The aesthetics of tenacity

Mikiko Ishikawa
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Urban Environmental Planning, Environmental Design

This is the third summer since the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Summers in Tohoku are short; there are hints of autumn in the color of the sky and the sound of the wind.

Since the earthquake, I have been supporting reconstruction in the disaster areas from an academic research perspective. I specialize in “environmental design” and have analyzed, evaluated, planned and designed the way people coexist with nature. Recovery from the tsunami, however, has been accompanied by major, unprecedented difficulties. The tsunami destroyed the occupations of all the residents and shook up the earth itself, making it difficult to find a foothold. Activities tied to life on the seacoast vanished, the people who lived were divided up among different temporary housing facilities, and the former villages are now covered by vast seas of grass. When viewed from a distance, they appear to be green meadows, but when you push your way through the head-high thicket of grass, you find the foundations of houses concealed underneath.

If you look toward the distant mountain range, you will be surprised by the appearance of red slopes in several places that were not there before. The mountain surface has been exposed due to the transportation of earth from the mountains to the seacoast to increase the level of the land there. The repercussions of the tsunami have extended all the way to the beautiful mountain range; this is the current situation in Tohoku. Despair and hope are closely interwoven; if you look down, you can see the first ears of rice in three years swaying in the wind, a sign that Japan, the Land of Abundant Rice, is recovering.



The reconstruction doesn’t seem to be moving forward at all, but I would like to introduce one aspect of it to you. I have been providing support in the southern area of the Sendai Plains. Tsunamis had not damaged this area since the Keichou era (1596-1615), and so many lives were lost. Villages that had existed on the coast since the Edo period were completely wiped out. Nothing was left but the “bonds between people.” Lately, I’ve been struck by the thought that these bonds are, perhaps, the most important thing that we share. Recently, I have been working with the people staying in temporary housing to think out plans for a new relocation of the villages and provide support. The cohesiveness of the villages is strong here, and the move from evacuation centers to temporary housing was made in terms of individual communities; we are also trying to plot out the land for the collective relocation in terms of communities. They say you can’t live in an area where you don’t know anyone, no matter how new the houses are. We have decided to merge the six villages and have determined where the locations for each of the approximately 500 households will be through discussions with each village. Surprisingly, there haven’t been any serious disputes or outcries during this difficult process. In addition, when there were problems that could not be resolved, people’s opinions were patiently ascertained and time was taken for discussion to reach a satisfactory conclusion, without resorting to a decision by majority vote. Could this be the “aesthetics of tenacity” of the Tohoku people, who keep speaking to a minimum and know what it means to wait?



At present, I personally experience the “aesthetics of tenacity” in not only human relationships, but also my research on coastal forests. The foundation of environmental design lies in ecology, and my lab is carrying out an academic study of coastal forests that remain after the tsunami through a comprehensive survey. Coastal forests are generally assumed to be monotonous pine forests, but in reality, they are unexpectedly diverse. Long ago, Date Masamune, Lord of Sendai Castle, started planting extensive coastal forests to promote rice crops in the Sendai Plains; this means they are not simply natural forests, but a man-made “cultural landscape.” When you enter the forest, you are struck by the life force of the vegetation. Large trees that have been growing since the Edo period remain, while fully-grown trees planted during the Showa period were destroyed. The forest floor, however, is crowded with young trees and plants that have been growing back since the disaster: Japanese black pines, Japanese red pines, konara oaks, mountain cherry trees, and spearflower, Asiatic jasmine, wavyleaf basketgrass, and other species found in satoyama areas (border areas between mountains and human settlements). In addition, the amount of light hitting the forest has increased due to the disruption caused by the tsunami, leading to a profusion of long-forgotten wildflowers, including large pinks, lilies (Lilium leichtlinii var. tigrinum), and yellow patrinia, just like the saying “hyakka ryouran” (many flowers blooming in profusion). Much of the remaining forest lies on slightly elevated land like sand dunes, and the low-lying land, while only a little bit lower in elevation, contains many marshy areas due to land sinkage. Waterfowl fly in to the marshes, which are presumably becoming a part of their migration route across the Pacific Rim. The uneven surface of the ground is becoming a cradle for biodiversity, enabling the growth of a wide variety of plants.

The Forestry Agency has adopted the guideline of “creating uniform forests” to reduce tsunami damage in the reconstruction of coastal forest moving forward in neighboring areas. Inorganic bases for the forests are being formed from straight lines in a trapezoidal shape. The Ishikawa lab’s coastal forest study is shedding light on what truly bountiful forests are like through academic research. Our goal is to present data that will prompt a reexamination of the direction reconstruction should take.

No matter how high the dikes are built, they won’t be able to protect people from a tsunami like the last one. That being the case, we need to change the way we think, accept the powerful forces of nature as a given, and construct infrastructure that can bounce back after it has been damaged.

What we need now is the “aesthetics of tenacity.”



Mikiko Ishikawa
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Urban Environmental Planning, Environmental Design

Professor Ishikawa was born in Iwanuma, Miyagi Prefecture and graduated from Miyagi Gakuin Senior High School. She graduated from the Department of Agrobiology, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Tokyo in 1972; completed a Master of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1976; and completed a doctorate in Landscape Architecture (Agrobiology) at the Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Tokyo in 1994. After serving as a special full-time professor on the Faculty of Architecture, Kogakuin University, a professor on the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies, Keio University, and a professor at the Department of Urban Engineering, Graduate School of Engineering, University of Tokyo, she assumed her current position in 2013. She holds a Ph.D. in Agriculture. She is a member of the Science Council of Japan. Her areas of specialization are urban environmental planning and landscape planning. She serves as the chairwoman of the Iwanuma Disaster Recovery Council, as well as a member of the Miyagi Prefecture Disaster Recovery Council. She won First Prize at the European Union International Fund’s International 21st Century Park Design Competition in 2003, as well as the Sichuan Earthquake Reconstruction Grand Design Honor Award in 2008. Her major publications include Cities and Green Space [Toshi to Ryokuchi] (Iwanami Shoten), The Age of Watershed Planning [Ryuuikiken Puranningu no Jidai] (Gihodo), and Thinking About 21st Century Cities [21 Seiki no Toshi wo Kangaeru] (University of Tokyo Press).





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