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Tsunami-proof ‘Great Wall of Japan’ divides villagers

Tsunami Waves in Japan

Tsunami waves hit homes in Natori, Miyagi prefecture in March 2011. Photograph: AP


Powered by article titled “Tsunami-proof ‘Great Wall of Japan’ divides villagers” was written by Justin McCurry in Kesennuma, for The Guardian on Sunday 29th June 2014 17.21 UTC

When Masahito Abe looks out at the sea that killed 40 of his neighbours just over three years ago, he is certain of one thing: at some point, perhaps long after he is gone, the ocean will again unleash a terrifying wave on his village.

Like dozens of other communities along the north-east coast of Japan struck by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Koizumi is now a wasteland. Grass and weeds grow where homes once stood. On the beach, a man digs for shellfish near the remains of a solitary gutted building.

No one will return to live in the low-lying neighbourhood of Koizumi in Miyagi prefecture, home to 60% of the 19,000 people who died in the disaster. But if the government gets its way, this abandoned strip of land will be made tsunami-proof as part of a £5bn plan to defend 230 miles of coastline with hundreds of towering concrete walls.

The scale of the project, referred to by detractors as the Great Wall of Japan, is staggering even by the standards of a country where much of the coastline is already protected against storms and erosion by concrete walls.

Under government plans, hatched months after the disaster, 440 walls are to be built in the worst-hit prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate. But while Japan’s construction industry relishes the prospect of a huge payday courtesy of its allies in the governing Liberal Democratic party, opposition among residents is gathering momentum.

“We want the government to change the shape of the coast, and redesign it so a tsunami would have minimal impact, not just build a lot of walls,” said Abe, a primary school teacher in Koizumi who moved his family to a hilltop 20 years ago in anticipation of a deadly tsunami.

Masahito Abe, Japan

Masahito Abe points to the proposed site of a sea wall in the tsunami-hit village of Koizumi, north-east Japan. Photograph: Justin McCurry for the Guardian

Debate over the sea wall has proved so divisive among the village’s 1,800 residents – now spread out among eight temporary housing complexes – that some fear it will derail attempts to revive the village three years after the disaster wiped it from the map. “I don’t want the sea wall issue to divide people here,” said Yoshitaka Oikawa, a local assembly member. “I can see the debate is already weakening their determination to rebuild their village together.”

By the end of the year, Koizumi’s displaced will have moved into homes being built in an area carved into a mountaintop two miles from the coast. The 14.7-metre (48ft) wall below will do little more than protect rice paddies, at a cost of $230m. “It’s madness,” said Abe, who wants the area to be an eco park.

Yet many of his former neighbours appear content to leave tsunami defences in the hands of the authorities. “The attitude seems to be that if the walls have already been planned and budgeted for, why interfere?” Abe said.

Christian Dimmer, an assistant professor in the urban studies department at Tokyo University, shares Abe’s concerns, but believes many residents were left with little choice when offered premium rates for their land by the government. “In Koizumi there are people who are happy to sell their land for seawall construction,” he said. “[They thought] they couldn’t do anything else with their land and needed the money to rebuild their lives elsewhere.”


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