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old families we visited we found that many irreplaceable items, for example old tools, implements and furniture, and historical documents and paintings, all of which form a unique part of the historical heritage of each region, had been either burnt or thrown away when demolishing old houses and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.

Miyagi Shiryō Net: 
Our Story in Pictures
Activities and Operations Conducted from  2003 until 2009

 A warehouse damaged by the northern Miyagi Inland Earthquake, former Kahoku Town (now Ishinomaki City), 10th August 2003.  The warehouse contained a collection of Jōmon Period pottery and other artifacts discovered nearby and excavated between 1910 and 1926. The warehouse belongs to a family which accumulated wealth as landlords  and rose to wealth in the Edo Period (1600-1868).

Inside the warehouse above. The shelves have either fallen over or been twisted and damaged by the shock of the earthquake.

 Carrying out old documents from another damaged warehouse for temporary safe-keeping (31st August, 2003).

Assessing the contents of the documents.

 Salvaging the Jōmon Period pottery from shattered display cases.

 Creating a catalogue of the documents held by the Kurihara Den'en Railways, Kurihara City, 3rd August 2006. The company operating the railway was terminated in 2007.

 Creating a digital record of an extensive collection held by an old family in Karakuwa, Kesen'numa. In this session, over 20 digital cameras were used, but photographing this collection has been an ongoing operation extending over several years (5th August, 2007). (Note: the entry in Wikipedia for 'Karakuwa' is garbled, but is the best I could find JFM)

 The slope beside a school which collapsed after the Iwate-Miyagi Inland Earthquake of 14th June, 2008 (photographed on 15th June, 2008).

Gravestones overturned by the earthquake of 2008 (15th July 2008, Kurihara City). In Japan, bodies are usually cremated and placed in a family grave, rather than an individual one. Gravestones are an important symbol linking present family members and their ancestors.

Student volunteer members scanning through local histories and other published sources to locate collections of original documents within the earthquake-affected area (Tōhoku University, Sendai, 16th June, 2008).

Assessing the contents of a wicker basket full of original documents which fell down from the ceiling of a warehouse during the earthquake of 2008 (Kurihara City, 29th June, 2008)

During a visit to families long established in the district throughout the affected areas, we discover a hitherto unknown collection of documents (Ōsaki City, 27th August 2008)

Entering an old warehouse to search it for old documents and historical materials (Fujisawa Town, Iwate Prefecture,  8th August 2008)

Inside the above warehouse, we found a collection of Edo Period documents in an antique chest of drawers.

Assessing the collection of documents discovered above.

Sorting the documents in the above collection.

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