Green project builds hope on Japan’s tsunami rubble

PRAYER FOR VICTIMS: Zen priest Doryu Hioki and local officials pray at a memorial park commemorating tsunami victims.
PRAYER FOR VICTIMS: Zen priest Doryu Hioki and local officials pray at a memorial park commemorating tsunami victims. Miami Herald Staff

There are new hills and new hope rising along the Sendai Plain where entire neighborhoods were washed away by the monster tsunami of 2011.

The top of a 30-foot hill constructed from old roof tiles and rubble from the earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, is a good vantage point to see a project Iwanuma City officials hope will help make their city sustainable for the next 1,000 years.

Some 6,000 small trees march up the side of the hill and toward the coastline where the devastating waves came ashore. Two other 36-foot hills of the 15 planned for the Millennium Hope Hills project have been completed.

Eventually the hills, which separate the sea from the city, are supposed to stretch for more than six miles along the coastline. They’re designed to serve several purposes: slow the power and speed of a tsunami, reforest land stripped of its trees and give people a place to take refuge if they are surprised by the sudden onslaught of water as they were in 2011.

City officials thought the Millennium Hope Hills project was a good idea and approved it. But only construction of the hills and embankments was funded — not the tree-planting.

Donations from around the world as well as volunteer labor during tree-planting festivals is making the reforestation possible. A tree sponsorship costs 500 yen ($4.21) and Toyota, Yokohama Rubber and other Japanese corporations are among the funders.

The green walls are part of Iwanuma’s multi-pronged tsunami defense that also includes repairing tsunami walls, building up low-lying areas, and elevating highways. But officials concede that for a once-in-a-millennium tsunami, the only real defense is to flee.

Before the Great East Japan Earthquake, pine trees grew along the beach and were considered tide prevention forests. But the tsunami washed away most of these single-species, shallow-rooted trees. Not only didn’t the pines stop the water but the uprooted trees caused even more damage when they crashed into homes.

The 23.6-foot concrete tsunami walls that were supposed to buffer the waves didn’t protect Iwanuma and its then-44,000 inhabitants from the tsunami either.

The Iwanuma project was suggested by botanist Akira Miyawaki, director of the Japan Center for International Studies in Ecology and emeritus professor at Yokohama National University. He has given tree-planting advice in more than 1,700 locations around the globe and is responsible for the planting of 40 million trees.

At a nursery near the first hill, 15,000 seedlings representing 15 species of fast-growing native trees, are being readied for planting next spring.

“They resemble the natural biodiversity of this area, making them strong as a forest,” said Doryu Hioki, head priest at Sendai’s Rinnouji Temple, who is spearheading the volunteer effort.

“A concrete tsunami wall can last 50 to 100 years and has to be replaced. The forest will take 20 years to mature but it will last the next 9,000 years,” said the Zen priest who has beem working with Miyawaki since 2004 on various tree-planting activities, including the 33,000 trees planted on the grounds of the temple.

The Millennium Hope Hills project, which began in June 2013, is labor-intensive in its early stages — thousands and thousands of seedling must be planted and the young trees also require weeding for two to three years — but after that the trees take care of themselves.

Even though tsunami walls are designed to save lives, they have pitted the prefecture against some local residents. In Shibitachi, a fishing village north of Sendai where residents were fighting the walls, the government compromised and agreed to a slightly lower wall.

“Mainly the people object to what the walls do to the scenery,” said Katsumi Abe, of the Miyagi Harbor Restoration agency. “But they also make the ports harder to use and some people think that since the mountains are nearby, they can just escape.”

“It’s important to protect from tsunamis, but daily life is also important,” said Hioki. “Concrete barriers may prevent the flow of nutrients to the sea and impact the catch of fish.”

And he said man-made structures also have their limits, noting that the $1.6 billion Kamaishi breakwater — 207 feet deep, more than a mile long and rising 20 feet above sea level — failed during the tsunami as did New Orleans’ levees after Hurricane Katrina.

“We’re not saying concrete is absolutely bad, but we do have to harmonize with nature,” Hioki said. “It’s a matter of balance and we have to focus more on that.”

Hioki has gone on international fund-raising trips for the project and created Shokuju-man, (Planting Tree Man), the star of a comic book that encourages kids to get involved in tree planting.

His efforts at Millennium Hope Hills, he said, are “for those who lost their lives in the disaster and so that the light of hope may continue to burn bright.”

In the area where the first hill was constructed, Iwanuma has built a coastal park with a stone memorial that ends in a point that juts more than 26 feet skyward. “That’s how high the water came up here,” said Nobuhiro Sugawara, an Iwanuma reconstruction and urban planning official, as he stood with Hioki and said a prayer for the victims.

Etched into the memorial are the names of 181 citizens of Iwanuma who lost their lives. “He was a six-year-old boy,” said Sugawara, pointing to one name. “Whole families perished.”

Meanwhile, the hills themselves serve as something of a memorial to what Iwanuma was.

Using the wood from collapsed homes to build up the hills was discussed but rejected by the Japanese Ministry of Environment because the decaying woods give off methane gas. The law didn’t permit the burying of tsunami debris either.

But it was changed to allow non-organic, non-hazardous remnants, such as crushed roofing tiles, bricks and concrete blocks, to be used in creating the hills. The material is buried and mixed with sand and a soil mound is built up and planted to create the green walls.

The steps leading to the summit of the first hill are built from the planks of destroyed homes, said Shuchi Sugari, manager at Iwanuma’s Reconstruction and Urban Planning department. “Now, people come here to remember their families so we want to recyle as much as possible,” he said.