An Incomplete Atlas of Stones: A Cartography of the Tsunami Stones on the Japanese Shoreline



Material practices are deeply political practices. In the early history of landscape architecture in North America — where I was trained in philosophy and landscape architecture — Frederick Law Olmsted and some of his contemporaries worked as designers and, crucially, as advocates for public literacy, awareness, and ultimately the protection of landscapes that they considered essential to the overall well-being of the public sphere. In so doing, they explicitly acted to expand the field of possibilities for landscape architecture, moving back and forth between designing discrete sites and designing political dialogues.This movement not only extended the influence of landscape architecture beyond the boundaries of the site, but it empowered a profession in its early stages to consider its agency at scales beyond the site, endowing it with the responsibility to consider the forces that shape landscape outside of design, including politics, economy, and material processes.

The problem of moving shorelines, of transgressions and regressions, remains a fundamental question to disciplines from geology to landscape architecture, and to the safety (or risk) of those who live along coastlines. An Incomplete Atlas investigates a type of stone set into a coastal landscape, the tsunami stones of Japan, in order to carry those aims forward, in order to think collectively about how we design and conduct research, in order to develop a greater fluency about the relations involved in making landscapes.

Landscape Agency ///
It is, after all, “landscape’s genius, landscape’s own agency, is that it is forever masking the work that makes it” (Don Mitchell, “Landscape’s Agency,” 2017). For the most part, Mitchell goes on, the illusion suits us fine — those who the landscapes are for — until it’s not, when the material labor of the landscape is revealed, usually in disaster or in conflict but also through scientific enquiry. How, then, can we reveal landscape’s agency before the event? Or, how might we recover the critical capacity of landscape architecture, assuming it ever had it to begin with?

“[…] not only is landscape the medium of naturally existing forces, flows and processes, but the very matter that constitutes landscape itself — the rocks, the soils, the fossils it produces — all add temporal, ecological and geological dimensionality to its vitality — its non-human agency. On the other hand, this agency, if well-documented in its materiality, can play a more interpretive role in constituting a kind of historical narrative of human culture — a means to prove the recent and deep past of the human condition in relation to objects extracted from or placed within the landscape. Taken together, these various discursive tendencies instigate a practice in which the rigorous documentation of materials, plants and their unique ecologies can be curated to reveal a kind of social and cultural agency that passes through the material fragments of landscape, entangling the human and non-human worlds in a complex, more-than-human ecology. Landscape, we could say, appears today as a kind of as-found archive of social and cultural history.” (Ross Exo Adams, “Landscapes of Post-History,” 2017).

Landscape is a place where we project political and social orders. And, landscape can also be the source of truth that vindicates or substantiates those orders — because they are necessary. And when things become necessary (or are presumed to be), they can lose their agency. If we agree with Adams’ contention that landscape is a found-archive, it follows that it is also almost incomprehensible in its complexity and political status in the present. When landscape architects speak of landscapes, we speak of “making visible” — this is the agency and language we ascribe to ourselves as landscape architects. And we tend towards doing this by making site inventories and analyses and maps.

Everyday Life///
How and where might we reconcile landscape’s status as dynamic, susceptible, and prone to agency? Once we do this, can we then develop a practice — an ethical practice or method — by which to respond to any given landscape?

In Japanese traditions, there exists a continuity between nature and culture, insofar as the sense of a place speaks directly to the intricate interplay between human and natural forces. This continuity is most clear in the practice of naming utamakura. Storied places shared through literature and art, they are imbued with geologic history, human history and cultural meaning.

In 1689, a poet named Matsuo Basho left Edo (present day Tokyo) on foot for a six-month journey along the shores and into the mountainous forests of northern Japan. Along the way, he wrote what would become the most well-known and treasured Japanese travel diary, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no hosomichi). Basho’s journey from Edo to the edges of the Tohoku region would amplify his already acute awareness of the impermanence of nature, developed through his practice of closely observing, recording and reflecting upon his immediate environment. As he journeyed north, from utamakura to utamakura, Basho was writing and drawing, weaving fragments of literature and history, in a rigorous way. Using prose, he would share geographic context and using haikun poetry, he responded to those great poets and artists who had, before him, written of each utamakura and their views. He traveled north to Hiraizumi before turning west, toward the Sea of Japan, and later still, returned to Edo. Five years later, after leaving home for another journey, Basho fell ill. He never recovered, but a lifetime of traveling and writing about his wanderings would engender future generations of writers, poets, and travelers with the value of seeing and documenting; that to name a place is to know a place, and that to do so in a place such as Japan is to call attention to the realities of everyday life in the face of knowable but unpredictable geologic forces.

