From emergency shelter towards disaster-relief housing – Tōhoku’s reconstruction case study

Example of Fukko Jūtaku built in 2015 in Tamaura-nishi, Iwanuma City (Tōhoku).

On the 11th of March 2011, an unprecedented earthquake of 9.0 magnitude rocked Japan, from north to south. A few minutes later, a series of tsunami waves fell down the Tōhoku coast, devastating over 500 square kilometers, 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. Also referred to as “The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami,” it is a decisive turning point for the entire Japanese society as well as for architects and urban planners.

After a disaster, the priority is sheltering people during the three phases of recovery: emergency shelter, temporary accommodation, and permanent housing. Even though Japan has an increasing frequency and impact of natural disasters, architects have not played a significant role in post-disaster recovery before the Great East Japan Earthquake. Nonetheless, the major crisis that arose in the aftermath of this disaster inspired the architects’ commitment to take part in the reconstruction.

Emergency shelter

Due to Japan’s history of natural disasters, the government has developed evacuation shelters and temporary housing to provide better health and safety conditions for Japan’s affected communities. After the 2011 disaster, victims could find clean water for drinking, washing, and a sewage system in these evacuation shelters. Nevertheless, these facilities are generally wide open spaces like school gymnasiums, lacking privacy for the victims who stay there for months waiting for relocation to temporary housing. The priority in this phase is to provide privacy to improve the comfort of the refugees.

In response to this issue, Shigeru Ban has been working on a partition system using paper tubes and clothes since the early 2000s. This system, called “Paper Partition System” is light, flexible, and does not need any fixation, making it easy to assemble and disassemble. In total, between April and July 2011, more than 1,800 “Paper Partition” units were sent and installed in Tōhoku in the different prefectures affected by the disaster. The architect went on-site with the Voluntary Architects Network group to supervise and help with the structure’s installation.

Temporary accommodation

Kasetsu jūtaku 仮設住宅

After a few months of living in the emergency shelter, refugees are progressively relocated to temporary accommodation called kasetsu jūtaku 仮設住宅. The government is financing these accommodations through a special “in case of disaster fund” and then hires private developers for construction. Nearly 52,000 temporary accommodations were built after the 2011 disaster: 22,000 in the Miyagi prefecture, 14,000 in the Iwate prefecture and 16,000 in the Fukushima prefecture.

These prefabricated units are narrow and unfit for harsh weather. The entire family sometimes has to live in only 30 square meters, putting refugees at risk of falling into dangerous social withdrawal and depression. In order to solve these precarious living conditions, some architects have been trying to improve the temporary housing system by proposing new models.

Home-for-All / みんなの家 Minna no ie

Scattered communities and cramped living conditions do not enhance social cohesion in temporary housing complexes. In response to this issue, Toyo Ito and his colleagues of Kysin-no-Kai have created the concept of friendly places where the inhabitants could meet and share convivial moments. That is the origin of the “Home-for-All” project (みんなの家 Minna no ie), with the installation of community spaces in the kasetsu jūtaku settlements after the disaster of 2011, which later expanded to various context.

Nevertheless, the most emblematic one is Rikuzentakata’s Home-for-All, which granted Toyo Itō his fame and popularity. This small town in the Iwate prefecture, also the birthplace of the photographer (and friend of Itō) Naoya Hatakeyama, was entirely devastated by the tsunami. Toyo Itō chose this meaningful location to set up an innovative project which he wanted to showcase at the Venice Biennale. The aim was to raise international awareness of natural disasters and their repercussions and solicit support for further Home-for-All projects.


ArchiAid Network

Architects, academics, and students from the Tōhoku region founded ArchiAid to help the disaster-stricken areas. The group aims to support reconstruction actions through a network of volunteer architects and avoid isolated activities in this vast and scattered affected area of the Sanriku coast.

To this end, their objectives are:

  1. Create an international network to support reconstruction projects.
  2. Encourage education by bringing together professionals, students, and inhabitants.
  3. Gather and promote information about the disaster.

The network has been overseeing numerous initiatives in these three domains since 2011, whether by organizing exhibitions, workshops, or supervising reconstruction projects [22]. It has made a long-term commitment to the region and has been particularly active in Ishinomaki city or in the more remote parts of the Oshika and Onagawa peninsula.

Living Access Type

Recent studies have shown that to reduce the risks associated with loneliness, it is necessary to provide meeting spaces in these buildings. Promoting community relationships between neighbours would help to reduce the risk of depression and its derivatives among refugees.

In this context, Yasuaki Onoda–architect-urbanist and founder member of the ArchiAid group–proposed an adaptation of the living access type developed in several reconstruction projects carried out in Tōhoku. The plan designed by Onoda offers a south-facing public area, supporting exchanges between neighbours, with the entrance of the housing. The living room is located on this facade to maintain links with the outside, while spaces requiring more privacy are set back on the north side.

Study case: Iwanuma’s successful relocation plan

Iwanuma (岩沼市) and its 40,000 inhabitants, is located in the Miyagi Prefecture, south of Sendai Airport. During the 2011 disaster, the tsunami waves reached further inland, drowning nearly half of the city’s area. The city suffered considerable damages (human and material): nearly 180 victims and more than 1,200 houses ruined by the water. The seashore and its fishing villages were entirely destroyed.

As the relocation project involved six villages, it was decided that each of them would have three representative members on the Council for Urban Planning. For more balance, each village had to recommend an elder, a woman, and a young person among its representatives.

Avoiding group members’ dispersal prevents isolation and social withdrawal, which is a particularly high risk for refugees. The Tamaura-nishi district has been divided into six zones, one for each village, mixing private and collective housing.

Iwanuma’s relocation project can be said to be successful because it has achieved the protection of the already existing community. By simply avoiding the residents’ scattering during the relocation process, the city has managed to keep tight the ties of the community instead of struggling to create a new one.

Cet article est un court extrait d’une recherche publiée dans le journal Budownictwo i Architektura. La version complète est disponible en ligne (gratuitement au format PDF, MOBI ou EPUB).