The Day the Waves Washed Over the Wall

UK Geography Professor Speaks Out About Japan Disaster

by Alicia P. Gregory
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As Pradyumna P. Karan watched the coverage of the devastating 9.0 earthquake, resulting tsunami and looming nuclear disaster in northeast Japan, he responded personally. Not only was this geography professor acutely acquainted with tsunami aftermath—he authored and coedited the 2011 book The Indian Ocean Tsunami—Karan has led University of Kentucky students on a summer seminar across Japan for the past 20 years. Along the way, he and his students have befriended many Japanese people who lived in hardest-hit coastal towns.

“The Japanese are incredibly resilient,” Karan says, citing their rebuilding efforts after World War II, “but even with their wealth and advanced technology, they couldn’t beat Nature.

“Japan will overcome what has happened to it,” Karan says emphatically, adding that first the Japanese government, for the sake of its people, must plan for future development by understanding the geography to settle people in less vulnerable areas, relocating energy production facilities and upgrading infrastructure with modern safeguards. Japan’s disaster can teach the rest of the world how to avoid the same fate.

A tiny town called Taro

Japan has suffered from years of natural disasters, and learned from each one. As a result, the country has one of the best advance warning and evacuation systems in the world. Yet, more than 25,500 people are dead or missing following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Karan is painfully familiar with a town that exemplifies this irony.

Each summer Karan and his students stop in the coastal town of Taro to study Japan’s efforts to mitigate damage from tsunamis. The UK visitors take snapshots of the hillside along the coast that bears placards marking the height of the tsunami waters in 1896 and 1933. The students visit a school where Mrs. Tabata, a survivor of the 1933 tsunami that wiped out Taro, tells in dramatic fashion with picture storyboards the tale of the tsunami to teach children how to escape by running to higher ground. Then the UK team visits the large, stone monument that commemorates the victims of the 1933 tsunami and walks on top of the 34-foot-tall, 1.5-mile-long, concrete seawall. Built in 1958, this wall is designed to buffer Taro from the ocean.

But on March 11, 2011, the waves washed over the wall—dragging it piece by piece into the sea. The monument was washed away. Only eight buildings still stand in Taro, and half of its population of 1,800 is missing.

 “Taro has a very good evacuation system. It is well marked out where to go in case of disaster,” Karan says. But by the time the horns of the automated tsunami warning blared, Taro’s residents had only 15 to 20 minutes to escape. “They hadn’t anticipated so many people would flee by car. The narrow streets jammed with cars, which were washed away. The young people climbed to higher ground. But the elderly and the sick couldn’t move fast enough.”

The aftermath of the tsunami, Karan says, is all too familiar. “The Japanese are facing the same issues the Indonesians faced: locating and identifying bodies—something that’s important for issuing death certificates and which impacts insurance and property rights.” “Who owns what” is still a problem in the area affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 200,000 people in 2004.

A more immediate problem, which weighs on the hearts of the families who’ve lost loved ones, is not being able to cremate the bodies. Japanese Buddhist tradition involves ritually dressing the dead, then cremating the body. Each family member uses chopsticks to pick bone fragments out of the ashes and put them in an urn, which is displayed and eventually buried. With a shortage of kerosene used to cremate remains, and way more bodies than they can possibly handle, Japanese officials have been forced to dig mass graves. Many of these graves are for bodies so badly damaged by the seawater that they cannot possibly be identified.

“The horror of this event is only magnified by the fact that Japan is one of the most prepared countries for natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. They build quake-proof skyscrapers, they build sea fortifications, they have advanced warning systems. Until this disaster, the Japanese have been able to protect themselves with technology, but Nature always has the last word.”

Out of space and energy

The Japanese must acknowledge how nature affects their future development, Karan says. “In order to rebuild, the Japanese will need to pay more attention to the natural geography of their country. Only 14 percent of Japan is level land. There are very steep mountains with narrow coastlands. The Japanese have done a good job of matching land use to the slope—in other words, they don’t grow crops that would promote erosion on their steep slopes, and that protects the lower lying areas.” On the steep slopes they have tea orchards, gardens, and fruit trees. In the low-lying areas they have rice paddy fields. Karan says Japanese agricultural planning is a good model for other parts of the world—namely the Himalayas where deforestation has caused devastating landslides and flooding in his native country of India.