Erratic Exuberance ///
Honshu is an island that feels alive in the most sensual of ways; temperate summers encourage exuberant flora — here, the city of Tomioka in the nuclear exclusion zone shows what can happen when the flora is unchecked — the ocean moves, desired and undesired, up and over the island, into the air; the earth shudders, from below. These movements, sometimes discernible and sometimes not, together define a precarious existence, an indelible part of Japanese life and cultural identity.

A stratovolcanic land form, the island of Honshu is the largest island in the Japanese archipelago, with almost seventy percent of the island formed by steep, forested mountains and the remaining thirty percent tending toward deltaic or ria coastal landscapes. The geomorphology of the deltaic and coastal sites — that which makes them desirable for human settlement — also makes them vulnerable to geologic events and their attendant effects. If one takes the long view, the recorded history of seismicity in Japan from the 6th century to 2011 shows a high incidence of large, shallow earthquakes along the riatic coastline. Earthquakes of this kind are more likely to trigger tsunamis, which are then amplified by the geomorphology of the Sanriku coast and its large, low bays and steep mountainsides.

On the eleventh day of March in 2011, at 14:45 local time, the Earthquake Early Warning system of Japan activated more than a thousand seismometers throughout the island nation, sending a warning to millions of people. Sixty seconds later, a 9.0 magnitude undersea megathrust earthquake hit Japan, the most powerful earthquake to have hit the island in recorded history. A second warning was issued by the Japanese Meteorological Agency; a major tsunami event was likely, but not certain. As the earth moved near the convergence of the overriding North American plate and the subducting Pacific Plate, an undersea landslide was triggered, and the immense body of water that we know of as the Pacific Ocean was displaced. Between ten to thirty minutes later — the times vary along the coastline — an earthquake-tsunami event occurred. The ocean began to rise slowly, and then rapidly, into the hollowed out riatic sawtooth formations along the coast.

In many locations, the swelling of the ocean was exacerbated by too-high or too-wide seawalls and, rather than dispelling incoming energy traveling in the water, the seawalls trapped the tsunami waves, intensifying the swells and currents. The surges of water moving inland ranged from 5.0 meters to 40.5 meters, inundating an estimated total of 561 square kilometers of land. The tsunami would be named the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake Tsunami and, as it swept into ports along the coast, surging inland before retreating back into the sea, it would result in the death of 15,890 people, injuring 6,152, with 2,576 people still missing and presumed lost.

The catastrophic loss of human life was not the result of warning systems that did not work; seismometers and tsunami warnings worked as they had been designed to. Instead, the loss of life was the predictable result of a series of choices that were made about where to build, what to build, where to work, where to live. And, in cases of emergency, when and where to evacuate. But, as the days progressed, between disaster, came stories of small groups, of villages, of school children who had escaped significant loss of life. Seaside villages with bustling ports claimed few to no lives lost despite 32 meter surges moving in, up and over schools, homes, villages. How was this possible?

The Tsunami Stones ///
Hundreds of years before, in the wake of the 869 Jogan tsunami along the same coast — so the story goes — communities began to erect stone tablets called tsunami stones. These stones performed a dual function; they are warnings — markers of the edges of inundation, they indicate where to build and where to flee when oceans rise — and they are monuments, erected as part of a ritual that memorializes geologic events and those lost. Some stones have no message, as time has worn away the inscription; some record the past and project possible futures; some bear instructions for evacuation and rebuilding, such as Stone no. 31 (in the atlas), who tells its reader that an “earthquake is an omen of a subsequent tsunami. Watch out for at least one hour. When it comes, rush away to higher places. Never reside on submerged land again.”

There exist hundreds of these stones along the Sanriku coast, ranging in height from a few inches to a few meters. Rising from the earth, many were placed in the landscape to mark either the height of the inundation line or to mark territory above the inundation line. The messages inscribed on the stones vary from stone to stone, with each community utilising stones as a memorial; as recorded, predictive knowledge; and often times, both. In some villages, the messages not to build below the inundation line were heeded. In others, not. In some villages, the messages to evacuate after an earthquake to an elevation above the stones were heeded. In others, not. This is how some people were able to survive. And, how some did not.

What is the effect of these markers on the way communities and governments understand the always present risk of an earthquake or tsunami? Or, what can the effect be?

These tablets — the technology of linear marks in stone — have a pressing current and future relevance that is too important to be dismissed as mere marker of a past event, or as memorial to lives lost. These tablets (each like utamakura) are part of a multivalent knowledge exchange through time and space, and with another 500 stones planned for erection in the coming years to commemorate the Great East Japan tsunami, and as Japan decides how and if to continue moving forward with almost 14,000 kilometers of seawalls, they are critical in establishing an understanding that the crisis facing coastal landscapes is an ongoing project.

