Japan’s Cultural Assets Need Better Disaster Risk Management

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A volunteer removes earth and sand from a kara-usu pottery tool in Hita, Oita Prefecture, in July.

More and more valuable cultural properties are being damaged by natural disasters such as quakes and heavy rains. The government has established the Cultural Heritage Disaster Risk Management Center to enhance support for their repair, but disaster-prone Japan still faces such challenges as prompt damage assessment and the burden of cost.

On May 5, the city of Suzu in Ishikawa Prefecture was hit by a quake registering upper 6 on the Japanese seismic scale of 7.

Five days later, the center dispatched architectural specialists to the region. Over the month of July, they inspected about 150 old traditional houses, temples and shrines in the region, learning that the quake caused severe damage in such places as coastal areas. It will compile a report on the inspection results to serve as a lesson for the future.

Each time a major natural disaster occurs, the center asks local governments and other organizations in affected areas to share information and offers them assistance.

The center was established in 2020 as the importance of helping to repair cultural properties damaged in disasters was recognized in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake.

Headquartered in Nara, it has bases at four national museums and two national research institutes for cultural properties across Japan. The center dispatches specialists to disaster-stricken areas, and conducts research and provides advice on scientific conservation for damaged cultural properties.

There are 10 full-time staff members as well as part-time staff who are archaeologists and conservation science specialists. It is said to be the first central governmental organization in the world for leading the disaster risk management of cultural properties.

“With our staff members visiting various locations, we’re building face-to-face relationships with people in the affected areas,” said Ryusuke Kodani, the center’s supervisor of cultural heritage disaster risk management.

With more disasters occurring, many cultural properties have been damaged, including the production base of Onta-yaki pottery ware.

Onta-yaki production has continued for more than 300 years in Hita, Oita Prefecture. It is an important intangible cultural property designated by the central government.

Heavy rains in July caused earth and sand to flow into multiple kara-usu, a tool for crushing the earth for the pottery. About 10 of the 39 kara-usu are still unusable. Kara-usu were also washed away by torrential rains hitting northern Kyushu six years ago.

“Drastic measures to prepare for the future are essential to preserve our traditions,” said Koji Sakamoto, 54, chairman of an organization for preserving Onta-yaki techniques.

Data collected by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry show that 42 cultural properties designated and registered by the central government have been damaged by heavy rains since around the end of June. Many of them are in Kyushu.

Disaster risk management for cultural properties is an urgent issue.

Owners need to pay

Special focus is placed on the rescue of numerous cultural properties that are not designated by the central government, such as antique documents.

Non-designated cultural properties are often left unrepaired after disasters, but this became a problem when some such properties were thrown away as debris after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. In depopulated areas, the owners of an increasing number of non-designated temples, shrines and old houses are unknown.

It is important to obtain necessary information and prepare money to pay the costs involved.

The matter has traditionally been dealt with by Rekishi Shiryo Network (Shiryo Net) organizations, which are located across Japan and comprise cultural property specialists and university teachers working on a voluntary basis.

Members of the Miyagi Shiryo Net in Miyagi Prefecture visited owners of cultural properties in cooperation with local governments in areas affected by the 2011 disaster to collect antique documents that were about to be discarded. They also cooperated in drying out antique documents.

The center wants to work with these private organizations to establish a cooperative system that can take advantage of everyone’s strengths.

“Regional areas have a shortage of personnel to protect cultural properties. It’s a problem,” said Atsushi Kawauchi, an associate professor at Tohoku University specializing in regional antique documents and a member of the Miyagi Shiryo Net.

Kawauchi also said, “Local governments must communicate the importance of cultural properties in their areas during normal times so that they can readily get support from outside organizations when they need it.”

Up to 85% of repair costs are covered by public money for state-designated cultural properties, but with non-designated cultural properties, all costs are basically to be paid by the owners. This is a heavy burden for residents of disaster-hit areas who need to rebuild their lives as soon as possible.

The Cultural Affairs Agency recommends collecting funds through crowdfunding and the furusato nozei (hometown tax payment) system.

In recent years, crowdfunding is being used more often, but the results often depend on whether the cultural properties in question are well known.

This spring, the center established the “fund for the disaster risk management of cultural properties” to provide support for intangible cultural properties in various areas, such as restarting discontinued local festivals, and for repairing non-designated tangible cultural properties.