TREK 2023: Healing from the 2011 Earthquake

By: Sonia Shoji-Jeevanjee

On March 3rd, 2011, a magnitude 9.1 earthquake struck the Northeastern regions of Japan – the strongest recorded in the country’s history. This caused a massive tsunami that destroyed miles of coastline cities with up to 100-foot waves, displacing more than 450,000 people, and killing more than 20,000. The earthquake and tsunami were the biggest hit on Japan’s infrastructure and landscape in recent history.

Twelve years later, Japan’s long journey of resilience and strength as a community has surfaced through new landscapes of healing. Framing these sites as an extension of the community healing process, they were categorized into the following three areas:

The following design elements observed through this TREK offer tools and strategies in design approach of memorial parks in post-disaster landscapes.


Physical Remnants of the Past

These places are intentionally preserved by the city as a painful yet desperate reminder to never forget what happened. The following elements conveyed the weight of the event with depth and clarity.



Entry gates of Japanese school campuses are a common passageway for all students and faculty of the school. They typically have the school’s name etched into two stone pillars. Rebuilding this gateway now represents a deeper, spiritual gateway between the past and present—the living and those lost in the tsunami.

Gingko trees are commonly planted as a symbol of resilience and longevity. Though they were burned in a fire resulting from the earthquake, shoots have emerged from blackened trunks, beautifully flanking the school ruins with renewed growth and hope.

Looking into the ruins, chalkboards and desks are neatly replaced for visitors to feel the spirit of the past classroom. Subtly curating the essence of the school amplifies the weight of the space. The perimeter of the site provides informational signage, and most importantly, highlights the voices of survivors through poetry. Numerous poems honor all the children and teachers who were lost that day.

The fourth floor of a high school building was chipped off by a floating water tank in the tsunami wave. This important element gives evidence to the scale and strength of the tsunami. At another ruin of an evacuation tower, a walking path was designed along the height of the past tsunami wave that reached that area, overlooking previously inundated land.


Prayer and Healing in the Present

Numerous memorial parks imprint the coastline at a variety of scales. They are instrumental to the healing process of the community, offering a calm space to pray and reconcile with their pain. The following design elements responded sensitively to collective trauma.



Layers of local stone are delicately laid out in a memorial stone, fanning out in the direction of the most severely affected cities. These stones, salvaged from local homes, have been used in traditional slate roofing. Each slate represents a victim of the tsunami, offering comfort through familiar vernacular materials.

Rhythmic wood posts of a bridge weave the visitor through and over a river. The bridge is aligned on axis with an evacuation hill, also serving as a way-finding element. Atop the hill another memorial stone gently curves up, drawing the eye toward the sea. In profile the stone resembles an ocean wave.

Circles are a common design language across various memorial parks, drawing the visitor’s attention inward with graceful, long arcs. At Ishinomaki Minamihama Park, stepping stones intersect the pure circle to mark the entrance of a sacred space. Layers of various stone materials unify the water feature. The circular pathway at Minamisanriku Memorial Park offers multiple vantage points of an evacuation tower ruin. A stone arc gently welcomes visitors to contemplate the view.

Hundreds of stones sit peacefully beneath tall cedar trees at a local temple. In Buddhism, rakan is a statue of a disciple, representing one’s soul. In the years following the tsunami, hundreds of victims and families gathered every summer to carve the souls of their own loved ones they lost in the disaster. Not only is the act of carving into the stone a way to process grief and pain, but the collaborative nature of this art—that grows and ages with time—is a beautiful way to respond to collective trauma and build strength within the community.

The Miracle Pine is a reconstructed replica of an original tree that remained standing amidst a sea of fallen pines after the tsunami. It quickly gained fame for its resilience, but within a year, the tree began to rot due to high salt content in the roots. However, the pine was revered so deeply that the city decided to rebuild the tree completely. The tree continues to be a symbol of hope.

The memorial greets visitors by a beacon of light casting upon a water feature. The delicate, thin sheet of water is a gentle reminder of the sea and forms subtle ripples in even the slightest breeze. This water feature marks the beginning of a long procession of dramatic earthwork and framed views that open with each step. The walk eventually ascends to a prayer stone overlooking the ocean, bringing the visitor to face their memory of the disaster. This meditative walk encourages the visitor to slow down and come to terms with loss and grief.


Strength for the Future

I observed how Japan is preparing for the next inevitable natural disaster though ecology, infrastructure, and community.

Dense stands of pine trees are planted along the coast as a first line of defense against tsunami waves. This is a historical strategy that dates back to the 1600’s. For centuries, coastal forests have protected fishing ports and villages from tsunamis, but many trees ultimately fell to the unprecedented waves of 2011. New saplings are planted to rebuild coastal resiliency.

Concrete walls, up to 50-feet tall in some areas, span nearly 250 miles of the coastline. Though they are meant to increase evacuation time in the event of a tsunami, some find this method controversial due to its obstruction of the city’s once revered coastal landscape.

A survivor of the tsunami, who was born and raised in the town of Ishinomaki, is currently collecting stories of women in her community to advocate for open conversation as a pathway to healing. Asking others about their difficult past can often open the door for a deeply connecting conversation, instilling optimism and gratitude.

Japan’s recovery process highlights lessons that can apply to regions across the world facing similar threats of large earthquakes and tsunamis. In the age of climate change and increasing natural disasters that continue to impact major cities, it is vital to understand how to design memorial parks that sensitively respond to the local community’s history, culture, and healing process.

Photography by: May Lee