But, how do we develop this understanding? How can we reveal the material labor of landscape? How, thinking back to Mitchell’s writing, does landscape’s mask drop? Could it be when we (relentlessly) constitute the landscape in the present? Is it possible to constitute a particular kind of landscape all at once? Is there such a device — a tool, perhaps — that does not speak of itself, but of a phenomena that occurs along a type of landscape?

The Incomplete Atlas ///
In the summer of 2015, I travelled to known tsunami stones along the Sanriku coast in order to explore the importance of on-site research and of bearing witness. And, through mixed-method research (archival research, field work, interviews, mapping, documenting), I came to compile what would become An Incomplete Atlas of Stones, a visual document as a way to unfold or see the archipelago’s unstable mineral base.

The atlas is organized by tsunami stone, following the coastline of Iwate prefecture from north to south along the Sanriku coast of Honshu. It is also a record of 50 days of travel, of 75 sites along the Coast, a compilation of landscapes that are complex, responsive artefacts of materialized memories and cultures that have shaped the past and will shape futures.

Each tsunami stone is introduced by its geographic coordinates: latitude, longitude, and elevation. Latitude and longitude site each stone on the surface of the earth while elevation situates each in relation to the mean level of the sea. They are further situated, first, by the boundaries of the village, town, or city they are located within; second, by administrative prefecture; and, third, geographic region.

As each stone was erected in response to a major tsunami, the year and name of the tsunami is listed in addition to the stone’s relation to that inundation line (below the line, on the line, or, above the line) of both its tsunami and the tsunami of 2011. Each stone, at the time it was inserted into the landscape, was engraved with a message, and so they may be considered as belonging to one of two categories: as a memorial, commemorating people and places lost to an earthquake tsunami; or as a lesson, providing a description of events and directions as to where to build, where to evacuate, and where waters have risen in the past.

The tsunami stone is then mapped, using a combination of primary map data and open access data provided by the Japan Meteorological Agency in relation to the inundation of the Great East Japan tsunami by overlaying the location and elevation of the stone, the coastline, and the 2011 inundation lines. The maps are constrained to a consistent frame with the exception of the inundation, which leaks out, in all directions, to the limits of the page.

Each tsunami stone is then revealed at a scale related to the human body; first as a specimen, removed from its context in a front facing, scaled photograph and on the right, in a view portraying each stone in its surrounding. Each stone is shown unobstructed, in isolation from its context on the left, so that readers may attempt to discern the location of the stone in the view displayed on the right page. Each view is taken from the nearest street or footpath, which, in the aftermath of an earthquake and in anticipation of a tsunami, are used as evacuation routes. And it is along these pathways where people are forced (in moments of extreme danger and fear) to develop an understanding of personal vulnerability and respond accordingly. In addition to contemporary signage systems indicating evacuation routes and safety zones, known tsunami stones are an additional means by which to navigate these landscapes of risk.

In order to record change and constancy in relation to each stone and the reconstruction efforts around them, two aerial images are presented: one taken shortly after the 2011 tsunami and one taken after approximately five years of reconstruction, in and around the same time the field work was conducted. Each stone’s location may be determined by following the longitudinal and latitudinal markers found at the edge of the aerial photographs, and the precise dates of the imagery may be found at the bottom of each page.

Read (Y)our Landscapes ///
An Incomplete Atlas is an attempt to illustrate the dynamics of a coastline as a place through the development and articulation of a nuanced, landscape-based atlas that makes technical information available to a wide range of readers. It uses basic tools — texts and drawings that borrow from representational conventions familiar to many — and deploys a consistent strategy and method at the site of each stone, proposing a type of visual and verbal language that is simultaneously simple and sophisticated, that is of a place and yet articulates a way of reading landscapes to help people recognize ambiguous, complex, and varied landscapes.

Establishing a shared legibility of landscapes is not only an opportunity to extend the agency of design for landscape architects and the discipline, but perhaps, most importantly, it offers the opportunity to extend knowledge and agency to citizens. It is only then, when everyone has access to and is equipped with the information necessary to engage in conversations about immediate choices and long-term possibilities that landscape’s agency is revealed. Landscapes’ neutrality lost and no longer detached or abstracted, it becomes clear that they are complex, contested, and subject to the pressures of life — both slow and fast. These pressures, from sea level rise to climate change to tsunamis, are critical in establishing the understanding that the crisis facing coastal landscapes is an ongoing one, far from being limited to the aftermath of emergency.

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