Digest (No.102-113)   100(complete transration)  HOME

No. 101 (10th April, 2011)

News from the Disaster Area in Eastern Japan (no. 2)
Murata- Machi, Iwanuma-Shi, Watari-chou.

  This is SATOU Daisuke of the Executive Office of the Miyagi Shiryou Net. We have received many letters of encouragement in answer to our previous newsletter. I would like to thank everyone. There was another large tremor on the evening of the 7th of April. We are concerned about further damage to cultural properties already damaged by the earthquake on 11th March. This Newsletter brings you another report on our activities within the disaster affected area. On 5th April, we inspected the areas of Murata-chou, Iwanuma-shi, and Watari-chou, in southern Miyagi Prefecture.

1) Documents Found in a Buddhist Altar in Murata

  The inland town of Murata flourished during the late Edo Period (1600-1868) as a region producing safflower, a valuable commercial crop used as a dye in textiles and cosmetics. In the centre of the town today there still remain several buildings built in the distinctive white and black stucco plaster “warehouse” style of the merchants who accumulated small fortunes in the safflower trade. The layout of the town is reminiscent of Kyoto, and the town advertises its historical heritage to attract tourists.

  There are few news reports on the damage done by the earthquakes inland and away from the tsunami affected areas, including Murata-chou. However, Murata was one region where we were concerned about the extent of earthquake damage, and we conducted an inspection there on the morning of 4th April.

  The O Family of Murata was one of the leading dealers in safflower in the region, and after the safflower trade declined in the Meiji Period, the family maintained its position as a family of local prominence. The family owns a collection of some thousands of documents recording its history in the region. The present head of the family lives outside of Miyagi, and the warehouse style store/house and attendant warehouses and collection of documents have been donated to the town government to use as a tourist facility. A group of historians including myself under the auspices of the Ouu Shiyou Chousakai catalogued and photographed these documents over a period of 6 years from 2003.

  We were concerned about the damage caused by the earthquake of 11th March not only to the buildings, but also to the collection of documents which we had catalogued and which were stored in one of the warehouses. Immediately after the earthquake we contacted the Cultural Properties Department of the Town Office and were able to confirm that the buildings of the O Family were still standing, and the documents housed within were safe.

  On the other hand, we also contacted the present head of the Family, who told us that he had discovered some previously unknown documents in the drawers in the family buddhist altar when he had visited Murata just before the earthquake. He was undecided as what to do with these documents, and the earthquake hit before he was able to make up his mind. He wanted to rush back and investigate the situation, but with the current collapse of the traffic system, he could not get to Murata. Post-quake tremor activity was still at a high level, and when we offered to retrieve and save the documents for him, the family head asked us to do so. Rescuing these documents was another purpose of our visit of inspection to the region.

  The documents in the altar were exactly in the place described by the Family head. We investigated the altar ourselves, and found that there were several drawers built into it, containing a large number of documents from the Edo Period. After gaining the consent of the Family head, we extracted these documents to take with us back to the Network’s headquarters in Sendai.

  One of the participants was an architect, who inspected the damage to the house and buildings. One of the zelkova wood pillars in the house was damaged, and in need of immediate repair to prevent it coming apart in any further tremors. We did not have enough personnel to inspect the documents we had already catalogued and which were stored in the warehouse, nor were we able to check whether the roof there was leaking water, so we had to leave the task of confirming the state of the rest of the collection of documents to another day.

  After what we had witnessed the day before in Ogatsu Chou in Ishinomaki, what was most inspiring for me today was not that we were able to discover hitherto unknown documents. Rather, it was that we were able to save documents which had survived this great disaster. Today’s rescue operation was a good example of the benefits of carrying out rescue operations with the full cooperation of the owner of the collection and the Historical Properties Department of the local government. The success of this operation gave us the energy necessary to continue with our work.

2) The Earthquake and Damage to Traditional Buildings: the Case of Murata(2)

  Looking at the old warehouse-style buildings within Murata, including those of the O Family, you would think that they were all seriously damaged. There were cracks in the walls, roof tiles had fallen off, buildings were not standing up straight. The house of the O Family needed immediate repairs to one of its pillars, but the local government office had already investigated the inside of the building and were in the process of deciding how best to deal with the damage.

