Posted May 10th 2011 at 11:24 am by
in Great East Japan Earthquake, Post-disaster Planning

Post-Tsunami Japan: A Change of Plans?

•  The recent tsunami washed away more than buildings and bodies. It may have taken an old philosophy of urban planning with it, too.

How Disaster Changes City PlanningTwo months after the Great East Japan Earthquake, more than 120 thousand people are living in local high school gyms and other temporary evacuation shelters.

Some families have decided to stay in their own dilapidated houses, without water or electricity, so that they can better care for their elderly family members and newborn babies.  Still other families, particularly those with small children, have found temporary housing in remote locations — in Tokyo, Osaka, or anywhere in the western part of Japan.

Meanwhile, everyone is talking about how the region should be redeveloped.  The Prime Minister, as well as ad-hoc groups from academia and industry, have suggested their own ideas for recovery.  The PM convened a national panel of fifteen experts on April 14th. However, the media has criticized him for his poor management of the panel process for preparing its reconstruction plan.

A few prefectural governments and municipalities have even released official draft recovery plans.  For instance, Prefecture of Miyagi’s draft recovery plan, which was released on April 11, suggests that the affected towns cannot be reconstructed as they were before the tsunami, and calls for a new regional structure.


The first task of the recovery is to rebuild housing.

The government ordered the construction industry to expedite the construction of prefabricated houses.  The industry was in a good position to do so — it learned how to quickly design and produce quality temporary houses, including ones with special features to accommodate elderly residents, after the Kobe earthquake in 1995.

The prefab houses are harder to place than to build. Streets are covered with mud and debris, which makes property boundaries hard to find. Local agencies are having difficulty identifying public lots on which to build the houses.

How Disaster Changes City Planning

Minami-Sanriku Town. Photo by Ryo Inoue.

The number of evacuees is also insurmountable.  Municipalities far away from the affected region are providing their excess housing stock to evacuees.  The Town of Tsunan in Niigata Prefecture, a declining remote village in a mountain area, has invited ten evacuating families and will provide free housing and free farm land for five years.

On the other hand, according to my analysis on 514 tales from the evacuees, many of them want to remain in their original cities despite what they have suffered.  They remain attached to a local culture, language, history, and — most importantly — their beloved friends.  Many small businesses are now struggling to resume their operations by salvaging machinery and other materials buried under mud.  Job creation has become a critical issue because many employees have lost their jobs but still want to remain in their home towns.  Some of them have already left for Tokyo and other big cities for temporary employments.

This leads to a big question regarding how they will live once the temporary evacuation period is over.  Will they remain in the towns where they’ve found refuge after the earthquake, or will they go back to their hometowns where they grew up?

How Survivors Influence Reconstruction

Then the next planning challenge is creating a viable long-term recovery plan.

After the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake in 1995, the national government and local city governments tried to redevelop the whole devastated area by installing typical rectangular street grids.  The grids, they argued, offered better fire protection and enabled a high rise on each block.

But a circle of friends looks more like a web than a grid.  Landlords and residents protested the grids because they feared losing their close-knit social networks under the shadows of new superblocks.  Local architects and planners supported the residents, and eventually their ideas grew into a movement for collaborative planning against superblock developments.

This struggle between developers and local residents facilitated the development of a new planning movement, currently known as machizukuri in Japan.  Some communities succeeded in maintaining the atmosphere of tightly-knit communities by incorporating unique features to their buildings and streets.  In other neighborhoods, residents built social capital in the process of fighting for the post-earthquake neighborhoods they wanted, which led to different kinds of community activities, such as festivals and voluntary street cleanings.

In the recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake, however, the same community-led planning strategy might not work.  First of all, the nature of the disaster is different.  Damage from the 1995 earthquake was caused by the earthquake itself.  In 2011 the tsunami, not its creator, can claim the lion’s share of the damage.

How Disaster Changes City Planning

Minami-Sanriku Town. Photo by Ryo Inoue.

Everything is not just destroyed. It is washed away. No one knows who owned which parcel.  In some towns, the town hall buildings were totally washed away by the tsunami.  The Town of Otsuchi has lost its town hall as well as its mayor.  These townships no longer have record of their residents and property registries.  This is an extreme challenge to the upcoming recovery efforts.

Reconstructing the Economy

It is difficult to plan an economy for a population in retirement.

