IT has been 10 years since an earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan, resulting in 360 billion dollars in damage and 20,000 lives lost.  It stands as one of the most destructive natural disasters of all time and, along with the Indonesia tsunami of 2004, a reminder that the forces at work in nature make any activities carried out by mankind seem rather small.

The tsunami was a terrible and costly learning experience.  Japan, a country already at the fore of measures to control natural events, has increased its efforts to protect its population from the next disaster.  Some measures have been wise: relocating homes and businesses further inland and on higher ground, raising construction standards so buildings can withstand greater punishment, pushing early warning systems further out to sea to increase notification times. 

One project in particular has aroused a great deal of controversy.  The Japanese have constructed a 400-kilometer sea wall along the coast.  Nicknamed the Great Wall of Japan, it is built of millions of tons of steel-reinforced concrete and is designed to protect Japan from tsunami attacks.  To see the wall in person is breathtaking.  One marvels at the effort and expense that has gone into such a massive structure.  It conjures images from old Japanese movies of walls designed to keep Godzilla out, which they never did.

But the wall has many critics.  Quite a few Japanese question if it would actually hold back a tsunami.  After all, the massive seawall that was already in place failed in 2011.  That wall was designed to stop waves of eight meters, but that tsunami inundated the coast with waves 12 to 15 meters high.  Once the water poured over the top of the wall, it undermined its foundation from both sides, causing collapse.  But the designers of this wall say it will withstand all but the most severe tsunamis.

Some question the location of the wall.  Just because the northeast region of Japan was hit by the last tsunami, that does not mean the next one will hit there.  What about the rest of the coast?  Why 400 kilometers?  Why not 500?  Why not further south?  Assuming the wall will perform its task, why not wrap the island country in a protective concrete cocoon? But the designers of the wall say it was placed in the area of Japan most likely to receive tsunamis, and they hope to extend it over time.

Some say it is a gigantic eyesore and a waste of time.  Many doubt it will hold back a tsunami, just like the last one.  They have no confidence that it will do its job, and they wonder who got paid and how much.  Many people in the concrete, steel, and construction business got rich from government contracts.  How necessary is the wall?  Is it nothing more than government pork?  But the designers of the wall say it is necessary and will save lives, regardless of the cost and who got rich.

Many people who live in the region complain that the giant concrete wall looks like a jail house and makes them feel like prisoners.  After all, many of them moved there precisely because of the gorgeous ocean view.  Now they cannot even see it.  They look out their windows and see nothing but gray.  But designers of the wall say it is meant to be functional, not beautiful, although they are willing to entertain ways of sprucing it up a little.

Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 and upon seeing the Great Wall, is reported to have said, “That sure is a great wall!”  Is Japan’ Great Wall truly great, or just a colossal waste of time and resources?  We will know the answer to that question soon.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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