Understanding the Impact of Coastal Change on Communities in Japan

sea wall Japan climate change

Coastal areas provide society with a vast array of ecosystem services from which coastal communities and society more broadly derives a myriad of benefits, ranging from supporting habitats for valuable and vulnerable species, nutrient cycling and carbon sequestration to providing space for recreation and seascapes and spaces that inspire and heal. Over the past 15 years or so, there has been a growing consideration of the less marketable and non-material benefits associated with our coasts and seas — those benefits that may fall under the category of cultural ecosystem services and provide a direct contribution to coastal community wellbeing, fulfilment and economic development. Alongside this, we have seen an emergent narrative around the role of blue spaces, the dynamic connection between society and the sea, and how this contributes to both individual and societal wellbeing and how these might be impacted by changing coastal spaces and an increasingly changing climate — topics that are central to the work being done through CCAT.

sea wall defense
New sea wall defence in Shichigahama following March 2011 tsunami

As part of an ESRC funded collaboration with colleagues from University of Aberdeen, UK, and Tohoku University, Sendia, Japan, we ran a pilot workshop in Shichigahama, Japan aimed at understanding the impact of coastal change, specifically coastal defences, on individual and social wellbeing and place attachment in a coastal community in eastern Japan. Shichigahama is a coastal community in eastern Japan in the Miyagi prefecture — on 11th March 2011, a tsunami hit the town, with a 10-metre-high wave causing damage infrastructure, homes and loss of life across the communities of Shichigahama. A community with a long history of hard engineering to address the impacts of coastal flooding and storm surges, post-2011 response has seen significant development in large-scale coastal defences with construction of new sea walls along much of the community coastline.

tsunami evacuation sign
Tsunami evacuation sign in Shichigahama, Japan

Through the workshop, we asked a range of questions to understand the relationship between the communities and the coastal defences including:

· Tell us what living at the coast/ beside the ocean means for you?

· How has this changed over time?

· For those parts of the marine environment you consider important, what type of benefits do you get from them?

· What changes have you seen in your coast/ocean? — ask about time frames and what might have caused these changes?

· In your own words, what was life like in Shichigahama prior to the 2011 tsunami?

· What changed for you as an individual, your family and for the community after the event?

· What is the impact of coastal change on sense of connection to the sea?

a hand drawing on a map
Workshop attendees using maps to illustrate how the community has changed since March 2011.

Through our conversations, we identified a number of interesting themes, including, community relationships with the sea and how this formed part of the workshop attendees identity (“I can’t sleep without the sound of the sea…the first time I went away from Shichigahama, and there was no sound, it was scary”) and a recognition that the community connection to the coast has changed over recent decades. Fewer people working in maritime communities, and since the 2011 tsunami multi-generational and traditional living has changed. The destruction of properties and the need for temporary accommodation have significantly altered the living dynamics of the community, with a number of younger couples accepting smaller apartments as replacement home, while members of the older generation waited for homes more similar to what they were used to before the tsunami. Interestingly, we also saw differing views about the perception of safety that people felt about the new sea walls, with some feeling that that the walls contribute to their feelings of safety, while others felt that it adds to their feeling of fear and risk because they can’t see the sea beyond the walls.

The visit and workshop provided a valuable insight into the different ways in which people respond to coastal change, the resilience of coastal communities and their perceptions of risk in response to living in an area of continual flux. The results of this work will be written up as a peer reviewed paper, and the team are on the look out for future opportunities to work together and further develop the themes found in this short study.

red leaved creeper on a temple monument
A monument at the gate of one of the Temples in Shichigahama
Research Fellow at Cardiff University | Website | + posts