Lessons learned from the 3.11 Disaster : A study on Architects’ Involvements towards Urban Resilience and Community-Friendly Housing

Almost ten years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami occurred, and many efforts have been made since to rebuild the devastated territories. Some Japanese architects and urban planners have seen the recovery as a window of opportunity to aim for more resilient cities.

This dissertation aims to explore what lessons architects could learn from the 3.11 disaster. What role have architects had in searching for urban resilience and improving refugees’ living conditions? We try to answer these questions by addressing three aspects of our scope: the architects, the city, and the housing.

The soft mobilities of the Tamaura-nishi district. © Camille Cosson

The Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake effected a change of mode on a superficial level, but the Great East Japan Earthquake has called into question the very position of architects. In any case, like Japan’s defeat in World War II, the Great East Japan Earthquake is a historic event of enormous importance that has the potential to determine the direction the country will take. Architects today are being put to a test. The question is whether they can become actively involved in society in the future.

IGARASHI Taro, “Initiatives by Architects since 3.11.” in Japan Architect Yearbook 2011, n° 84, Winter 2012.

Extracted from an article in the Japan Architect magazine in the winter of 2012, the author Tarō Igarashi perceives the Great East Japan Earthquake as a significant historical event. According to him, the situation is similar to the Second World War, and he believes that the disaster will have tremendous repercussions on the country. Nevertheless, he is confident that this opportunity will also help architects get involved and find a meaningful role in society. The remaining question is whether they have the willingness to take action? Will the impacts on architects be as significant as Igarashi suggests? Are they just immediate reactions in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, or are they indicators of in-depth reflection on the design process?

These interrogations surrounding the impacts of the 3.11 disaster on the architectural world were the starting point of this thesis. Our interest in the subject started in France during a post-master dissertation’s research. While analyzing the evolution of Japan Architect’s publications over time, we realized that 2011 represents a turning point in architects’ discourse. We pursued this intuition and started to explore the 3.11 disaster and its impact on Japanese architects. The three years spent in Japan exploring the topic have led us to different issues exploring post-disaster reconstruction in general, and more specifically after 2011 in the Tōhoku territories. The interest in the architects’ role brought us later to consider urban reconstruction and the concept of “resilience,” which finally led us to explore the complexity of disaster-relief housing and community networks.

The Japanese context

Japan has a long history of natural disasters. Over time, its inhabitants get accustomed to earthquakes, tsunamis, and typhoons. Located in a seismic zone of the globe, the country is frequently shaken by earthquakes of variable magnitude: “Situated geologically on the Ring of Fire and located at latitudes that subject it climatically to the violence of the tropics, the Japanese archipelago is confronted with the tremors of nature” (Pelletier, 2011: 45). Throughout history, high-intensity earthquakes have caused many damages. Each time, this has led to repercussions and changes in earthquake prevention and mitigation.

In 1923, the Kantō earthquake (関東大震災, Kantō daishinsai) caused severe damage, especially in the cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Kanagawa, and Shizuoka. The numerous fires that occurred after the disaster devastated many residential neighborhoods, especially in Tokyo. This event reopened the existing debate on the position of architecture between engineering and art, which was eventually decided in favor of engineering. The education of architecture is then carried out from a technical perspective by strengthening the links with engineers and hardening anti-seismic standards. A new plan for the reconstruction of Tokyo is proposed at the urban level, requiring spacing between buildings to prevent fires. Applied to the capital during its reconstruction, these rules are not always applied elsewhere: “although earthquake-resistant architecture exists, there is no real earthquake-resistant urban planning in Japan since urban planning regulations are far from being respected and geological prospects are interpreted in various ways” (Pelletier, 2011: 46).

In 1995, the great Hanshin Awaji earthquake (阪神・淡路大震災 Hanshin Awaji daishinsai) of magnitude seven on the Richter scale devastated the surroundings of the city of Kobe and killed more than 6,000 people. The cost of reconstruction was then estimated at 163 billion euros  (Sabouret, 2012). Difficulties of access to some of the city’s older districts have complicated the action of the authorities, revealing problems in prevention and risk management plans: “in Kobe, anti-seismic standards were not respected, rescue efforts were particularly slow and inefficient, and public authorities were paralyzed” (Souyri, 2010: 587). During the disaster, the authorities’ impotence prompted the inhabitants to organize themselves into communities to restore their social cohesion. Patricia Marmignon (2012) suggests that neighborhood communities’ emergence and development are connected to incidents, disruptions, and disasters. She explains that these residents’ associations flourished following the 1923 Kantō earthquake, were strengthened in 1995, and were institutionalized with the NPO (Non-Profit Organization) Act on Associations in 1998.

On March 11, 2011, an unprecedented earthquake of magnitude 9.0 struck Japan from north to south. A few minutes later, a series of tsunami waves fall down the Tōhoku coast, devastating over 500 km2, mainly in Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima prefectures. The incident in the Fukushima Daiichi power plant reactors forced the evacuation of the nearby population outside of the radiation-affected area. This triple disaster caused severe casualties: 16,000 victims, 3,000 missing people, 330,000 homes devastated, and nearly 550,000 refugees (Pelletier, 2012). Also referred to as “The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami” (GEJE) (Santiago-Fandino, 2018), it is a decisive turning point for the entire Japanese society as well as for architects and urban planners.

