Yawning and stretching as I struggled to make my way out of a small Japanese car, I was struck by the beauty of the Iwanuma coastline. Unlike many other areas struck by the tsunami, large concrete seawalls were nowhere in sight - all I saw were broad swathes of green. Upon further inspection, it turned out that the green was made up of thousands of young trees, destined to become protectors of Iwanuma once they came of age.
After seeing so many disaster sites punctuated by dirt and construction workers, the scene at Iwanuma was astonishingly serene. It was like an advertisement for happiness: a father played baseball with his kids by shimmering tree tufts, pitching underhand balls to his gleeful son while his older daughter served as the catcher. Although there were a few remnants of buildings lurking in the background, they were dwarfed by a welcoming and vast expanse of greenery. With all sorts of life growing up in front of me, it was easy to see why Iwanuma's forest development was called Millennium Hope Hills.
The forest, due to grow to full height in twenty years, primarily functions as a buffer against future tsunamis. After the disaster in March 2011, officials decided to go against the nationwide trend of building ever-higher seawalls, instead opting to repair their existing seawalls and replant huge sections of the forest. To fully understand the impact of the new forest, allow me to give a short summary of the debate between seawalls and forests.
There are many positives to seawalls. Perhaps the largest is that they create many jobs when they are desperately needed. Some say that they don't create lasting economic impact because they are, well, temporary. However, I would argue that seawalls do create a lasting economic impact by providing a stable job environment while cities are rebuilding; by the time the seawalls are finished, cities will have enough infrastructure to provide other forms of employment for construction workers. Seawalls also reduce the impact of future tsunamis and give an aura of protection to the citizens who live in the town. While the second point can be a negative when looked at as contributor to complacency, it is also a positive because seawalls calm residents, allowing them to be a little less fearful and a little more productive in the aftermath of the tsunami.
Forests have their own set of benefits too. Although they take longer to 'build', they aren't an eyesore for the local population, and they last longer than seawalls. Forests can also play an important role in rebuilding the local community. There have been several planting festivals at Millennium Hope Hills, with each reinforcing cooperation among the locals. Additionally, new forests preserve local ecosystems along the coast, unlike seawalls, which are known to interfere with biological diversity once deployed.
In a way, the seawall-forest debate represents the clash of two different ideologies. Seawalls reflect the notion that people should separate themselves from nature by literally walling themselves off from the natural world. Towns become fortresses, surrounded by walls to protect them from the natural forces beyond, all the while damaging the local ecosystems that previously inhabited those areas. And while the walls are there to protect the town from tsunamis, they also prevent the townspeople interacting with the sea. Forest buffers on the other hand, represent a plea to the natural world for guidance and protection from other, more sinister natural forces. Although they do not offer the same level of security as seawalls, forests do significantly mitigate tsunami's damage by dispersing the impact of the water throughout the trees. They also last much longer than walls, and do not shut off the ocean from coastal communities - many of whom rely on the sea for either fishing or tourism industries.
The two ideologies are founded on the ideas of separation and connection to nature. The first ideology - separation from nature followed by short-term economic gain - immediately generates jobs and results by making people work to construct a large wall, making it a popular ideology for most politicians. The second ideology - connection to nature followed by long-term economic gain - does not have the immediate payout or the obvious job creation prospects of the first, making it a much less attractive option for most politicians. Thus, I was surprised and pleased to see the second ideology take form at Millennium Hope Hills. To me, the greenery at Millennium Hope Hills represented a local desire to reconnect with the natural world in an age of separation.
Despite their desire to reconnect with the natural world, I'm certain that the locals will never forget their losses to the hands of natural forces. 200 names are etched in stone beside a memorial in the middle of the park. The highest point of the memorial, as with every tsunami memorial I've seen thus far, represents the highest point of the tsunami to remind people of its enormous power. A string dangles down from a bell so people may ring it to pay their respects to the departed, and wishes for the future.
The solemn sculpture inspired my respect for the lives of those affected, but did not inspire melancholy, as has been the case at some other disaster sites. In fact, even while looking at the monument, I couldn't help feeling some soft optimism as I noticed the fauna in my periphery. I was reminded of the Japanese concept of 'shinrin-yoku' - forest-bathing - a form of therapy used by many Japanese companies where employees 'bathe' in a forest environment to improve their health. Many scientific studies have proved that shinrin-yoku shows measurable positive effects on the subjects' immune system, stress levels, and overall health, though the exact mechanisms are still a mystery.
While the plants surrounding me did not quite make up a forest, it felt very therapeutic to gaze into the green and soak. The fields and hills seemed to be brimming with quiet hope.