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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Dead Mayor Saves Town From Tsunami

Fudai's floodgate.
If we believed in ghosts (and we do), you might want to file this story under Ripley's Believe It Or Not.

This is the true story about how a mayor who died in 1997 at the age of 88, saved the town of Fudai, Iwate-ken (Iwate Prefecture) from the fury of the tsunami that struck the northeast coast of Japan back on March 11, 2011.

Okay... it's not really a ghost story. It's about how Mayor Wamura Kotoku (not Kotaku) - (surname first) decided to build a seawall and a floodgate that was so massive and expensive that, back in the 1970s, people thought he was crazy for being so wasteful with the money of the town's 3,000 people.

Now Wamura-san wasn't just your fly-by-night mayor, either. He was mayor from 1947 until 1987 - 10 full terms - so he must have done a few things right - even if he was derided for spending so much money on the floodgate.

Flash forward to March 11, 2011 when a 9.0 Magnitude earthquake caused a 60-plus foot tsunami to come barreling down on the northeast coast of Japan - including the town of Fudai. While other towns were flooded with losses of many people, Fudai was saved by the wall. No people died. No homes were lost. All in all, a pretty darn satisfactory footnote to Mayor Wamura as a politician.

Okay... one dumb fisherman died when, immediately after the earthquake he went out past the floodgate to go and check out his boat.

Wamura's floodgate stood 51-feet (15.5-meter) tall, and was placed between mountainsides. It took 12 years to construct and, in today's money, cost the equivalent of Cdn/US $30-million. For a town of just over 3,000 people back in the 1970s, this truly was an incredible amount of money.

So... why did he do it?

Fudai is situated about 320 miles (510 kilometers) north of Tokyo. It's a small fishing village the depends on the sea, and harvest seaweed for food. It also has some amazing white-sand beaches that lures tourists.
Mayor Wamura Kotoku

As a young man, Wamura was hep to the fact that the sea, while ever bountiful, could turn angry.

Back in 1933 and armed with knowledge of a disaster in 1896, Fudai was destroyed after massive earthquakes spawned massive tsunami that destroyed hundreds of homes and killed a total of 439 people. Considering only 3,000 or so lived in Fudai back in the 1960s (and even now in 2011), losing 439 people is about 1/7th of the population. That's huge.

In his book about Fudai called A 40-Year Fight Against Poverty, Wamura wrote: "When I saw bodies being dug up from the piles of earth, I did not know what to say. I had no words."

Simply put, he knew that as mayor, a disaster like that would never happen again to Fudai.

Fudai's Seawall in background.
In 1967, the town first erected a 51-foot (15.5-meter) seawall to shield homes behind the fishing port. This is different from a floodgate.

But he still wasn't satisfied. He wanted more protection, and wanted to add a floodgate for a cove located up a road from the previously built seawall... a floodgate right in front of the actual village.

That area needed a floodgate with panels that could be lifted to allow the Fudai-gawa (Fudai River) to empty into the cove and lowered again to protect the village against a tsunami.

He insisted the structure be as tall as the seawall. And while the village council originally were against it, he eventually convinced them.

"They (Village Council) weren't necessarily against the idea of floodgates, just the size," explains Mifune Yuzo, head of Fudai's resident services and an unofficial floodgate historian. "But Wamura somehow persuaded them that this was the only way to protect lives."

Construction on this second floodgate began in 1972. There were still grumblings from locals about the size of this monstrous gate blocking off their village, as well as grumblings from landowners forced to sell land to the government.

Even current Mayor Fukawatari Hiroshi, who helped oversee construction, had his doubts: "I did wonder whether we needed something this big."

The floodgate, made of concrete was 673 feet (205 meters) wide, and was finally finished in 1984, 12 years after it was started. It cost, in 1984 money, ¥3.56-billion (~ Cdn/US $47-million), of which it was split between the town and the prefecture.

