Between debris and memorial: The meaning of disaster-affected objects for local residents in the recovery process of the Great East Japan Earthquake by Julia Gerster, Kohei Takahara, Yuki Sadaike, Akiko Okubori

This piece is the second part in the JAWS online series of Reflections from Tōhoku


How do local residents think about ten years of ongoing reconstruction and recovery in their hometowns? How do they connect to memories of life before the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disaster, commonly known as “3.11”, in an environment that has been drastically changed? How do local residents pass on the stories about the disaster in these newly rebuilt areas on raised land which makes it difficult to imagine the run-up heights of the tsunami and the destruction it caused?

To ensure that the lessons learned from 3.11 would not be forgotten, already in June 2011 the Reconstruction Design Council (2011) stressed in its first report to the Prime Minister the significance of archives, museums, and the preservation of disaster remains for disaster risk education. Soon researchers followed the call for the preservation of disaster-affected objects (Kimura, 2015; Sato and Imamura, 2016). To aid these efforts, the government made significant funding available to support local preservation efforts. In addition to the availability of funds for the preservation of disaster-related artefacts, vast areas that were rendered as tsunami hazard zones or nuclear exclusion zones in which residential housing reconstruction is prohibited, which gave way to the space to preserve more disaster-related objects connected to a specific disaster than ever before (Maly and Yamazaki, 2021; Littlejohn, 2010; Sakaguchi, 2019).


Visitors at the tsunami inundated Nakahama Elementary School which was turned into a disaster heritage site.


Through the preservation and memorialisation efforts, a great deal of material heritage and disaster artefacts have been salvaged. However, many objects, such as buildings, infrastructure, or personal belongings, were neither demolished as debris nor declared heritage for years following the disaster. These objects have nonetheless become a part of everyday life for local citizens by representing something constant in an ever-changing landscape. Our research project therefore became to investigate the meaning of disaster-affected objects that are between the two categorical definitions of debris and memorial. We assert that the disaster remains have  diverse  meanings for local citizens beyond the category of disaster risk education. For some the disaster remains may be traces of a life that may never return, for others they may be the resting place of a beloved person, family gathering spots, or the starting point for a new life.


An old warehouse (kura) in ishinomaki which got preserved thanks to the efforts of local citizens.


To investigate this topic, we formed a team of four researchers, each of them from a different disaster-affected site. Kohei Takahara and Akiko Okubori joined from Kobe, which was hit by the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995, with Okubori moving to Ishinomaki in 2017. Yuki Sadaike experienced the 1993 Hokkaido earthquake and tsunami in Okushiri from where she moved to Kobe and then to Sendai. Finally, Julia Gerster currently resides in Sendai and has been following the recovery of the Tohoku region since the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. We hope that these various backgrounds will allow us to compare the preservation and recovery processes in other regions to the long-term recovery in the Tohoku region in this ongoing research project.  Although we investigated several places affected by the 2011 disasters, our main focus became Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture.


A building destroyed by the tsunami in the Yuriage district of Natori City in 2013.


Among the challenges included in this research was identifying meaningful objects as non-locals. The research project therefore started with a “hybrid walking tour”- a mixture of physically walking through the city while simultaneously comparing the landscape to pictures we found in digital archives. The aim of this hybrid field research was to gain a feeling for Ishinomaki after the Great East Japan Earthquake, how the recovery proceeded and what kind of objects that were likely affected by the tsunami could still be found in the landscape. Equipped with tablets and smartphones, we followed the guidance of Naomi Chiba, an Ishinomaki resident. During the walk, we compared the changes over the past decade to pictures and maps from digital archives that showed Ishinomaki before and immediately following the tsunami. We also met with residents who reported feeling like they rediscovered their hometown through their engagement in disaster preservation projects or even founding their own archives. These residents stressed that the archiving activities enabled them to recall their lives before 3.11 and evoked memories of the previous Ishinomaki landscape. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the state of emergency declarations in the Tohoku and Kansai regions, many of our later research meetings, including area tours and interviews took place virtually. Despite these challenges, we were happy to discover that live broadcasts, using smartphones, enabled all team members to join in the field research despite the restrictions.


Sadaike and Okubori discussing documents with Takahara who joined online.


As a result of this research, we discovered the various meanings objects in the disaster area held for the survivors. When survivors returned to their neighborhoods for the first time after the tsunami, they encountered a scene of severe devastation, such as collapsed homes, scattered pieces of infrastructure, burnt down schools and parts of their hometowns covered in mud. However, the devastation that unfolded in their eyes was not rubble, but physical pieces of their homes, belongings, and memories. Over time, many of these objects would gradually vanish. Volunteers continued to search for photographs and other personal items which they carefully cleared from the mud and destruction. The recovered objects were then gathered and taken to public disaster remains such as former school buildings, where their owners could pick them up. Many of these items were never claimed, however, and still lie in storage rooms of museums waiting to be collected by their previous owners.

