Living with tsunami

Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum is part of the larger Takatamatsubara Memorial Park for Tsunami Disaster. The park was created together by the national government and local governments of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefecture, to ‘pass down the memories and lessons learned to the next generation’ and to provide as place for ‘memorial and reflection on those lost in the disaster.’


Components of the memorial park:

Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum
michi-no-eki takatamatsubara Rest Stop
kiseki-no-ippommatsu (Miracle Pine Tree)
Rikuzentakata Youth Hostel (remains)
Tapic 45  (remains of the old Takatamatsubara Rest Stop)
Settlement Promotion Housing (remains)
Kesen Junior High Scool (remains)

Facilities provided at the michi-no-eki takatamatsubara rest stop:
Rest and parking spaces (cars and buses)
24 – hour bathrooms
Information Center
Market selling local produce
A small food court with local cuisine

Current status: The rest stop and museum is completed and open to the public, while the area around the Pine Tree is still being constructed. In the future all the remains will be opened up for tours. A new batch of pine seedlings (sourced from the original trees) have been planted in front of the breakwater to replace the 70,000 trees wiped away by the tsunami.

Walking through the Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum

Zone 1 Tracing History

The museum experience rightly begins with an introduction to the history of tsunamis in Iwate and around the world. There are technical explanations on the mechanics of seismic activity and the chain reaction of events that come after.

A large screen plays an animation showing the tectonic plates that make up the earth’s surface, and how it continues to move and strain against each other. The animation ends with the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, which is the subject of the rest of the exhibit.

Zone 1 History

1-1 Earth’s activities and earthquakes
1-2 A history of repeated earthquakes and tsunamis. This is especially important as it sets the tone for the entire museum that is focused on understand and living with these natural forces instead of trying to fight it.


1-3 Natural disaster measures

Zone 2 Facts and reality

2-1 Overview of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami
2-2 Power of tsunamis. This point is largely illustrated by wreckage and objects salvaged from various places. The room is dominated by a twisted segment of a wrought iron bridge, a crushed fire engine used by volunteer firefighters, and artefacts from schools, railway stations and highways.


ōtsuchi Railway Station signboard

2-3 A lost landscape. Before and after photographs of the Iwate coastal landscape.
2-4 Victims testimony. This section offers books, written testimonies, interviews with survivors. Of particular interest is the children’s book ハナミズキのみち and a hefty tome with detailed descriptions of every single person who died.

2-5 Gallery showing a short film (7 minutes) with scientific date, images and video of the earthquake.

Zone 3 Lessons to be learned

3-1 Saving lives details specific rescue efforts; who did what where and what were their main challenges. The main room is a recreation of the actual meeting room where the disaster response team worked in. Unfortunately photography was not allowed.

Details on rescue efforts.

To be honest, at first I thought it was all a bit much. Was it really necessary to look at a meeting table with laptops, and status updates on screens flashing on a wall? Then the words “The show is about to begin” appeared.  One by one, the small screens started showing CCTV recordings of every day normal life. Cars stopping at a traffic light, traffic zooming past on a freeway, pedestrians walking across a bridge. The earth shakes and we see how people are responding to it. The exhibit offers a direct insight into the humans who responded to the disaster and what were their main priorities at the time. For the prefectural governments, the top priority wasn’t actually the saving of lives, but rather reopening of major roads from the interior to the coastal area to allow access to other rescue agencies.

3-2 Protecting and supporting lives

3-3 Evacuate in order to live
This section offers detailed case studies of actual evacuations, in a bid to understand what went wrong, what went right. The concept of tendenko is emphasised here as the most important measure in saving lives. Roughly translated as “everyone for his or herself”, the concept insists that every individual should prioritise themselves and immediately make their way to higher ground. This is actually a rather old concept promoted by the survivors of tsunamis from the last century.

Dispelling myths and common misconceptions about the tsunami.


3-4 Building a future
This section focuses on recovery which includes reconstruction of the landscape, relocation of residents, construction of breakwaters, and revitalisation of the local economy.

Zone 4 Moving towards restoration together

The museum offers a fascinating insight into the Japanese way of thinking about earthquakes and tsunamis. These are the workings of natural forces, and therefore cannot be altered or prevented. What we can do is be better prepared for it.

One of the key reasons why those who survived a tsunami in the past are able to react faster and in the right way, is because they know what a tsunami looks like. The rest of us are relying on second hand imagination, photographs, animation, video, drawings, stories to imagine the scale of it all, and even then, it is never internalised. There are only so many ways (and words) you can use to tell someone how big and devastating something was. This is where context and scale provided by preserving damaged buildings, and running an educational museum becomes an invaluable experience.

Damaged Youth Hostel that will be preserved as one of the components of the memorial park. 

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