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Opinion

The Great East Japan Earthquake

Potential Challenges for Safe Living: The Idea of Harmony with Nature Learnt from Cultural Heritages

Takeshi Nakagawa
Professor, School of Creative Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Signs of the sea roaring

About 30 years ago, I drove northward from Sotobo in Chiba along the coastline in Fukushima and Miyagi as far as accessible by road, passing through inland areas in Iwate to Miyako again, and went up north to the Shimokita Peninsula. The purpose was to see various cultural building properties around those regions. At that time, I did not have tsunamis in mind particularly. Now I am reminded, however, of some nuclear power plants sticking out like alien substances in the middle of the landscape, which was desolate even in summer, with an unexpectedly flat plane and a wide sea where white waves were rolling again and again from far away, which I saw probably because I could not drive near cliffs along the ria coasts. Then, when I listened to Tsugaru-shamisen-a traditional stringed musical instrument in Tsugaru, Aomori Prefecture-I was impressed by a blind shamisen player who said that they played it so that the sound would not vanish into the voice of seagulls, because people in Tsugaru described a range of wave crests by referring to the voice of seagulls. His play called up a vivid image of breaking waves with deep violence like the sea roaring from a great distance. People who were deprived of memories or someone close to them by the great tsunamis might remain speechless because of the signs of the sea roaring still coming again and again.

Key words are cultural heritage and nature

The East Japan Great Earthquake, the great tsunamis, and the breakdown of the nuclear power plant not only caused physical and economic damage such as on the lives of so many people, houses in a broad range of areas, and industrial infrastructure, but these disasters also forced us to call the foundations of modern civilization into question. Advanced technological environment, public administration networks, and others that have supported modern daily life ceased to function for a considerable period of time, and their problems have been brought to light. I believe that this devastation is throwing down fundamental challenges to our urgent rescue and recovery activities as well as restoration efforts going forward. At the same time, we must remember that a great deal of assistance and altruism has been devoted to the afflicted areas across national borders. We have to tackle these challenges from the perspective of a long history ranging from primitive life of our ancestors, where survival was impossible without mutual aid and harmony with nature within a tiny community, to today's highly artificial, utilitarian, and benefit-driven technological society. In other words, we need to take into consideration the entire land of Japan and international relations as a whole beyond the recovery of afflicted areas, review every issue thoroughly, learn what we have to learn, improve what we should improve, and enhance what we need to enhance, to put together historical and advanced wisdom all around the world for survival going forward. The first step would be to focus on the traditional culture surrounding us again. The areas devastated by the tsunamis in March, for instance, do not involve many ancient cultural building properties. Many of the old fishing villages that escaped serious damage also seem to have taken advantage of residential areas on heights and seaside sentry boxes or fishermen's bases since early times. Coastal areas in the Tohoku region have frequently experienced great tsunamis in history. Our eyes are caught by the fact that the wisdom of people nestling close to nature is deeply ingrained in ideas regarding locations of cultural building properties and how to enjoy festivals and other intangible forms of cultural heritage as the idea of safety learnt from long historical experience. Of course, the modern world has become too severe and dangerous to simply rely on traditional culture or ideas. The power of science and technology is indispensable. There should be, however, modern residences, cities, industry, and delight based on valuable wisdom from swiftly the flowing human history and culture that are rooted in nature. Realizing these should be a lesson learnt from this great earthquake as well as a mission given to us researchers. What we seek is to invent methods for connecting the idea of harmony with nature for safe and creative life-represented by cultural heritage-to scientific, technological, and socioeconomic systems aggregated for building modern towns.

Safety is creativity

Many lives were saved by folklore about disasters or minimization of damage resulting from disasters, so we should dig up further hidden wisdom. A more significant difficulty people suffer from, however, is that they had no choice but to live near the sea even though they are aware of such folklore. There are also many inhabitants who were compelled to accept nuclear plants, in spite of their feeling that something was wrong, or their seeing signs of the sea roaring. Without addressing these facts head on, we would not be able to open up our new future cities. One major feature in the Tohoku region is festivals. The calm rhythm and weirdness eventually reach the height of a carnival-with sounds, colors, figures, and motions melting into each other. Running away from frequent earthquakes, tsunamis, cold-weather damage, or heavy tax burdens, people can survive only by getting into nature and integrating themselves with animals or the spiritual world almost absolutely to reach the delight of living in the end. While they appear to accept unreasonable misfortunes slavishly, I suppose that they actually sublimated such hardship into great joy without realizing it. Instead of nihilism, we may have a glimpse of a reversal thought, i.e., of a creative process, in industrious efforts, and in daily life.

We would not necessarily be able to live safely even if we built 15-meter-tall breakwaters or moved our habitat to a hilltop. When we accept such a consideration process as a procedure of constructing our own lives or personal history, take part in it voluntarily, make a decision, and find delight-i.e., when we can incorporate it into the issue of creation-the possibility of safe cities and society will emerge.

Takeshi Nakagawa
Professor, School of Creative Science and Engineering, Waseda University

[Profile]
1944: Born in Toyama Prefecture
1967: Graduated from the Department of Architecture, School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University
1972: Graduated from the doctoral course, Graduate School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University
1979: Associate Professor, Graduate School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University
1984: Professor, Graduate School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University
1986: Received a doctoral degree (Doctor of Engineering) from the Graduate School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University
2007: Professor, Department of Architecture, School of Creative Science and Engineering, Waseda University (current position)
Professor Nakagawa specializes in the comparative history of architecture and conservation and restoration of ancient Asian architecture. In 1977, he participated in an experiment of building a mini-pyramid in Egypt. Since then, he has continued research on ancient Asian architecture in parallel with studies on the pyramids. He has engaged in research on the palace city of Huế in Vietnam since 1991, and led the Japanese Government Team for Safeguarding Angkor (JSA) since 1994. He was awarded the Royal Medal of Sahametrei from the Kingdom of Cambodia, the prize of AIJ 2002 (specific contribution division), and Okuma Memorial Academic Prize of Waseda University for international cooperation regarding conservation and restoration technology. He is also a vice president of the Architectural Institute of Japan; Professor, School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University; and President, Institute of UNESCO World Heritage, Comprehensive Research Organization, Waseda University. He is the project leader of the Project on Urban Planning and Social Design, Waseda University Center for Research on Reconstruction from the Great East Japan Earthquake, established in May 2011.