‘Miracle Pine’ That Defied Tsunami Marks 10 Years Since Rebirth

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Masaru Abe is seen in front of the restored “miracle lone pine”, in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, on Feb. 16.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the restoration of the “miracle lone pine,” the only tree that survived the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March 2011 on the coast of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture.

Over these years, the pine grove on the coast that was wiped out by the tsunami has been replanted, and a national tree-planting ceremony will be held in June.

The lone pine tree, a symbol of hope for a post-quake recovery, was raised back up thanks to residents determined to overcome the tragedy of the tsunami, and the efforts of skilled engineers and craftspeople.

On March 11, 2011, Masaru Abe, a member of the city planning section for the municipal government of Rikuzentakata, saw the tsunami approach the town from the rooftop of city hall. The black waves engulfed 70,000 pine trees on the coast, as well as residential areas, and came close to the roof of the three-storied building. There were screams of people calling for help, but there was nothing he could do.

Some 1,550 people in the city were killed and about 200 more were left missing. Once the tsunami receded, Abe sought to confirm that people at evacuation centers were safe. It was then he heard that a single pine remained standing on the coast. He set out to see the tree for himself, and found it standing unbowed near a collapsed building.

A few months later, however, the “miracle pine” began to show signs of weakening. The topography of the coastline had changed, and seawater had begun to seep into the soil around the roots.

Local volunteer, including civic group dedicated to Takata pine grove, sucked the seawater out of the ground. But this failed to stop the roots from rotting.

Abe himself wanted to “somehow keep alive the tree,” which had propped up the hopes of locals for a post-quake recovery. However, the only feasible option was to cut it down and preserve it artificially.

As the city was on the brink of giving up, there came a surprise proposal: “Let’s restore it to how it looked before the tsunami.” This was the suggestion of Nomura Co., a Tokyo-based firm that handles a wide range of design and management work for architectural spaces, such as interior decorating for museums.

“Is it possible?” asked Abe, who was in charge of the preservation project. He was even more surprised by the details of the proposal: After the tree was cut down, its trunk would be divided into five pieces and then reassembled, with a shaft running through the center and into a reinforced concrete foundation.

Although the appearance of the tree would be preserved, it would no longer be a “tree” but a “structure” under the Building Standards Law.

However, no objections were raised within the city government. “Taking the tree down would be the same as letting ourselves be defeated by the tsunami. That was what every one of us thought,” Abe reflected. In June 2012, the city decided to adopt the plan.

“As there was no precedent, it was a major undertaking that required bringing together techniques from all over the country,” recalled Tamotsu Tomono, 57, a project leader for Nomura at the time.

The trunk was hollowed out by a craftsman working at a lumber mill in Yatomi, Aichi Prefecture, who was known for his skill in producing festival floats and other items. To accomplish the task, he employed a modified chainsaw.