Described as a “mega-disaster” by some, the events of March 11 are unprecedented not only in terms of casualties and damages but also in the political, economic, and social repercussions on Japanese society. The writer Michaël Ferrier suggests that: “this triple disaster reveals previously hidden social fractures: fractures within Japanese society, especially with the precarious workers of the nuclear power plants; geographical fractures in society, between the super-active Tokyo metropolitan area and the rural areas which, even before the tsunami, were already experiencing a strong demographic decline and an aging population”  (Ferrier, 2013). Nevertheless, Murielle Hladik stresses the importance and growth of Non-Profit Organizations (NPOs). In particular, she mentions the fact that the disaster will have at the same time created forces of protest and solidarity through the creation of a multitude of local NPOs (Non-Profit Organizations). According to her, this was possible with the local population’s commitment and a remarkable spirit of solidarity among young Japanese architects (Hladik, 2012).

Every disaster has social, political, and economic consequences on society. However, how does such a catastrophe affect architecture and architects? Standards are evolving, prioritizing engineering and earthquake-resistant materials to move towards a technical vision of construction. Materials are changing and reinforcing to resist shocks and fires. Residents are also increasingly mobilizing in neighborhood associations to maintain social and community cohesion.

With all these changes and improvements, what are the challenges for architects? Is there any impact on their architectural practice? What responsibilities can they assume in a recovery process dominated by administrations and civil engineers? We are reaching now almost ten years after March 2011; what lessons architects learn from the 3.11 disaster?

Aim and Objectives of the thesis

The tsunami-stricken coast recovery has attracted academic attention. Although considerable research has been devoted to it, these studies focus on disaster risk reduction or tsunami defense from a theoretical or engineered perspective (Gokon & Koshimura, 2012; Koshimura & Shuto, 2015; Nagamatsu, 2018). Hirano (2013), however, pointed out the dilemma of having to ensure both protection and sustainability after the March 2011 disaster. Jonas (2015) presented a study of Shibitachi (Miyagi) that followed the town’s reconstruction over three years. Onoda et al. (2018) furthered these findings, using their on-site experience to discuss the current status and challenges of reconstruction work five years after the disaster. Santiago-Fandino and al. (2018) in “The 2011 Japan Earthquake and Tsunami: Reconstruction and Restoration Insights and Assessment after 5 years,” compiled numerous studies to provide an overview of what has been done in various fields of restoration in Tōhoku since the disaster. To the best of our knowledge (available in English or French), relatively less attention has been paid to the urban challenges that these devastated territories face in the long-term reconstruction process, particularly with regard to the involvement of architects.

This dissertation aims to determine what lessons architects could learn from the 3.11 disaster. To which degree architects were involved in the reconstruction? What role have architects had in searching for urban resilience and improving refugees’ living conditions?

The objectives of this research are :

  • Explore architects’ reactions and actions in the aftermath of the 2011 disaster.
  • Investigate the appearance and development of “resilient cities” during the reconstruction of the Tōhoku region.
  • Identify and examine architectural innovations in housing after 2011 to gain in-depth insight into the disaster-relief housing improvements.

The research has some limitations that should be noted. First, as the reconstruction process after the 3.11 disaster is a contemporary phenomenon still ongoing during our research, we could not have a complete picture of the situation and lacked time perspective. Second, our knowledge of the Japanese language may have refrain us from accessing some sources. Nonetheless, despite its exploratory nature, this dissertation may offer some insight into the architects’ involvement in Tōhoku post-disaster reconstruction.

Methodology of the research

Our methodology is first to collect publications, articles, books, and exhibitions addressing the March 11, 2011 disaster and Japanese architects’ reactions. As our knowledge of the Japanese language has limits, we privilege state of the art in English or French, using Japan’s specialist researchers. We supplement this knowledge with Japanese architects’ testimonials, architectural media magazines, and urban planning documentation in Japanese. Overall, the documentary corpus includes both administrative documents (urban plan, reconstruction plan) and the actors who participated in the reconstruction projects (academics, architects, urban planners) in Japanese and English. This first phase of research centered on the literature review allowed us to select the case studies we wanted to focus on in the next step.

The second part of the research is composed of field experiences to visit several case studies. The selection of the projects that we further analyzed was made according to various criteria. During the preparation of our study trips, we first listed the projects that had been published in architectural magazines (Shinkenchiku, Jutakutokushu, Japan Architect) or that had received awards (Good Design Prize, AIJ Prize, JIA Award). From this list, we narrow down a few projects that seemed to explore innovative approaches and were accessible to us in terms of transportation and schedule.