But the development quandary Japan faces is that the same areas that are good for agriculture are ideal for cities. In fact, most of the population lives in 2 percent of Japan’s land mass. Karan calls this highly urbanized area with 130 million people (from Tokyo to Fukuoka) the “megalopolis.” Before the tsunami, he was planning to study how this mega-city, with its efficient, pollution-free bus and subway system and green technologies that automatically turn off lights and air conditioning in unoccupied rooms, allowed so many people to function in such close proximity.

“Japan has two major problems: space and energy,” Karan states matter-of-factly. “They have exhausted their coal supply. They don’t have natural gas or oil. They’ve used water for electrical power in the past, but the demand for energy is so great, they’ve had to go the nuclear route. And, honestly, they didn’t plan the locations of their nuclear power plants well. They put them on the edge of the water—the worst possible place.” There are 50 of these nuclear plants spread across the country, and most of them are 40 years old. The Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company, began generating power in 1971.

In 2008, the International Atomic Energy Agency warned Japan that a strong earthquake could pose a “serious problem” for its nuclear power stations because of their outdated safety systems. And that prediction came true. The nuclear breach at Fukushima Dai-ichi is the second-worst in history—behind the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Japanese officials are concerned about the long-term health risks as the plant continues to spew radiation into the air, soil and seawater. Radioactive elements have been detected in tap water, fish, vegetables, and rice.

Where does Japan—and the world—go from here?

“Respect Nature,” advises Karan, who came to UK in 1956 and has worked with the United Nations in Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan to help those countries create economic growth plans. Karan is a “development geographer.” His goal is to raise awareness of what is at stake in areas where development is threatening the environment and native populations. Particularly endangered are mountain regions like the Himalayas, where even the Dalai Lama is sounding the alarm about Tibet’s melting glaciers and the long-term impact on the water supply for billions of people in India and China. Karan explains: “My job as a scientist is to create awareness, but also to help develop public policies that balance development, the environment and human welfare.”

Workers are still trying to restore cooling systems at Fukushima Dai-ichi, but as Karan says, the emphasis from this point forward—which must serve as a lesson to the world—should be on locating power plants in places less vulnerable to natural disasters, and spending the money to upgrade safety measures in older plants. “They didn’t have all the safeguards in place that they needed. And if you look in the United States, most of our nuclear plants—just like in Japan—are on fault lines.” He cites plants in New York and Southern California. “Engineers need to take a second look at how safe those plants really are in case of an earthquake. With the world as energy hungry as it is, nuclear power isn’t going to be abandoned tomorrow. But it has to be as safe as we can make it.

“We can reduce the impact of Nature, but we cannot totally eliminate it,” Karan says. “As a geographer, it’s fairly clear that you should have zoning policies against building homes and power plants in low-lying, vulnerable areas. Economic policies can protect people from disasters."


UK Geography Professor Pradyumna P. Karan’s research focuses on development, environmental management and society-environment relationships in Japan, Tibet and the Himalayas. “The Indian Ocean Tsunami: The Global Response to a Natural Disaster,” edited by Karan and released in January 2011, documents the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami through a series of essays by scientists, public policy experts and public health officials in Japan, Germany, Australia, France, and the United States. Karan was named a 2010-2011 University Research Professor. This $40,000 research professorship has allowed Karan to travel to the Himalayas to do "repeat photography"—take pictures of the same regions he photographed in the 1950s and ’60s—to show how development and climate change has impacted the geography and landscape of the region.

Photo of seawall

The 34-foot-tall, 1.5-mile-long, concrete seawall was built in 1958 to protect the town of Taro. But on March 11, 2011, the waves washed over the wall—dragging it piece by piece into the sea.

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photo of Taro

Taro, Japan, before and after the 1933 tsunami.
(Taro Municipal Government Photo)

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Photo of hillside

The hillside along the Taro coast that bears placards marking the height of the tsunami waters in 1896 and 1933.

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Photo of monument

This monument commemorating the victims of the 1933 tsunami in Taro was washed away by the tsunami waves on March 11.

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Photo of storyteller

Mrs. Tabata, a survivor of the 1933 tsunami, tells the picture story to school children in Taro.

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