The famous pottery kilns in Mashiko were among the major cultural properties affected by the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan last March. Photo: tokyojinja.com
On March 11th, when a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated the eastern shores of Japan, a coastal town called Rikuzentakata was among the most violently hit. Approximately 10 percent of its 23,000 residents were killed by the disaster, including one third of its city officials, while the downtown core was turned to rubble. Among the destroyed buildings was a municipal museum—at once a safe haven for the town’s most important cultural relics, then suddenly a ruin.
Since losing his own house to the giant waves, Masaru Kumagai, a curator and long-time worker at the municipal museum, has made it his mission to rescue what remains of the museum’s collection. For several weeks, Kumagai led a dig through the battered site, retrieving artifacts from the ruins and placing them in an abandoned elementary school for restoration and safe-keeping. Today, he and a small team are hard at work preserving these elements for future generations.
Kumagai’s commitment is part of a nationwide effort among Japanese archaeologists and others involved in cultural heritage issues to rescue the cultural properties damaged by the disaster. When we last blogged about the destruction, Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs had tallied the damaged cultural properties at 353; however, as of last week, that number has risen to 714.
A recent online bulletin posted by Antiquity, a quarterly review of world archaeology, details efforts similar to Kumagai’s and documents some of the destruction of cultural sites. According to the bulletin, Sendai Castle and the famous pottery kilns at Tsutsumi Town in Sendai and at Mashiko in Tochigi Prefecture were among the major sites damaged by the earthquake, while museums in the areas affected by the tsunami suffered the greatest devastation.
The Antiquity bulletin also features a first-hand account by Professor Akira Matsui, Director of the Centre for Archaeological Operations at the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, who visited several affected sites (including the museum in Rikuzentakata) with heritage authorities. In his account, Matsui, who will speak about the damage at a symposium in London in October, writes:
Confronting this overwhelming catastrophe, I kept asking myself, ‘For what purpose should we protect these cultural assets?’ But I found I could justify our project of rescuing these cultural properties in the following way: ‘It is surely axiomatic that if we just leave irreplaceable historical materials such as ancient documents, handed down to us through the centuries, to be scattered, lost, and decayed, we will desperately regret our behaviour when the areas directly affected by the disaster begin to recover’.
As rebuilding efforts continue across the areas affected by the disaster, cultural heritage restoration is understandably not the most obvious priority. However, as Matsui writes, Japan’s cultural assets have been held in such high esteem for so long; to allow such rich cultural artifacts to disappear would be a shame.