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Geopolitics

Ain’t No Wall That’s High Enough. Japan’s Failed Anti-Tsunami Policy

In the small town of Taro, as elsewhere along the coast, the massive anti-tsunami wall could not withstand the violence of the wave that destroyed all in its path.

A massive concrete coastal wall couldn't save Kamaishi from the March 11 tsunami.
A massive concrete coastal wall couldn't save Kamaishi from the March 11 tsunami.
Jérôme Fenoglio

TARO – In the risk and disaster business, local fireman Katsuo was only "half reassured" by the wall that had been constructed between his village and the sea. Sure, the town of Taro, in the prefecture of Iwate, had been cited back in the 1960s as an example to follow throughout Japan for the system it had built to resist tsunamis. And after the catastrophe of 2004, the authorities of the Indonesian island of Sumatra had come to visit this double system of ramparts, the second of which rises 11 meters in height.

Sheltered behind this immense mass of concrete that cuts off the superb view across the bay, the 8,000 inhabitants of Taro lived in what resembled an ancient fortified village. Most thought that they were protected from the waves that, at regular intervals, had destroyed their village in the past. The worst of these catastrophes swept away all its houses, on 3 March 1933. Ever since, the residents had held an evacuation drill once a year. Katsuo participated, he explained, with "a bit of apprehension."

When, a week after this year's training, the huge earthquake hit the region, the fireman said that he knew immediately that nothing could withstand the tsunami that followed. He was in Miyako, several kilometers from Taro. He returned to the village expecting the worst – and he was right. Nothing was left but a horrifying mass of debris, like elsewhere along the coast.

Genichiro, a friend of Katsuo, showed images of the catastrophe that he had captured from the temple where he had sought refuge. The wave appeared to be more than five meters higher than the taller of the two walls. It literally fell on the village, as if made more violent by this rampart of concrete that sought to resist it.

Were Taro's defenses completely useless? Katsuo and Genichiro were not convinced. "If the wall had not been there to break its momentum, the flood would have climbed higher in the village," said the fireman. "Not a single house would have been saved." But the system also had its damaging effects. Held by the wall, the water couldn't drain away as quickly as elsewhere. It started to swirl in this net, maybe adding to the death toll, which is expected to be more than 100. This fury of water dumped houses all along the bank. The great metallic doors of the outer wall failed to reopen to let the water out.

In Taro, the higher wall could do nothing against the most violent of tsunamis. All along this mountainous coast, the multitude of defensive structures built over the years proved in the end to be as ineffective as France's pre-World War II Maginot line was in stopping the Germans. It was as if the wave had simply disregarded it. In Kamaishi, the longest protective wall ever built in Japan failed to save the city center. In Miyako, as the ocean passed, it ironically hung the nets of fishermen on the torn-down railings of the protective wall.

All over, this destruction has vigorously revived opposition to this "wall policy," which has already been implemented along 40% of the Japanese coastline. This opposition affirms that these precautions have above all made the concrete sellers richer, while it would have been better to dedicate the money to improving early-warning systems. And, above all, these systems had created a dangerous false sense of security among the population.

The biggest sin of pride, however, was committed far from the coast of Sanriku, where the culture of tsunamis so prevails. Along the coastline of Fukushima, those in charge of the damaged nuclear stations felt so protected by their walls that they hadn't taken care to better protect the back-up cooling systems. "You can never count on anything except concrete," sighed Katsuo the fireman, whose house is intact. As a risk professional, he built his house high up in Taro, sheltered from tsunamis, even the unimaginably biggest one of all.

Read the original version in French

Photo - DFID

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