about an event whose effects continue to trouble not only Japan, but also our collective thinking about sustainability, resilience, and disaster in a planetary context. I figured that six years was enough time so that, as a visitor, I wouldn’t end up a gawker getting in the way of crucial recovery efforts. Although certainly not in the way, I was surprised to find that visiting six years later meant that I was still very much in the midst of the recovery. While the "clean-up" phase is largely complete, the physical rebuilding is in its early stages; the ground itself is being re-settled and remade.

From north to south on the Sanriku coast I visited the towns of Kesennuma, Minami-Sanriku, Ishinomaki, and Sendai. I did not have the opportunity to visit a number of other impacted towns such as Rikuzen-Takata, Kamaishi, Ofunato, Otsuchi . . . nor any part of Fukushima prefecture where the ongoing nuclear disaster keeps the region in an exceedingly slow and protracted process of recovery. 

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“Ground truthing” is a phrase from the fields of geology and geography. It describes the process of visiting an actual site in person and on the ground to confirm data and information that have been gathered through the “remote-sensing” instruments on satellites and aircraft. In the moment of ground truthing, two different kinds of perception and aesthetics intersect: the embodied, sensorial, qualitative knowledge of an individual person and their first-hand observations together with the quantitative, disembodied, distant measurements made by instrumentation. 

I thought of my trip as a way to begin ground truthing all the virtual and secondhand impressions I had collected about the disaster. But even upon visiting, my own sense of perception couldn't help but remain remote given my safe distance from the events. Even so, going to the Sanriku coast in a liminal moment between cleaning up and re-building offered perspective on the complicated relations between forces of nature and those of culture. The earthquake and tsunami reaffirmed the fundamentally dynamic and undomesticated power of the planet, while the following reconstruction shows how the human desire to persist takes physical shape: the sea wall, the reclaimed wetland, the abandoned town, and the artificial hill. Each one recognizes the unbidden power of the sea, but reflect different attitudes about how human ingenuity relates meaningfully to geological inevitability. Recovery is a moment when the future could be made differently, when entanglements and conflicts between local politics and national budgets, social values and ethical imperatives, economic aspirations and metaphysical beliefs, are all laid bare.

A trapezoid of dirt to fortify the land in Ishinomaki, Japan .

In a time when the groundwork is being set for Japan’s environmental future, what might the ongoing reordering of its landscape evince about the country’s aesthetics and sense of natural/cultural relations? Harmonious, idealized, threatening, or under threat.... The terraforming of the Sanriku coast offers a case study in how awareness of natural forces and perceptions of cultural risk converge, manifesting at the largest physical scales of architecture: the landscape itself. Earthquakes and tsunamis will continue ad infinitum just as the land of coast will continue to become part of the sea; the question is how short-lived creatures like ourselves make sense of living on a planet long-term.