Thursday, 27 March 2014

Miyagi Shiryō Net Announces its First Publication in a New Series 'Historical Regeneration' 

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Thursday, 13 March 2014

Miyagi Shiryō Net: 
Part I Who we are, What we do, and Why we do it
Acting to Save Our Heritage in the Face of Natural Disasters and Human Intervention



Part I The Birth of Miyagi Shiryō Net

The Serial Earthquakes of 2003

The Wholesale Destruction of People’s Livelihoods and ‘Historical Materials’

              Miyagi Shiryō Net was founded in 2003, after the inland northern regions of Miyagi Prefecture suffered a series of direct hit earthquakes. The core of its members are faculty,and students specialising in Japanese history, art history, archaeology, and professionals from related fields such as architecture and museum curators, and employees of local governments within Miyagi Prefecture. To cope with the overwhelming increase in our salvage and restoration activities since March, 2011, we now employ on a part-time basis local volunteers to do the continuing tasks of cleaning and restoring documents, and also cooperate with universities and institutions with specialised skills throughout Japan. Volunteers from all over Japan, and occasionally from overseas participate on an ad hoc basis in individual salvage operations.
            When we started conducting salvage operations for historical materials within the boundaries of the 5 municipalities (at the time) affected by these earthquakes, in the 192 old families we visited we found that many irreplaceable items, for example old tools, implements and furniture, and historical documents and paintings, all of which form a unique part of the historical heritage of each region, had been either burnt or thrown away when demolishing old houses and warehouses which had been badly damaged by the earthquakes.
              On arriving at these old-established families and being told that they had thrown away their historical heritage, we were repeatedly asked ‘if these items were so valuable, then why had we not arrived earlier to tell people about their worth.’

Caught Unprepared
 
Learning to Prepare for Disasters Before They Happen
              Before the serial earthquakes of 2003, we had barely any information about ‘where’ and ‘what kinds’ of historical materials were held privately by families throughout Miyagi Prefecture. This was the single largest reason why we had arrived too late on the scene after this disaster. Moreover, at this stage, we already knew that there was an 80% probability that another large scale offshore earthquake would hit Miyagi Prefecture within the next 20 years.
              It was clear that the best way to prepare to save historical materials in any future disasters would be to find out where such materials were held, and to record these materials before disaster struck. Looking back on our failure in 2003, we decided to embark on a long term project to save historical materials from natural disasters, and to do this, we knew that we would have to work in cooperation with local governments and local people.

What Are ‘Preservation Activities?’
 
              There are 2 main different tasks that we do as preservation activity.
(1)  ‘What’ and ‘where’: Combing an area to identify and locate materials
              We go through a certain whole area, usually either a unit of local government such as a ‘town’ or ‘village,’ or else a smaller area that was formerly an independent ‘village’ about a 100 years ago, to identify where and what kinds of historical materials are held throughout the area.
              In this kind of task, our members divide up into several separate teams to comb the area, usually in a single day, to locate and identify historical materials. By cataloguing and preserving this data, we can identify where all important historical materials within the area are located before a big natural disaster occurs.
    


(2) ‘Pinpoint’ recording: photographing a whole single collection
              In the process of combing an area, we often discover a large collection of documents or materials held by a single family or institution, and which is invaluable in order to understand the history of the area. In this case, we revisit the family or institution on a separate occasion and photograph the whole collection. We also provide the materials (e.g. acid-free envelopes) and advice necessary to preserve the items in the collection and save them from any further deterioration.
              To photograph this kind of collection, we use digital cameras. This enables us to create a digital record of the whole collection held by a single family/institution in a very short period of time. The digital record we create provides the people of the area with a readily accessible tool to learn about their own history, and in the unfortunate case of the original collection being lost in a disaster, it provides a valuable record of the original historical materials.
              The methodology that Miyagi Shiryō Net has developed over our years of experience in locating and also recording local historical materials in a very short period of time has attracted attention from all over Japan as a practical model for disaster prevention practice for invaluable local historical materials.


Going Public
Miyagi Shiryō Net Becomes an NGO and our Second Experience of Disaster
              In order to make our structure and activities more visible and open, in February of 2007, Miyagi Shiryō Net became an officially registered NGO.
              On the 14th June 2008, the Iwate and Miyagi Inland Earthquake struck, and this became our second ‘baptism of fire’ in a real large scale disaster. However, this time, we could draw upon our experience accumulated over the intervening 5 years, and were able to start salvage work in Kurihara and Ōsaki Cities, the 2 areas worst affected by this earthquake, soon after the disaster struck. In all, we conducted salvage activities for historical materials for items in the possession of 31 families.
              Of these 31 cases, some were totally unexpected and new finds. For example, in the earthquake, a wickerwork case fell down from where it had lay hidden in the ceiling of a warehouse, and when the owners opened it they found bundles of documents inside which no one knew anything about. In another case, when the owners started clearing away the debris of a warehouse which had totally collapsed in the earthquake, they discovered a treasure-trove of Edo Period (1600-1868) documents.

              As time passed by, the probability of the expected Miyagi Offshore Earthquake inched higher and higher. In expectation of this next big test, by February 2010, we had conducted pinpoint data recording at a total of 415 families.


Part II Salvage Operations for Historical Materials after the Great East Japan Earthquake

Damage Assessment and Salvage Work within the Disaster Area

3.11. 2011: Disaster Hits for the Third Time

              At 2.40 p.m. on 11th March 2011, an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 on the Richter scale occurred offshore the Pacific seaboard of the Tōhoku Region (the northeastern part of the main island of Honshū). Soon after that, a gigantic tsunami hit the neighbouring coastline.
              The third major earthquake that we experienced, the Great East Japan Earthquake, was something that almost no one had predicted nor expected. It exceeded all prior estimates about the expected scale of the next Miyagi Offshore Earthquake, which occurs on an approximately 40 year cycle, and the tsunami that it caused wrought mass damage extending over 500 kilometres of coastline.


Documents Washed Away by the Tsunami
The Originals Have Gone, but the Digital Data Remains
              In the areas along the coast hit by the tsunami, countless historical materials were lost. The very first time we were able to enter the disaster area to visit a family in Ishinomaki City, the approximately 12,000 historical documents held there had all been washed away, along with everything else that the family owned.
              Despite this great loss to the historical heritage of the region, we had already photographed all these documents over a period of 10 years starting from 2000. It was a lesson learnt in the worst way possible, but this example demonstrates clearly the importance of conducting preservation activities for historical materials before disaster strikes.

Countless Historical Materials in Danger
Salvaging as Much as Fast as Possible
              From around the middle of April 2011, we started to receive urgent calls to come and salvage collections of historical materials, both from areas hit by the tsunami, and areas further inland. These calls not only came from people who held the materials, but also from people in local government and local citizens with whom we had established a working relationship in our years of activities throughout the region before the disaster.

              As of December 2013, we have conducted a total of 105 salvage operations in a total of 88 families and institutions throughout Miyagi and southern Iwate Prefectures (Note: the Wikipedia entries linked to here are highly unsatisfactory, but at least you can locate the prefectures on a map JFM). Notwithstanding the scope of this disaster, we have discovered many collections of historical materials which have miraculously survived, but which are in jeopardy, either due to immersion in seawater and silt from the tsunami, or by being housed in collapsed or condemned buildings damaged by the earthquake. It is a race against time to save as many of these materials as possible for posterity.



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Epilogue