Fishing, two months ago the most important industry in northeast Japan, was totally devastated by the tsunami.  Twelve thousand fishing boats, approximately 90% of the registered boats, were severely damaged or lost in Miyagi Prefecture.  Aquaculture facilities along the coast were also totally destroyed.  Nets, buoys, and anchors for harvesting oysters, seaweed, kelp, and many other kinds of aquatic products were damaged.

Yet agriculture and fishing were already on the decline in the aging northeast society.  The population size of each town and village was also declining, and many town governments were being forced to consolidate with adjacent ones in order to maintain the minimum level of public services.

In 1995 the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake mainly hit the City of Kobe. According to the 1995 National Census, Kobe was a densely populated city of 1.5 million residents, only 13.5% of whom were above 65 years old.  The Great East Japan Earthquake hit the whole region of northeastern Japan — approximately 7 million residents, 22% of them above 65 years old (according to the 2005 National Census, aggregated numbers for Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures).

Kobe is a major city, and closely linked to Osaka City, the second largest metropolitan area in Japan. After the 1995 earthquake, the focus was to reconstruct the city as quickly as possible to reinstate the industries they had. Conversely, small coastal towns and villages affected by the tsunami are scattered across the region.  Thus, the upcoming recovery has to deal not just with the reconstruction of each town and village, but also the regional economy as a whole.

How Disaster Changes City Planning

Ishinomaki City. Photo by Ryo Inoue.

The recovery plan has to deal with the restructuring of an industry and community in the region.  The fishing industry might have to shift from its traditional practices to more efficient methods and a streamlined supply chain.  While mainstream agriculture in Japan is still based on mom-and-pop (actually grandma-and-grandpa) operations, these small operations might have to be consolidated by major agricultural firms led by the younger generation.

While I’m not necessarily in favor of such consolidation in the agriculture and fishing industries by a few major capitals, this recovery will have to deal with this question because the majority of victims are now over 65 years old, which means they will be way too old to engage in the jobs when the recovery is complete.

Energy Planning

This is an excerpt from the author’s full post on Japanese energy planning.

In 2007, the National Institute for Environmental Studies published two possible narrative scenarios for a low-carbon society.  In the first scenario, people live in futuristic cities and consume a relatively large amount of electricity generated by nuclear power plants.  In the second scenario, people are more attracted to the pastoral life and consume less electricity generated by renewable sources.  While the first scenario seemed more likely before the earthquake in March, the second scenario seems much more plausible after the nuclear incident.

Scott Valentine, an expert in renewable energy in Asia, suggests that the Japan can in fact rely on renewable energy for as much as 20 percent of the total energy demand.  Even though discarding the whole nuclear option might seem unrealistic considering the need for a base load supply and green house gas emission reduction, we might be able to rely mainly on renewables while trying to reduce demand. Conventional industry would probably protest this idea because it relies on a stable supply of electricity.  This kind of drastic change would harm their economic interests.  But the main question is still about the way in which we live and work.

Now, let’s think about this question of how Japanese live.  It’s not an energy policy question.  It is a city and regional planning question!  Each Japanese citizen has to think about what kind of city and region s/he wants to live in.  Does he want to live in a high rise, and buy high-end merchandise and engineered produce in an energy-consuming city?  Does he want to drive a zero-emission electric vehicle whose power comes from a nuclear power plant in the evening?  Alternatively, does he want to live in a hinterland with minimal lighting and heating, and eat only local produce?  Can he think of a life without driving automobile at all?  Is he ready to telecommute?

These are the questions that the Japanese citizens need to deliberate now.  We need to learn from each other about the pros and cons of totally different lifestyles.  We need to analyze a wide variety of options from different perspectives, such as climate change, nature conservation, economic growth, and public safety.

In Japan, I think, we need to start such a dialogue in order to reach a broad agreement as to what kind of life are we going to enjoy, and determine how much energy we need and the risks associated with it.


Process is as important as product.

How Disaster Changes City Planning

Piled-up debris nearby Sendai Airport. Photo by Ryo Inoue.

One strand of theory is to design an ideal city on top of the totally devastated land and implement the plan by powerful central authorities.  This ideal city would be a so-called compact city, with many different functions packed in a relatively small area where most things are within walking distance.  Such cities can be reconstructed in areas at a slightly higher elevation in order to avoid a tsunami of the equivalent magnitude.  The Prime Minister once suggested that fishermen live on the top of the hill, and commute to their boats.

The other strand of thought is to focus on the interests of community stakeholders and help them reach an agreement about the futures of their towns.  As a graduate of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, I would prefer this idea, following the model developed after the 1995 earthquake.