  On the other hand, according to the local participants, the damage to the warehouse-style buildings of Murata was most likely not as bad as it looked. For example, the foundations of the buildings were as solidly as possible, the pillars were built of thick zelkova wood which is now almost impossible to procure, and the majority of them appeared to have been spared irreparable damage. The sections of stucco plaster wall which had collapsed were already old and in need or repair before the earthquake, and the core structure of the buildings was still intact.

  Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that the damage to the buildings appears to be very extensive on first appearance. People used to modern architecture do not understand how these traditional buildings are built to withstand earthquakes, and jump to the conclusion that these buildings are damaged beyond repair on the basis of our initial impressions. People carrying out safety inspections of buildings after the earthquake appear to be too ready to plaster the red “Condemned” stickers on traditional buildings, and this is spurring on the further unnecessary demolition of traditional buildings after the earthquake. So far our group has been mainly concerned with the preservation of historical documents, and at this stage, we do know how we should approach this problem of preserving buildings. However, in light of how serious this problem is, we plan to seek the advice of specialists on appropriate measures to save these buildings until proper repairs can be made.

3) Easy to Say but Hard to Do: Saving the Legacy of your Forebears in Iwanuma

  On the afternoon of the 4 we crossed on over to Iwanuma. We visited 6 Families which we had identified beforehand as having important collections, with a member of the Cultural Properties Protection Committee as our guide. The families we visited received us well, despite the fact that our visit was sudden and unannounced.

  Each of the families that we visited had traditional buildings, either/and houses and warehouses, and as in Murata, here also there were many visible outer signs of damage to the buildings. Some had already undergone the initial damage evaluation conducted by local government, and had had the red “Condemned” sticker plastered on them.However, on closer inspection, these building did not appear to have suffered irreparable damage. One owner said that because the earthen wall had collapsed it was possible to visually check the pillars in his building, and that he had decided to repair it instead of demolishing it.

  At another house beside the Sendai Eastern Highway, the tsunami had come right up to the garden, but the warehouses which once had been used to gather and store local produce and the house had been spared serious damage. However, the walls of the 100 year old stucco-plaster warehouse had collapsed completely, leaving the pillars and internal structure exposed. According to the family head, he could not afford the cost of repairing this warehouse, and that he would probably have to have it demolished. He said that there many old documents stored in this warehouse, and we asked him to call us to rescue these documents before the building was demolished.

3) A Township Hit by the Tsunami at the Mouth of the Abukuma River: Arahama,Watari chou

  The town of Watari, on the southern side of the Abukuma River opposite from Iwanuma, suffered extensive damage from the tsunami. We also visited Arahama within Watari. Arahama is a fishing village and former port at the mouth of the Abukuma River.

  We visited the M Family, where we had conducted an investigation of their collection of documents some years ago. The M Family had been responsible for controlling river traffic on the Abukuma River, and had a collection of documents related to this historical role. Part of the collection had been entrusted to the town museum, but documents dealing with river traffic in the 19th century were still in the Family’s keeping. These documents had been used as padding in the sliding paper doors (fusuma) of the old family house, and were discovered when the old house was demolished to make way for a new house. It was doing the retrieval and restoration work on these documents when I first experienced this aspect of historical preservation. I come from northern Fukushima, and I remember fondly the excitement of discovering place names from my home region scattered throughout these documents.

  There were many signs of tsunami damage throughout Arahama. As in the townships we visited the day before along the mouth of the Kitakami River, gaping holes had been broken through the 7 metre high levee banks of the Abukuma River. The house of the M Family was still standing in recognisable shape, but it was obvious that the ground level had been flooded. There was no one at home, and we were not able to confirm what had happened to the documents.

  In some of the neighbouring houses had a large “X” made of white tape plastered on them, indicating that someone had become a victim there. According to a local who spoke to us, most of the victims were elderly people who were not able to escape in time. Our informant told us that the head of the M Family had escaped the tsunami and made it safely to a relief centre, but had apparently passed away at the next point he had evacuated to.

  We placed a wreath of flowers we had brought with us in an appropriate place and then departed. Today, we were able to rescue one collection of documents, but we also experienced a sad separation from an old friend.

(Translated by J.F.Morris, Professor of Miyagi Gakuin Women's University)

 The family head of M Family has been confirmed safe at the later time. (Sato Daisuke)

 Digest (No.102-113)   100(complete transration)  HOME