A first field survey was conducted in Miyagi Prefecture in September 2018. We visited Sendai, Iwanuma, Onagawa, and Ishinomaki, each observed for one day during our stay. A second study trip was conducted in Kumamoto Prefecture in November 2019. We visited Kumamoto city, Uki, Uto, and Mashiki. Besides, semi-directive interviews were conducted with actors involved in the reconstruction of housing (professors at the University of Kumamoto, architects members of the Japan Institute of Architecture, representative of the prefecture in charge of communication of Kumamoto Artpolis).

From the different places and projects visited, we finally focused our urban analysis on Onagawa (Miyagi Prefecture) and Uto (Kumamoto Prefecture) for their post-disaster reconstruction plans’ characteristics. Regarding the post-disaster housing in Tōhoku, we chose Iwanuma because it was described as a “model project” by reconstruction actors we encounter in the literature review. As for Kumamoto, the prefecture projects implemented in Uki and Uto explore complementary issues that we consider were interesting to highlight.

Summary of the thesis’ content

The first part of our thesis, titled “The Architects and the Disaster, the Gap between the Rhetoric and the Reality,” introduces the gap between the architects’ rhetoric and the reality of the projects achieved. Chapter 1 presents a panel of French architectural media reactions compared to Japanese architectural media. The comparison suggests that French architects reacted little to the events, unlike their Japanese counterparts, who were very expressive on the importance of the architect’s role in society at a time of crisis such as March 2011. In Chapter 2, we question architects’ role in the face of a disaster; what responsibilities can they assume in a recovery process dominated by administrations and civil engineers? We summarize a non-exhaustive list of activities that architects have initiated to help affected populations.

The second part, titled “The (Re)Construction of more Resilient Cities,” focuses on building urban resilience in disaster-affected territories. We analyze the theoretical aspect of urban resilience and practical implementation. Chapter 3 aims to define “resilience” from academic and institutional definitions and look at United Nations policies for “Building Back Better” to reflect on reconstruction policies’ repercussions. In Chapter 4, we discuss the study case of Onagawa and suggest some ambiguities in the Japanese term fukkō 復興 (“reconstruction”) and its similarities to resilience.

The third part, titled “The Improvements in Disaster-Relief Housing,” describes architects’ efforts to improve refugees’ social conditions in disaster-relief housings. Chapter 5 introduces some initiatives by architects to propose new models, more sustainable, and community-friendlier. Chapter 6 questions the reception of these innovative models in the opinion of the general public. We introduce our survey results to understand the perception of disaster-relief housing comparing International and Japanese publics. Finally, Chapter 7 illustrates housing innovations with several post-disaster housings’ study cases in Miyagi and Kumamoto. A thorough analysis reveals the housings’ morphological specificities. The conclusion suggests that innovative models appeared in the reconstruction after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Despite the efforts made to build resilience, the programs also had some limitations. However, these projects are signs of an ongoing evolution in post-disaster reconstruction.

The conclusion suggests that innovative architectural features that emerged within the urban design concept and the housing’s morphology are genuinely designed to support community networks and enhance neighborhood relationships. However, our research suggested that despite the efforts made to build social resilience in disaster-relief housing, the programs had some limits.

This thesis highlights the complexity of post-disaster reconstruction and architects’ involvement in addressing the crisis and rethink lifestyles toward resilient communities. 

Ce travail de recherche de doctorat a été mené durant 4 années à l’Institut Technologique de Kyoto grâce à la bourse Monbukagakusho du gouvernement Japonais.

La soutenance a eu lieu à Kyoto en Janvier 2021 et a mené à l’obtention du diplôme de Ph.D (Docteur en architecture) en mars 2021.

Certaines parties de la thèse ont fait l’objet de pré-publication sous forme d’articles scientifiques que vous pouvez retrouver (pour certains) en ligne :

  • “From Emergency Shelter towards Disaster-relief Housing—Tōhoku’s Reconstruction case study—,” Camille Cosson, Budownictwo i Architektura (Civil Engineering and Architecture), Lublin University of Technology
  • “ ‘Build Back Better’: Between Public Policy and Local Implementation, the Challenges in Tōhoku’s Reconstruction,” Camille Cosson, Architecture and Urban Planning, 2020/16, Riga Technical University, https://doi.org/10.2478/aup-2020-0001
  • « Les territoires réhabilités du Tōhoku face aux enjeux de la reconstruction : entre politique publique et application locale, quelle place pour la résilience ?” Camille Cosson, Géographie Économie et Société, Lavoisier (en cours de publication).
  • “From a tsunami-devastated zone to an attractive fishing town: a study on Onagawa’s strategy for a prompt recovery,” Camille Cosson, Urban Geography, vol. 41 n°5 2020 https://doi.org/10.1080/02723638.2020.1780054
  • “How to Support Social Resilience in Tsunami-Devastated Communities: Iwanuma Case Study,” Camille Cosson, Critical Housing Analysis, Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Vol.7 Issue 2 2020, 11-20
  • “Au fil des désastres, comment le Japon réinvente la morphologie du ‘logement public post-catastrophe’(災害公営住宅 saigai kōei jūtaku)”, Camille Cosson, Les Cahiers de la recherche architecturale urbaine et paysagère [Online], 8 | 2020,

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