On the other hand, the recovery for the Great East Japan Earthquake question entails restructuring the regional economy, not just reconstructing towns.  I have to admit that the ground-up approach might lead to a suboptimal solution in terms of regional economic development in the coming 20 years.

Thus, planning processes must be designed in a way that integrates both top-down and bottom-up approaches.  The national government, with help of state-level stakeholders, can best give clear guidance as to how each city should consider transitioning to a new economy in the coming 20 years.  Each local government and its stakeholders should then engage in consensus-building efforts for finding innovative solutions that make the most of the resources in the area and the skills of stakeholders.

There won’t be a cookie-cutter solution to the recovery of cities and towns with different characteristics and history.  Planners should play the role of facilitator and technical assistant in the discussion about the future of each community.

A final note from the author:

To conclude this article, I want to raise a crucial issue to the victims in the region.  The earthquake made a serious damage to the northeastern region of Japan.  We lost more than twenty thousand people.  The Fukushima nuclear plant released radioactive substances to the air.  However, the serious damage is contained in the northeastern part of Japan.  People in other parts of Japan, particularly in the western part including Kyoto, are still living the same life with minimal impacts from the incident.

A big problem right now is the loss of foreign tourists and visitors to these unaffected regions.  If you take a direct flight to the Kansai International Airport in Osaka and avoid going to the east, the risk of being affected by radiation is literally null. The amount of radiation you receive during your flights between the U.S. and Tokyo is far more than you would receive from the increased radiation level in Tokyo for a week’s stay there.

The fear factor is the worst nightmare for the people in Japan.  Even in the northeastern part, Japanese sake (rice wine) breweries are suffering from the plummeting demands because some Japanese argued that it’s “immoral” to drink sake and have parties during this hard time.  Now the sake breweries are broadcasting their message via YouTube.


The earthquake was severe.  All Japanese citizens, I believe, sincerely appreciate donations from all over the world and any kind of help to our fellow citizens in the stricken area.  But you can also help us by simply buying our products as you did before and visiting Japan without worrying too much about the radiation and earthquake damages.

Post by Masahiro Matsuura, a Professor at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Public Policy. Matsuura earned a Ph.D. in Urban and Regional Planning at MIT.

3 responses to “Post-Tsunami Japan: A Change of Plans?”

  1. Christina says:

    Professor Matsuura, Your comment on the need for a combined top-down and bottom-up approach to reconstruction is interesting. I am surprised that there is not already a focus on this in the planning field? In sustainability work it is widely known that leadership is essential to provide the vision of an organization’s/town’s/state’s…sustainable future. Leaders also must provide their political clout or will to accomplish things. The second most important element of a successful sustainability initiative is stakeholder engagement. If stakeholders aren’t effectively engaged, sustainability efforts will likely be ineffective and elusive. Increasingly I think that this approach is necessary for the success of any type of project or endeavor, including planning and reconstruction.

  2. Thank you for your insightful piece professor. I have been curious to about how the machizukuri issue would play out in the wake of this disaster, and the dilemmas and possibilities you point out are striking. It seems as though the top-down initiatives from the government and bottom-up activies of civil society will both play important roles; I wonder to what degree do you think these two spheres will be able to coordinate with each other?

    Although I don’t know if it’s the case or not, it seems civilians in the immediate wake of this disaster must have a lot less time/resources/energy to spend on self-organized initiatives than people did after Kobe since they must be concerned with the safety of themselves and their families, and decisions such as whether to relocate to Sendai or move farther afield. If this is the case then perhaps the civilian response will come after large-scale centralized plans have already been put into motion and people have more resources to work with. However there must be at least some civilian initiatives taking shape already; how will the official bodies respond to them?

    In the past it seems like Japan has seen many different relationships between the two sectors: full-on Public/Civil partnership with two way dialogue; pseudo-partnership where social/everyday life concerns are unloaded onto civil groups so the public sector doesn’t have to deal with them; competition, where civil and public initiatives exist side-by-side and may duplicate each other’s roles; or antagonism, where the public bodies dominate and force citizens to work through them.

    Given the logistics and politics of this disaster, do you think any of these scenarios is likely to be more common, or will we see many different scenarios in different places and at different points on the timeline of reconstruction?

    Thanks again for your perspective, I agree with your point about the need for a synthesis of top-down and bottom-up techniques and hope that the strengths of both will be able to be put to good use in the reconstruction process.

  3. Nancy says:

    This was the most interesting blog post I have ever read on Colab Radio. Thank you for teaching me how the unique features of cultures and even neighborhoods have such different needs when rebuilding after such an enormous disaster.