Let's flash ahead again to 2011. On March 11, after the earthquake hit (and before the tsunami), workers remotely closed the floodgate's four main panels. While the smaller panels on the sides jammed, a firefighter was able to close them by hand.

The aftermath? The beautiful white sand beaches were littered with debris and fallen trees. At the Fudai port outside the floodgates, boats, equipment and warehouses were destroyed. Estimated loses to its fishing industry was at ¥3.8-billion ( Cdn/US $50-million).

But behind the floodgates, the people of Fudai were safe and secure. It's kind of tough to put a dollar/yen figure on that.

"It cost a lot of money. But without it, Fudai would have disappeared," states 55-year-old seaweed fisherman Kaneko Satoshi, whose business has been ruined but who is happy to have his family and home intact.

At Fudai, the waves rose as high as 66 feet (20 meters), as water marks stained the floodgate's towers. 

Okay, so it's true... some water did break over the 51-foot barriers... but, it was enough to blunt the main thrust of the tsunami.

The nearby Taro-machi (Town of Taro) and its 5,000 people also thought it had constructed an impenetrable defense with a double-layered 33-foot (10-meter) high seawall that spanned a length of 1.6 miles (2.5 kilometers) across a bay. It had, prior to March 11, 2011, some 1,600 homes and 4,400 residents. It's seawall did not protect the town.

The tsunami easily flowed over the Taro seawall... and once in past it, the rampaging waters smashed the village, and because it was now stuck within the village, thanks to mountains behind it and the useless seawall in front of it, the waters swirled around like a flushed toilet creating a whirling whirlpool that simply turned the town of Taro into slurry. In fact, the trapped whirlpool may have been responsible for more deaths than the original impact of the tsunami itself.

As many as 2,000 people are dead or are presumed dead.

As crap luck would have it, just eight days earlier on March 3, 2011, the village held its annual tsunami drill, an event that occurs every March 3 to commemorate a devastating tsunami that struck Taro in 1933 and nearly wiped it out.

But Taro was by no means unique in its reliance on a massive and intricate seawall. About 40 per cent of Japan’s 35,000-kilometer coastline is marked by concrete seawalls or breakwaters meant to protect the coast.

And the residents of Fudai can thank their lucky stars for the foresight and bravery of one Wamura Kotoku, who said at his retirement party in 1987: "Even if you encounter opposition, have conviction and finish what you start. In the end, people will understand."

After the tsunami, Fudai residents began to visit his family grave site to pay respects to the dead mayor who saved their village. Check out this site and play with the plus/minus to get up close to the Fudai satellite view. Then notice just how close the Fudai Sho Gakko (Fudai Elementary School) is to the floodgate. SEE.

Files compiled by Andrew Joseph
PS: In researching this blog, there are numerous articles out there with Mator Wamura's given name being misspelled as Kotaku. It should be Kotoku. As well, far too many articles confuse the two different Fudai constructs, interchanging the words seawall and floodgate. The same goes for the photography. This blog has it correct.


  1. You, Mike, just made my week. I spent three hours writing this blog trying to make sense of all of the info. But, ,more importantly... you are right. It is a frickin' awesome story!

  2. Hello Andrew Joseph, I don't know if you still actively maintain this blog, but I just found it today (november 21st 2015) and had to comment in order to express my appreciation that you did spend those three hours writing this blog entry. I remember that day that the earthquake happened. Even though I was living in Shreveport Lousiana, I tuned in to the news in real time whereever I could find commentary about the event. I was floored to witness such destructive force come from nature. And, I am a Katrina evacuee, so I can say that I've seen things. But this heartwarming story is a great testament to that mayor. And, thank you for placing it here, in English, with other links to view. Sincerely, Dale.

    1. Hi Dale - Thanks! I do maintain the blog - writing everyday and responding back to great people like yourself asap.
      Thank you very much for taking the time to write in.
      Katrina evacuee? Whoa. I watch NCIS New Orleans... the show touches on Katrina people and places every once in a while... but yeah, I recall watching with horror the stuff that happened to your home town and surrounding areas. Keep the faith.