Minami-Sanriku, Utatsu District

The MIT Japan 3/11 Initiative Team directs its first assistance specifically to the town of Minami Sanriku (南三陸町, population 10,700) one of the hardest hit by the M.9.0 earthquake and the unsurpassed tsunami which ensued. While the activities of the MIT Japan 3/11 Initiative may ultimately include assistance beyond a single community, an identified site-specific collaboration with this particular city strongly aligns with this project’s goal of engaging directly at the localized grass-roots level of cooperation.

The town of Utatsu: Before and after 3/11.


Minami-Sanriku is located within the Motoyoshi District in the Miyagi Prefecture of Japan.  It is comprised of 3 towns merged together in 2005: the original Minami-Sanriku, Shizugawa, and Utatsu.  Historically these settlements were resorts whose picturesque bays have supported a thriving micro-fishing industry.  Scallop, urchin, oyster, and konbu formed this niche market and drew both national and international visitors alike.

Because of its coastal location, Minami-Sanriku has long been vulnerable to natural hazards such as tsunamis.  The Great Chilean (Valdivia) Earthquake of 1960, despite its distance, caused a tsunami that brought waves of up to 2.8 meters (9.2 feet) upon the shores of these fishing settlements.  In an attempt to protect the coast from future damage, two-story high sea walls were completed by 1963.

Impact of 3/11

Minami-Sanriku was heavily impacted by the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and subsequent tsunami.  About 95% of the town was destroyed and half the population missing, leaving a heavy sense of loss for such a small and tightly-knit community.  Four-story buildings were swept away by the more-than 16 meter-high waves, and at least 31 of the town’s 80 evacuation sites – indicated as safe zones – were inundated with water.  Many of the survivors took refuge in schools such as Utatsu Junior High School, which were commonly built on higher ground above the low-lying commercial and residential zones adjacent to the bay.

Recent response

On April 20th, 2011, Jin Sato, Mayor of Minami Sanriku, officially requested the President of Miyagi University to cooperate in the efforts to reconstruct his city. On May 3rd, Shun Kanda visited the site of Minami Sanriku and conferred with the mayor, officially offering his assistance on behalf of the MIT Japan 3/11 Initiative. The mayor himself was a survivor of the tsunami and pledged a speedy recovery for his people and the local economy. He especially discussed the need for possible alternative planning strategies for future disaster mitigation which may or may not be addressed by the reconstruction directives from the central government.

Within days of the disaster, and continuing today, Professor Hiraoka and his multi-disciplinary Miyagi University team have been tirelessly attending to the extensive on-site survey of the Minami Sanriku region including data-gathering, interviews with those at evacuation centers, and liaisons with various task forces, local leaders, and public officials. Clean up continues, partially restored roads have allowed the delivery of goods, materials and the initial phase of temporary shelters are well underway.

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