System to Protect against Disaster Needs to Be Established in Normal Times

More than 700 cultural properties designated and registered by the government were damaged in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. A system to protect local treasures from frequent disasters must be put in place during normal times.

A “cultural property rescue” project has been conducted in the areas affected by the disaster, in which experts provide emergency repairs to prevent deterioration and offer advice on restoration after damaged cultural properties are removed from their original locations.

The Rikuzentakata City Museum in Iwate Prefecture was destroyed by tsunami that followed the earthquake. Many of about 2,000 unique tools, used in fishing off the Sanriku coast in the eastern Tohoku region and registered as tangible cultural properties, were damaged. However, they were restored over a period of 11 years with the cooperation of experts from across the nation.

About 3,000 pieces, including newly added items, will soon be designated as Important Tangible Folk Cultural Properties. The promotion from “registered” properties to “designated” properties will bring greater government protection.

It is significant that museum staff removed the items from the site amid a terrible situation — some of the curators had been killed — and carefully removed the salt and mud from the seawater to restore them. The fact that the importance of disaster prevention and rescue projects for cultural properties has been recognized after the disaster is a step forward.

The Cultural Heritage Disaster Risk Management Center, established in 2020, is a permanent public institution with six offices throughout Japan. It is expected to play a central role in protecting cultural properties from disasters.

The center aims to provide a prompt initial response to disasters by sharing information on damage to cultural properties and coordinating support from other regions. It is also responsible for developing restoration techniques.

Experts have been dispatched to disasters in various regions, including the area affected by a powerful earthquake off Fukushima Prefecture in March last year measuring up to upper 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7, and they have also provided consultation on the restoration of cultural properties.

It is important for prefectural and municipal governments to be aware from normal times where local cultural properties are located and what their management systems are. However, many areas are lagging behind due to a lack of manpower and expertise, and the central government is urging local governments to formulate disaster prevention plans for cultural properties, including items that have not yet been designated as cultural properties.

Local governments may be limited in what they can do on their own. There are private groups of researchers and volunteers who can provide advice on cultural property surveys and disaster prevention measures. Cooperation with such groups would be effective.

Tohoku University is trying to create a system that makes it easy to understand the degree of the risk of floods and earthquakes by overlaying the locations of cultural properties with hazard maps.

By moving cultural properties in high-risk areas to safer locations in advance, damage can be prevented. The system could also be used to predict the damage to cultural properties in the event of a disaster.

Such a disaster management map for cultural properties has already been introduced in Iwate Prefecture. Joint efforts by the government, academic community and private sector must be expanded across the nation.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 7, 2023)