Japan's tsunami defences brutally exposed

by Shingo Ito

TARO, Japan - If anyone in Japan had reason to feel safe from a tsunami, it was the residents of Taro, a small fishing town protected by a seemingly impregnable, giant seawall of reinforced concrete.

But the monster wave that hit the northeast coast on March 11 surged over the barrier with ease - its force undiminished as it crashed into Taro and levelled everything in its path.

"I had never imagined that this seawall could be breached," said Yayoi Onatomo, looking down over the devastated town from the top of the wall whose construction had promised to consign such a tragic sight to history.

"It was the pride and symbol of Taro," said the 42-year-old local restaurant employee, who had brought her son and daughter along for an object lesson in the futility of man's efforts to tame nature.

Taro has been here before. Giant tsunamis destroyed the town in 1896 and 1933, and it was the latter disaster that spurred construction of the towering seawall that was completed in 1958.

Known as a Japanese "Great Wall of China," it stretches for 2.4 kilometres (1.5-miles) and rises as high as 10 metres (33-feet), sealing off the serene, coastal bay where Taro sits.

So strong was the townspeople's faith in the security it afforded that some, according to long-time resident Fumiko Hirata, actually climbed the barrier to watch the March 11 tsunami as it approached.

"They were just swept away. The tsunami came very fast," said Hirata, 74. No country in the world is more experienced in or better protected against the threat of tsunamis.

The word itself is Japanese, and what is arguably the country's most famous painting, by the 19th century artist Hokusai, depicts a tsunami-like wave passing by Mount Fuji.

As well as seawalls, like the one at Taro, the eastern coast is dotted with other defences, such as offshore breakwaters and raised river dykes - complemented by sophisticated early warning systems.

Their impotence in the face of the March 11 tsunami, which barrelled unhindered through the world's deepest breakwater in Kamaishi Bay, south of Taro, has led some officials to suggest more drastic preventive measures.

Jin Sato, mayor of Minamisanriku, one of the hardest-hit towns, called for a a "fundamental change" in policy and hinted at regulations that would put low-lying coastal areas off-limits to residential construction.

"Do our citizens want to go back to the same place after facing such a massive tsunami?" Sato asked.

Yoshitaka Tomoda, a professor in civil engineering at Iwate Prefectural University, said there would always be limits on what man-made defences could achieve.

"It's impossible to protect all lives and property with hardware alone," Tomoda said.

It's a lesson the residents of Taro learned in the most brutal fashion. Two weeks after the disaster, survivors could still be seen gazing blankly at the wreckage of the town, while others scoured the debris for possessions and mementos of those who died - pictures, diaries, toys.

The only sounds were of mechanical diggers removing rubble and military vehicles moving in convoy down a nearby road.

"Most people here placed too much trust in the seawall," said Tomio Hakoishi, a 63-year-old barber who managed to escape to higher ground and returned to find his house had simply disappeared.

"Many people underestimated it, I'm afraid," he said.

Others echoed that judgement, citing a sense of complacency that had set in after frequent tsunami warnings over the years that had resulted in little more than some angry surf.

Masaru Arakida, a senior researcher at the Asian Disaster Reduction Centre, said Japanese coastal towns needed to be redesigned to prevent another disaster in the future.

"This tsunami was bigger than what the nation, experts and local residents had originally thought," Arakida said.

"Do you think it's enough to merely upgrade expectations of levels of tsunami from three or five metres to 15 or 30?" Arakida said. "We are facing a new challenge."