Preserving the Ruins of the Great East Japan Earthquake, Nakahama Elementary School


Assoc. Prof. Masashige Motoe
Disaster Information Management and Public Collaboration Division


 In September 2020, the former school building of Nakahama Elementary School in Yamamoto Town, Miyagi was opened to the public as a site to preserve the ruins of the 2011 disaster. On March 11, 2011, 90 people including school children, faculty members, and parents fled from the approaching giant tsunami to the roof of the school building and spent the night in its attic storage room before being rescued. The elementary school was closed, but in 2014, the town began to consider preserving the affected building as a heritage object. IRIDeS concurrent faculty Assoc. Prof. Masashige Motoe, who is a faculty in the Architecture department at the School of Engineering, Tohoku University, became the leader in charge of directing the design of this project. Dr. Motoe formed a team with an editor, graphic designer, filmmaker, and architects and proceeded with the project to maintain the site as a heritage, interviewing, coordinating, and creating a consensus with the people involved.


 While directing, Dr. Motoe kept in mind not to make a place that simply reminds people of the threat of the tsunami or that teaches lessons already learned. As Motoe says, “The school principal at that time and others who experienced the disaster have repeatedly asked themselves whether their decision to evacuate to the roof was really the right one, as they would have been victims if the tsunami had been one meter higher. They say that it was not at all a heroic tale of making the right decision and saving lives. So, in the remains, we have included the message that in times of disaster, you must find your own answer in your own places.” The remains became a place that asks visitors various questions and makes them think. “One of the challenges in the design of the ruins was how to make a good balances: we aimed at presenting a complex story as it was, but it shouldn’t be too complicated to be understood by visitors; safety must be ensured in the ruins, while its damaged state should be shown as much as possible,” says Motoe. After extensive coordination with the town and local people, the site for the ruins was finally completed and opened to the public. Afterwards, their project won the Good Design Award 2020 and was selected as one of Good Design Best 100. Furthermore, it also received one of the Good Focus Awards [Disaster Prevention & Recovery Design].


 When you walk through the remains, you can see the rubble still inside the former school building and feel the sea breeze blowing through the broken windows. “Except for a few parts, we did not use rust-proofing materials to force the time of the place to stop for visitors to see the damaged state as it is. We let the place rust away. But it does not mean that the ruins should be left untouched in the future. On the contrary, it requires constant attention to ensure safety and proper management. All the memorial monuments that have survived for a long time exist today because people have been looking after them over generations,” says Dr. Motoe. There are motivated docents on site, and English displays are also available at the Nakahama Elementary School. “I hope many people both from Japan and abroad visit there and experience the place,” concludes Motoe.


Ruins of the Great East Japan Earthquake, Nakahama Elementary School(Photo taken in January 2021)

Ruins of the Great East Japan Earthquake, Nakahama Elementary School

Address: 22-2, Aza-Kune, Sakamoto, Yamamoto Town, Watari-gun, Miyagi Prefecture, 989-2111, Japan

Access: 10 minutes by car from Yamamoto-minami-SIC, Joban Expressway / 25 minutes on foot from Sakamoto Station, JR Joban Line. Rent-a-bicycle is available at Yamamoto Yumeichigono sato next to the station.

For more information (in Japanese), please visit:

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