Build back better: Lessons from Japan

Bea Cupin

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'Don't hurry. Reconstruction takes more time than you think,' says an official from a Japanese city still recovering from the effects of a 2011 tsunami

REBUILDING. Higashi Matsushima is 3 years into its 10-year tsunami rehabilitation plan. Their advice? Don't hurry. Reconstruction takes time. File photo by AFP

MANILA, Philippines – The images are eerily similar – houses washed away, communities leveled, lives lost.

To this day, survivors of the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake in Higashi Matsushima in the Miyagi Prefecture of Japan search for missing relatives. A total of 1,097 people died because of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the tsunami that followed. 28 also went missing. Of the dead, only 1,063 were recovered.

Higashi Matsushima was a city in ruin. A month after the disaster, rehabilitation plans kicked in. Almost 3 years after the quake, Higashi Matsushima is only a third of the way done with a 10-year reconstruction and restoration plan.

Asked what the city learned and is learning from its rebuilding, a local official was straightforward.

“Don’t hurry. Reconstruction takes more time than you think,” Shuya Takahashi of the city’s reconstruction policy division said on Friday, January 24. The first 5 years of the plan involves recovery and reconstruction, while the last 5 will be the “development period.”

Takashi was in Manila for a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) seminar on “Build Back Better” – the Philippine government’s catchphrase for rehabilitation efforts in areas affected by the biggest calamities of 2013.


Step one for the Higashi Matsushima’s rehabilitation was community-based. Takashi said a meeting was held to start “consensus-building among the people.” In the end, the city’s rehab plans were approved by more than 80% of the populace.

“Protect the community,” Takashi said, emphasizing the need to empower survivors and to give them a stake in rehabilitation efforts.

Unprepared is not the word to describe Higashi Matsushima. Even before the quake, no-build zones were established up to 1 kilometer from the shoreline. But the 5.77- to 10.35-meter tsunami waves reached up to 7 kilometers inland, flooding over 36% of the city.

One of the residential areas washed away wasn’t considered a danger zone in hazard maps at that time.

Community centers went into overdrive in the aftermath of the tsunami. Three civic centers were damaged, so survivors were moved to neighboring centers for temporary shelter.

Years after the tsunami, the local community still takes center stage – committees monitor and track the progress of reconstruction.

REBUILDING. Residents rebuild their homes twelve days after Typhoon Yolanda hit the town of Palo, Leyte. Photo by Jake Versoza

Lessons for Yolanda

The Philippines is facing a massive rehabilitation project of its own – for areas devastated by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). Unlike Japan, however, the Philippines’ funds are much tighter.

Higashi Matsushima’s disaster hazard areas were extended after the tsunami, and divided into 3 levels: a no-build zone, a zone where only industrial structures could be built, and a “blue zone” where houses could be rebuilt as long as they were higher than 1.5 meters. Sea walls were also built in the city.

Tanauan Mayor Pel Tecson, whose town was among those battered by Yolanda’s 6-meter storm surges, worries about rehabilitation funding. During the seminar, Tecson asked Japanese officials what the 2nd class municipality could do given its lack of funds.

“You have to adapt to the budget available,” said JICA Senior Advisor Dr Kimiyo Takeya. Adapting, he said, could mean constructing elevated roads so they function as sea walls as well.

Spending whatever funds are available was also a key lesson for Koichi Hashimoto, chairman of the Higashi Matsushima Chamber of Commerce. “Reconstruction is not just about spending money, it’s also about allocating money,” he said.

For Takashi, the most important part of rebuilding a town is making sure locals – both from the government and private sector – are heard and involved.

The national government should and will intervene, he said, but reconstructing a city is ultimately the task of those who live in it. “Most important thing is to support stakeholders in local government so they can reconstruct themselves in the long run,” he said. –

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.