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H i g h e r   G r o u n d

   Ishi wo taten koto  –

“The art of setting stones”

“With these words opens the oldest garden-making treatise in Japan—most likely the oldest in the world—best known by the name Sakuteiki, orRecords of Garden Making. Immediately upon reading the first line, we realize

the Sakuteiki will present us with a radically new view of gardening. The expression ishi wo taten koto was used by the author of the Sakuteiki to define not only the placement of stones within the garden, but also the act of gardening itself.”      

Takei and Keane, from Sakuteiki: Visions of the Japanese Garden (2008)

Over the past several thousand years, the land of the Sanriku coast has sunk at a rate of one to two millimeters per year, sometimes as much as five to ten millimeters. But when the 2011 earthquake occurred, one tectonic plate was shoved beneath another under the Pacific Ocean, and the coast sank between 0.5-1.1 meters all at once. Japan moved eastward towards North America by as much as 2.5 meters. Those shifting tectonic plates pushed the Pacific water upwards, generating the tsunami that inundated the already sunken coast.


 Over the past six hundred years, Japanese who experienced tsunamis would erect “tsunami stones.” The upright and engraved stones are warning to future generations, marking the places above which one might be safe from a tsunami’s reach, and below which one risked being caught up in the ocean’s swell. One reads: “High dwellings ensure the peace and happiness of our descendants.” ^ These admonitions of higher ground were followed by some villages but ignored by others. In some cases, it was a matter of forgetting, perhaps of psychological denial, but most recently of trust vested in the technologies of disaster mitigation like sea walls, breakwaters, levees, and other defense mechanisms. As matters of both historical memory and imagination, the tsunami stones are objects of perception and awareness. They play a part in what might then be called the “aesthetics of possibility,” of staying aware of what might happen and operating mindfully within those uncertainties.


“Like the word 'unprecedented,' the expression 'beyond expectation' (想定外, sōteigai ) began to be used immediately after the occurrence of the East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and has been continued to be used without hesitation since then. As a matter of fact, the opposite of 'beyond expectation' is 'within expectation.'


If the damage caused by the East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami was really 'beyond expectation,' it would mean that we, as modern people, have been very foolish because we should have been able to easily discern, from the study of historical facts, that a tsunami as large as that was produced by the East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami could hit the Pacific coast of Japan. If it was really unexpected, then it can only be because of foolishness . . . In fact, tsunamis of this magnitude were expected. We can only claim it to have been unexpected. We have to conclude that the words 'beyond expectation' are used for hiding this fact. This is also foolish.


Among the events that were brought about by the East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, there were few that were of an unimaginable kind or of an unknown scale. It was simply another recurrence of an event that had been repeated a number of times throughout human history. We should have been able to expect it.


—Keyword #102 "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 Rias Ark Museum of Art, Kesennuma, Japan.

A view of Minami-Sanriku's emerging complex of levees, sea walls, and raised land taken from a newly constructed evacuation hill.

- Roll over -

 In the past, villages that heeded calls of higher ground had to move the town upslope, and thus out of the valleys and into the surrounding hills further from the shore. In the town of Minami-Sanriku some twelve hundred residents died or went missing in the tsunami, its bayside downtown district utterly devastated by waves that overran the sea walls that were in place. Higher ground is the prevailing logic in the town’s vast rebuilding effort. The bayside is no longer a plain, but a monumental set of artificial hills, on top of which the town is being reconstructed, some fifteen meters above sea level. Levees and berms form a sloping landscape of resilience, of a second-nature. And so the downtown is now uptown. Rather than moving inland, the town is creating uplands from scratch (or close)—building these hills is, quite literally, a process of accumulation. Earth from the surrounding native landscape is harvested such that one set of hills inland are taken apart to allow for new, man-made ones to be built on the waterfront.


A kit for building a

paper backhoe for sale in Minami-Sanriku’s Hamare Utatsu, a recently opened shopping plaza designed by famed architect Kengo Kuma.

