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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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