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Ominous Views of Japan’s New Concrete Seawalls

In 2011, a devastating tsunami crashed into the northeast coast of Japan, destroying entire villages, killing thousands and causing a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In the wake of the disaster, the Japanese government implemented a number of reforms, including relocating coastal villages to higher land and forbidding further development along the northeast coastline.

The most controversial of these tsunami prevention measures was the construction of hundreds of miles of concrete seawalls and breakers along the most vulnerable stretches of the coast. So far, Japan has spent approximately $12 billion building towering concrete walls, some as high as 41 feet.

Tokyo-born photographer Tadashi Ono, who now lives in Paris, traveled to Japan’s northeast coast after the 2011 tsunami to document the destruction, and recently returned to see how the impacted areas have changed. (He took the photos while serving as artist-in-residence at L'institut Français's Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto.) He was shocked by the ominous grey walls that now line the coast. "What I’m interested in as a photographer is how they’ve totally shut out the views of the sea," Ono says. "I'm walking in the sea coast area, I want to take a photo of the coast, but I can’t see it."

Many local residents make their living in either fishing or tourism; now, both industries are under threat from the walls. Fishermen worry they will disrupt runoff from the mountains into the sea, which helps replenish the water’s rich nutrients. And how many tourists will want to visit the coast if they can’t actually see the coast? Ono blames the impetus for the massive infrastructure project on a powerful central government unresponsive to local concerns, as well as the giant Japanese construction companies who benefit from massive government contracts.

What’s more, Ono believes the walls are unnecessary. Coastal villages have already been moved to higher ground. "Before the tsunami there were towns in those areas, but now nobody lives there—it’s just rice fields or vacant land. So the seawalls protect nothing," he says. "They were constructed just to be constructed." Some people have even argued that seawalls are counterproductive, since they might provide a false sense of security, discouraging people from moving to higher ground.

On a deeper level, Ono sees the walls as an abandonment of Japanese history and culture. "Our richness as a civilization is because of our contact with the ocean," he says. "Japan has always lived with the sea, and we were protected by the sea. And now the Japanese government has decided to shut out the sea."

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Read more: https://www.wired.com/story/photo-gallery-japan-seawalls/

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