Slowly but steadily the scene of the tsunami aftermath has changed. Most of the destroyed buildings have been demolished. The few that were left have become conspicuous in a flattened landscape overgrown with grass. During the early stages of the recovery process, the disaster remains served as landmarks and meeting points. While damaged, these few tall buildings became markers in an environment where maps failed to reflect the rapid changes in roads and construction.

Even over the course of these changes, survivors returned to the foundations of their homes, shrines, temples, or other buildings that had held special meaning for them. Especially during O-Bon, a summer festival in which family members who have passed away are said to return to their homes for a couple of days, even the smallest remains of these buildings became of vital importance. During that time, bonfires and fireworks would light up an otherwise dark area. Flowers and personal offerings such as sake cups and toys were offered close to the building remains. These objects left by the bereaved reveal the significant personal meanings encompassed by what otherwise may seem like rubble to visitors. Only a few years after the disaster, before the raising of the land began, survivors and volunteers also started flower projects, where the foundations of the once lively neighborhoods were decorated with flowers to restore a sense of place. All these actions show the survivors’ continued attachment to their pre-disaster homes and neighbourhoods.

Despite the destruction, nature in the disaster-affected regions also brought survivors signs of hope. One of the most famous examples of this nature is the “miracle pine” in Rikuzentakata, a pine tree belonging to a coastal forest of once 70.000 pine trees that survived the tsunami. This tree gave survivors new hope and strength to rebuild their hometowns. Yet, like many other such miracle pines, it eventually died due to sea salt from the tsunami drowning its roots and the soil around it. As a result of donations gathered from all over the world the tree was nevertheless preserved, and locals have emphasized that although it is not a real tree anymore, birds come to nest in it every year, for instance, symbolizes that life goes on. Unlike the famed miracle pine of Rikuzentakata, these kinds of natural tsunami remains are often invisible to non-locals. Without descriptive plates, new tree sprouts which emerge beneath the dead trees of disaster-stricken areas may go unnoticed by non-residents despite being celebrated by residents as symbols of life itself. It may be due to this ambiguity that many natural symbols of hope were inadvertently buried or cleared within the course of reconstruction.


The miracle pine of Rikuzentakata, with the ruins of a Youth Hotel in the background in the Reconstruction Memorial Park of Iwate Prefecture.


More than a decade after 3.11, survivors continue to face ongoing changes in the recovery process. Within these changes, disaster-affected objects play a significant role in recalling or conveying survivors’ experiences in the disasters and its aftermath as remembering becomes more difficult with the passing of time. Today, kataribe (disaster storytellers) guide visitors through the recovering municipalities and use damaged buildings to remind them of the hardships caused by the disaster and life before 3.11. However, the existence of disaster remains which are in between the categories of official memorial and debris is temporary: at some point damaged buildings, infrastructure or other objects will most likely be defined as debris to be cleared or officially preserved. This temporality also infuses these objects with additional meaning and the negotiation of complex and diverse emotions among the survivors. Some survivors look towards a time when they no longer have to face the sight of buildings in which their loved ones passed away. However other survivors try to hold on to objects left by the tsunami as connections to a previous life to which they may never be able to fully return.

Many survivors fear that the ten-year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake could mark an end to the national attention on the recovery efforts and that the recovery could be regarded as completed. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and other recent disasters have also gradually reduced the media focus on Tohoku. Although not all disaster items can be preserved in the recovery process, previous disaster-sites such as Kobe or Okushiri have taught us that with the passing of time, remembering becomes increasingly difficult and objects therefore play an important role in this process through their symbolism. Objects that are in between the two defined categories of memorial and debris also serve as reminders that the 3.11 recovery process is ongoing. Through our talks with survivors about disaster remains, we were reminded of the manifold meanings these objects hold for individuals, with regards to the past as well as the future years of change. In this ongoing research project, we will continue to explore the connections of memory and disaster remains.


Research Team Members

Kohei Takahara is the principal researcher at the Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution (DRI) in Hyogo, Japan. He received a PhD in Literature from Osaka University. His research interests are in Clinical Philosophy, especially in memory studies on natural disaster and STS on disaster reduction systems.

Julia Gerster is an Assistant Professor at the Disaster Culture and Archive Studies Division of the International Research Institute of Disaster Science (IRIDeS) at Tohoku University. She received her PhD in Japanese studies with a disciplinary focus in social anthropology at Freie Universität Berlin in 2019. Her main research interests include the dynamics of social relations after disasters, community building, collective memory and the handling of negative heritage.

Yuki Sadaike is an Assistant Professor at Disaster Education Research and Implementation Lab at the International Research Institute of Disaster Science, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan. She gained her PhD in Literature at Hokkaido University. Her research interests are the Sociology of Disaster, Disaster Education and Culture as well as Disaster Recovery and Revitalization.

Akiko Okubori completed a PhD at The Graduate School of Humanities, Kobe University in 2017. After getting her PhD, she started to do fieldwork as a research fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science in the disaster area, especially in Ishinomaki city until March 2020. She continues to conduct research there. Her field of specialization is 20th-century French philosophy and thanatology.




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