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Tsunami Stones and what they teach us about Societal Legacy

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

They dot the coastline of Japan in the hundreds, standing as messengers bearing ancient admonitions. Some stand as high as the stones of Stonehenge. No two are alike. They are called Tsunami Stones. They were not forged in factories but in communities that witnessed firsthand the terror of a tsunami. Instead of fleeing in fear, these deluged communities rebuilt their homes, knowing that future generations were at risk yet choosing to stay where they called home. So they build markers engraved with messages of warning. Two notable stones and their stories have been widely reported.

One notable stone is in Aneyoshi, near the city of Miyako. Aneyoshi had been subject to many tsunamis, but it was after the tsunami of 1896 that the village elders put up a marker stone to remind people how high the water came and not to build beyond that point. All subsequent generations took heed. Schoolchildren were informed and everyone grew up knowing not to build beyond the Tsunami Stone.

The inscription of the stone said "High dwellings are the peace and

harmony of our descendants. Remember the calamity of the great

Tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point”

The 2011 Tsunami came within meters of the stone. But the small community was saved despite the wave that hit Aneyoshi being recorded as the highest: 127 feet. Now just yards away from the Stone, is a blue line painted on the road, marking where the 21st-century Tsunami reached.

The second story comes from an island I have visited many times, Miyato Jima, and the small fishing village of Murohama. According to both oral history and geological evidence, a massive 8.7 earthquake, shook the region in 869 AD resulting in a massive tsunami. Most of the villagers sought refuge at the top of the nearest hill as they knew that a tsunami would come following the shaking of the earth. A smaller number of the community climbed a higher hill a tad further away. Both groups, from their respective vantage points, watched a wave come ashore destroying the port and their homes below. Those on the second, higher hill also so a second wave comes from the opposite direction. They witnessed the horror as a second wave came from the other side of the island, racing up the rice paddies and colliding with the first wave at the foot of the hill where most of the community had sought safety. The force of the two waves colliding caused what appeared to be a great geyser that rose up, completely engulfing the hill and all those who had safety there. Only those on the second hill survived.

The survivors decided to stay and rebuild their homes. But they had the foresight to warn all future generations of the dangers and send an instruction into the future as to where to seek refuge. They erected a shrine and Tsunami Stone on the smaller hill where their neighbors had lost their lives. The stone has stood for over 1100 years and sent a message to fifty generations. The message is simple. . . “do not take refuge here. Go to the higher hill.”

On March 11th, 2011 the residents of Murohama village on Miyato

Jima, knew what to do when the 9.0 earthquake struck. Ironically, the high-tech Tsunami Warning System on top of a nearby hill topped and did not do its assigned job. The silent stone succeeded where modern technology failed. The people adhered to the stone`s warning and went to the second, slightly higher hill and witnessed the same horror as their ancestors in the 9th century. Two waves collided and engulfed the smaller hill. This time, eleven hundred years since two waves came ashore, no lives were lost.

Two great stories, were reported by foreign journalists who visited Japan weeks after March 11, 2011.

But reading the articles was not my first encounter with Tsunami Stones. My introduction came through a kind man named Mr. Sato from Murohama, whom I first met in an evacuation center on Miyato Jima shortly after the disaster. Over time, Mr. Sato and I became friends, as we frequently met during my time supporting over 70 start-ups and re-starts in twenty communities within the Tsunami Zone through HOPE International Development Agency. With quiet gratitude, he shared with me that no one in his community had lost their life during the 2011 Tsunami, and he attributed this fortunate outcome entirely to the foresight of those who lived long ago.

Mr. Sato, well into his seventies, recounted how the story of the 859 Tsunami and the choice between seeking refuge on the lower hill versus the higher hill had become more than just an oral tradition. It had become an integral part of the school curriculum, even reaching his own primary student. They were led, along with their class, to the top of the lower hill to read the inscription on the Tsunami Stone and hear the ancient tale of how, over a millennium before, the earth shook, and the villagers knew exactly what to do: Go to higher ground. Some sought safety on the nearby hill, where they stood at that moment, while others went to the further, less convenient, but higher hill. From both vantage points, they witnessed the terrifying sight of Ishinomaki Bay rising, rushing into their tiny village, destroying their homes and boats. However, those on the higher hill saw something that those on the lower hill could not – a second wave. With their 360-degree view of the island, they watched the wave circle around, rushing up the rice paddies, and colliding with the first wave, rising like a mighty fountain and engulfing the first hill along with all those seeking safety upon it, washing them out to sea.

Over a thousand years later, when the earth shook again with the same magnitude and likely epicenter, the entire village knew what to do. They all headed to the further, higher, yet less convenient hill. From there, they witnessed a phenomenon that had not been seen for eleven centuries – Ishinomaki Bay rising, the wave rushing in, and devastating their homes and boats. They also saw the second wave circling the island, rushing up the rice paddies, colliding with the first wave, rising over and enveloping the lower hill. This time, the only thing washed away was the Tsunami Stone.

The story deeply moved me, prompting me to embark on a long bicycle ride of over 1000 kilometers along the Pacific Coast of Japan, searching for these Tsunami Stones. It saddened me to discover that many of them had been ignored, leading to the loss of precious lives during subsequent disasters. I even heard stories of the tsunami of 2011 ripping up roads, revealing toppled Tsunami Stones buried beneath the tarmac, sacrificed to make way for roads.

Accompanied by my faithful dog Skylie, I journeyed not only to Miyato Jima but also to Aneyoshi, where I saw the Tsunami Stone that bore a simple yet powerful message: "Do not build past this point." It was evident how this stone had saved lives.

The legacy of Mr. Sato and those who came before him lives on, inspiring me to aspire to be like him and to carry forward the wisdom of the Tsunami Stones so that future generations can benefit from their timeless lessons.

This has made me ponder
a powerful trilogy of principles
  1. Long-term Vision and Legacy: The Tsunami Stones teach us the importance of having a vision that extends beyond our own lifetimes. The communities that erected these stones did not just think about their immediate safety but considered the safety of future generations as well. They chose to leave a legacy by building markers to warn their descendants about the dangers of tsunamis, ensuring that the knowledge would be passed down through generations.

  2. Seeking a Broader Perspective: The stories of the Tsunami Stones emphasize the value of seeking out higher and less convenient vantage points. By doing so, these communities gained a 360-degree view of their surroundings and the potential risks. This broader perspective allowed them to make informed decisions about where to build their homes and seek refuge during disasters, ultimately saving lives.

  3. The Power of Education: Education played a crucial role in preserving knowledge from the past. By incorporating the stories of the Tsunami Stones into local school curriculums, the communities ensured that the wisdom of their ancestors was shared with younger generations. This local education, coupled with global awareness, prepared the residents to respond appropriately when disaster struck, proving that education can be a lifesaving tool.

The Tsunami Stones serve as a poignant reminder of the significance of thinking beyond the present moment, seeking broader perspectives, and the transformative power of education in safeguarding the lives and well-being of future generations.

Mr. Sato has since passed away, but his legacy and those who preceded him live on. I want to be like him.



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