Seawall art gives Tohoku residents an ocean view again

Yomiuri Shimbun photos
Local residents view a mural on a seawall in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, unveiled on Nov. 26.

ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi — The walls are there to protect them from the sea that a decade ago rose up in a tsunami and caused such destruction. With their view now obscured, residents of the Tohoku region are opting for an alternative by turning drab the concrete barriers into works of art.

On Nov. 26, a massive mural was unveiled on a seawall in the Ogatsu district in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. The 54.6-meter wide and 7.5-meter high painting depicts the beautiful coastal scenery, drawing cheers from local residents and tourists.

The art project, dubbed “Seawall Museum Ogatsu,” is the brainchild of former advertising executive Sotaro Takahashi, the 34-year-old director of the general incorporated association Seawall Club.

Three years ago, Takahashi visited Ogatsu for a company training program and was moved by the residents’ mixed feelings at having their view of the sea blocked when the seawalls went up. The tranquility of the area made him think of an art museum, and he came up with the idea of creating murals on the walls.

Takahashi said he will never forget the smiles on the faces of the residents when he shared his idea with them. He quit his job to devote himself full-time to the project, raising funds through crowdfunding.

Takahashi asked Takanosuke Yasui, a 29-year-old Tokyo-based artist, who completed the mural in about two months.

“It eases some of the pain of not being able to see the sea.” an appreciative resident said.

“We are redrawing a coastline that has become inorganic,” Takahashi said. “I hope it becomes a place that many people will visit.”

He plans to have one or two murals completed a year, eventually covering the entire 3.5 kilometers of seawalls surrounding Ogatsu Bay.

Yomiuri Shimbun photos
Colorful ohajiki glass marbles are stuck to a seawall in Shichigahama, Miyagi Prefecture, in September.

Using their marbles

Further down the Miyagi Prefecture coast in Shichigahama, residents decorated a 280-meter-long seawall with colorful ohajiki glass marbles.

The wall had been made 1.2 meters higher than before the disaster, and administrative ward head Yoshiyuki Ito, 81, organized the project after hearing the despair of residents who could no longer see the sea.

Using 150,000 marbles that measure 1 centimeter in diameter, residents spent about 2½ years creating waves and whales on a 100-meter stretch of the wall.

“We were able to use the seawall to reinvigorate the area,” a satisfied Ito said.

Limited runs

In some cases, the art was on display for only a limited period of time.

In Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, elementary, junior high and high school students joined other residents this autumn in decorating a 350-meter stretch of a seawall with more than 10,000 tiles as part of the Sanriku International Arts Festival.

But because the Iwate prefectural government insists that seawalls be maintained in a state in which they can be checked for irregularities, the exhibit lasted only about three weeks,

Jujiro Maegawa, the supervising director of the art festival, plans a similar display next spring. “We are looking for a way to make it permanent as a place of prayer and as a testament [to the disaster,]” he said.

“While the seawalls have become an accepted part of the landscape, many people feel walls of cold concrete are unapproachable,” said Akihiro Shibayama, an associate professor at Tohoku University’s International Research Institute of Disaster Science.

“It would be nice if, through such artwork, the seawall becomes a place for disaster prevention and for passing on the disaster to future generations.”