The right to be vulnerable: seawalls, resistances and protest movements in post-tsunami Japan (2021)

Professor Annaclaudia Martini, University of Bologna

Image: © Camilla Martini

Project summary

This project aims to map and analyse bottom-up practices of resistance and social justice in the movement developed in the Tohoku region in Japan as a reaction to the Central Government’s decision to build a 400 km long, 15 to 18 metres high seawall along the coast.

Despite the area being devastated by a tsunami in 2011, the fishing communities resist the construction of the wall because: (1) the seawalls in place before 2011 proved ineffective in protecting the communities and lulled them into a false sense of security; (2) the massive walls would irrevocably damage the seabed’s flora and fauna; and (3) a wall of that size creates a physical and emotional separation in the landscape between communities and the sea.

In Japan, the animist Shinto doctrine embedded in the population’s cultural background sees the landscape, its natural elements and events (including natural disasters such as tsunamis), as having a soul: a soul that needs to be nurtured and cared for. In fact, the opposition to the seawalls is not only aesthetic, but motivated by disruptions to the religious and cultural
semiotic landscape.

Seawalls are seen by the government as necessary for the safety of the communities, and their construction is rarely problematized. However, their constructions will impact the physical and emotional landscape of coastal communities for centuries. This research, instead of focusing on the negative impact of such projects –while still recognising the “wound” opened in the landscape- aims at analysing how landscape changes that are perceived as negative can give way to positive practical and social outcomes, fostering social justice, and empowerment. Moreover, by organizing in bottom-up movements, the social ties inside and amongst communities have strengthened, which is crucial in these depopulating areas.

The LRG funding will enable travel to the site in Tohoku, translation and transcripts of the interviews as well as facilitating a short video portraying the wall from the communities’ perspective.

Image: © Camilla Martini