 Stopping in Minami-Sanriku, I was most immediately struck by the overwhelming noise: the endless rumble of dump trucks as they dump harvested dirt; backhoes and graders plowing those piles flat. Through this accumulative process the town adds newfound elevation, centimeter by centimeter. It is a kind of accelerated sedimentation, with the sloping slides carved not by the geo-logic of erosion, but by armies of construction equipment. As such, the town is now a “borrowed landscape” on a vast scale. Its vistas are determined not by an idealized notion of beauty so much as an idealization of risk reduction—that in an indefinite future when the next tsunami strikes the water will flow around the town, rather than straight through it or over it.

Minami-Sanriku’s accumulative process of layering of earth to build hills, sped up 2.5 and 5 times its original speed, with its real-time soundscape.  >> Press the icon in the lower right corner to listen <<

Some of the higher ground that is being sought in the tsunami-stricken coast is more symbolic than mitigative.  Rather than creating mountains, some communities are trying to reclaim lost ones. There was a hill on the shore in Sendai called Hiyoriyama from which fisherman would look out to sea to discern the day’s weather. An artificial hill, it was first built up by locals in 1909, with elevation additions in 1913 and 1919. In 1972 it was designated a bird observation station for the adjoining wetlands.

Despite being only six meters tall, technically Hiyoriyama was a “mountain,” as its appellation—yama —suggests. In fact, prior to 2011 it was the second shortest mountain in all of Japan, according the country’s Geographical Survey Institute. After the tsunami, it was almost completely washed away. But locals came back and started piling stones at the site, and Hiyoriyama has grown again to a modest three meters. In 2014 the Geographical Institute re-designated it as the topographically shortest mountain in all of Japan, but a mountain nonetheless.


Sendai's Hiyoriyama

in taller times,

April 2004.

By タコノマクラ from Wikimedia Commons

Hiyoriyama post-tsunami.

From Google Earth, accessed December 2017

Screen Shot 2017-09-17 at 12.11.34

In the picture of  Hiyoriyama after the tsunami, one can see the stones stacked to rebuild the diminutive mountain. Underneath the sign for Hiyoriyama (日和山) is another, handwritten, sign that reads 大まりに, which is an invitation to visitors to “make it bigger.” Meanwhile, at the bottom left, at the base of the stairs, a small sign reads 登山口—“hiking trail.”   The designation of "mountains" and "hiking trails". . . it is clear that language is as crucial as any piece of construction equipment when cultivating a landscape from a physical topography.

The gesture of re-elevating  Hiyoriyama seems in keeping with larger-scale efforts to make higher ground in towns like Minami-Sanriku. After all, the whole Japanese archipelago is itself the summit, the top of enormous undersea mountains that crest above the ocean’s surface. There is constant rising and falling above and below the water line over geologic time. In building Hiyoriyama back up, participants set a stone, mark and memorialize, terraforming a landscape garden on a very modest but also significant scale. That said, the Sakuteiki  also suggests that the gardener isn't simply a designer setting stones and dictating their location, but an interlocutor, “following the request of the stone.” As Sakuteiki 's translator, Marc P. Keane, explains, the overall design of the Japanese garden shifts as its various pieces are brought to the site. Every stone accommodates the others such that, step by step "everything just slides over a bit." ^   The process would almost seem tectonic.

When the 3.11 earthquake hit, the gigantic stone upon which Japan sits, the Okhotsk Plate, slide over another giant stone, the Pacific Plate. If all other stones are meant to be set “in accordance with the first stone”—in this case the Okhotsk—then what kind of terraforming is an appropriately setting of the following stone? As we come to see, it is a question that coastal towns like Minami-Sanriku, Kesennuma, and Ishinomaki have each answered differently for themselves.

Many place names and family names in Japan have the word yama incorporated: Takayama, Yamashita, Nishiyama, Yamamoto, Wakayama, Yamano . . . The artist Yuichi Yokoyama, referenced here throughout, has a family name that means “next to the mountain.”  In a country where 90 percent of its land surface is considered mountainous, such a name is not unexpected—everything in Japan lives next to a mountain, in one way or another.

The panels below are excerpted from a sequence in Yokoyama’s manga New Engineering (2007). In it, an artificial hill is built by first dropping boulders from airplanes. Cement is then poured over them and (in omitted panels) an elaborate sequence of mechanized tree-plantings and the hand-painting of rocks, grass, and other features follow across the hill’s surface. It is later discovered by people flying over, who proclaim their new geological discovery: “Look! It’s a mountain!”

       - Click the images to view each larger -

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