15.05.2011 A million trees lost – One Seed Planted – a Forest Gained.

Ingo Günther

I was in the middle of checking how my electronic imagery would play on the brand new, soon to be inaugurated GeoCosmos II spherical display at Miraikan, when I saw in disbelief that 6 meter globe starting to swing and shudder. 10 minutes later I learned that we were far from the epicenter and that a tsunami had caused devastation in the North East. I had been several times to the Tohoku region for exhibitions of my sculptures.

While the extent of the damage was far for clear, I immediately knew one thing – I wanted to help. But how can a foreigner who is barely able to communicate directions to a cab driver be constructive and avoid becoming a liability in a Japanese crisis zone? I was afraid of becoming a crisis tourist and at worst using up scarce resources. Already I had started to irritate my team members at Miraikan by not following protocol (even if I had known the particulars I would likely have found a reason not to follow them). And in absence of medical or engineering skills I knew that my place as sculptor and conceptual artist would be better used elsewhere.

A day later and it was clear to me, I should contribute to the reconstruction, specifically, the re-construction and re-forestation of pine trees that saw decimated in endless TV loops. I had made a plan two years earlier to come up with aesthetic methods to visually blend the often brutish coastal defense structures with the natural appearance of a shoreline. And the motivation for that project is related to my first impression of Japan, that goes back to long time ago.

Waking up in a Ryokan in Mie prefecture in many years ago at 4 a.m. I found everything quiet. I was utterly aware that for the first time in my life I had just arrived in Japan – a country that I had only read and dreamed about. And there I was. As if to confirm that I was really here and Japan being an Island I stumbled out of the Ryokan and headed east. Eventually I would hit the magnificent Pacific Ocean. I imagined I would find some rocks, a beach or a cliff and would ponder the beauty of this unique archipelago in a very a-priori fashion – just me and the ocean and some token land…

When I finally reached the end of the road after about an hours walk I hit a wall, quite literally. A 4 meter concrete wall. I managed to climb up. And finally I could see the ocean – but could not even get my feet wet as I had planed. Rather a barrage of tetrapods blocked any access. It was a somber moment, my romantic notion of Japan went up in air.

5 Years later I was setting up an exhibition in Fukushima-ken. We had a car and I drove with my small team out to the ocean, sort of hoping we might find a relaxing spot and recover from a week of work in a blacked out room, connecting wires and such.

We hit the coast near Soma. And predictably we were greeted by tetrapods. We had to walk quite a bit to get an unobstructed glimpse of the horizon. Well, it was framed by tetrapods again but for a brief moment I could almost imagine the beauty of the coast without the barriers, could almost take in the symbolic endlessness and eternity of the vast ocean. Almost..

Two years ago I was invited to participate in an exhibition at the Iwaki Museum. I took the opportunity to drive towards Onahama , the closest coastal town. And even though this was not in any way reminiscent of the essence of the Japanese shore as encoded in “White Sand – Blue Pine”, There was, however, plenty of sand and a thin layer of pine trees just behind a walkway along the beach. And of course – at this point it would not have felt Japanese – if there would not have been intersecting lines of all kinds of tetrapod generations. Some of them neatly strewn in the ocean others in disarray littering the beach, half sunken and eroded. The Japanese love affair with coastal concrete is apparently fueled by matching funds from the national government. And while an obviously huge amount of effort in engineering and construction has gone into the preservation of this (once) beautiful coast line, there is no indication of any artistic or aesthetic input. Even on satellite pictures these structures stand out. They were not designed to blend in with the landscape from any perspective. Rather they are monuments to man’s ability and desire to go to battle with nature. Nature, apparently does not care. What is a minor eye sore in the face of possible annihilation by a tsunami. I am not the only observer (typical foreigner at that). And according to an article by Steven Hesse in The Japan Times half of japan’ shore is thus armored. I had begun to research and investigate ways of creatively addressing these structures. Eventually, I hoped this could become an interesting far reaching project.

Even then I had neither hope nor expectation that any of them could be moved. And I certainly did not have the engineering background to come up with more effective and beautiful ways to protect the shore. However, I did not believe that I was alone in recognizing the psychological barriers that the coastal barrier represent. And a with my romantic ideals of Japan’s beaches and islands still somewhere safely tucked away in my dreams I began. (Not only dreams: regular visits to the Costa Brava of northern Spain have given me a visual leitmotif, fueled by nostalgia and the scent of pine trees)

I was hoping to find a type of vegetation that could overgrow those dry monotonous dreams of hydro engineers. Anything that would break the predictability and that would help ignoring them. I thought of using trees made from recycled plastic (successfully used for building docks and rather impervious to salt water and erosion) and screw these trees to the tetrapods in the ocean, making them appear like small islands. I imagined to use nets to catch all kinds of flotsam and give birds a place to dry their wings and digest their food in peace and doing their part …fertilizing these zones of exclusion and what I hoped would soon turn into ecologically viable biotopes.

I also happened upon the most natural looking tetrapods imaginable – courtesy of the original inventor of tetrapods: Sogreah (formerly the Grenoble Hydraulic Lab) located in the French Alps.

This spring I was painfully reminded of the necessity of these structures – and also even more painfully – of their futility. This tsunami is equally an argument for even more massive barriers as much as it is for a different approach altogether. And in reality there will be no simple solution or magic trick.

But my hope and desire is still to do something realistic of re-creating the aesthetic integrity of the Japanese shore – even if to standards that are somewhat imaginary.u


This spring I was painfully reminded of the necessity of these structures – and also even more painfully – of their futility. This tsunami is equally an argument for even more massive barriers as much as it is for a different approach altogether. And in reality there will be no simple solution or magic trick.

But my hope and desire is still to do something realistic about re-creating the aesthetic integrity of the Japanese shore – even if to standards that are somewhat imaginary.

The damage of 3/11 is ubiquitous and drastically and graphically obvious – and so are the needs of the hundreds of thousands of victims. To address the human catastrophe, a coalition of volunteers, Red Cross, the respective prefectural and the national government and specialists from Japan and abroad are offering help, planning and reconstructing. Individuals in Japan and abroad are volunteering and sending donations, all kinds of associations have had meetings to think up good was to help.

The triple disaster that struck Japan has been distributed all over the world by an avalanche of multimedia. It is perhaps now the biggest natural disaster on a media level, however, soon to be dwarfed by the next flood or earthquake or other telegenic catastrophe.

Beyond the human and economic devastation, other injuries were sustained that naturally pale in comparison. The need to address them is far less obvious and may even seem frivolous at a time when the survival of many people is still on edge.

Yet, in the absence of being able to physically help or raise or donate the billions of Yen that would have a noticeable impact, I find myself wondering what can be done – if anything – as an individual.

The inhuman scale of the tidal wave and the inhuman sheer magnitude of forces in play can seemingly not be countered by individual action. But we are so many humans that we can actually one -on-one be exceedingly significant.

The human tragedy overshadows the havoc that plants and wildlife have sustained, along with our sense of beauty, integrity and trust in nature and a safe future. All of which has been badly shaken. As it is clearly the top priority to create shelters and eventually new homes for the people that lost all but their lives. But beyond the lives, livelihoods and communities, nature itself got scarred and through our experience and observation via television and media, we have become witnesses of share this burden. Perhaps therein lies an unconscious (and quite selfish) desire to help undo the damage.

After seeing the waves crashing into pine trees along the coast – notably airborne footage taken near Natori (close to Sendai airport) it became all to obvious that houses were no match for the waves, but trees held their ground much better and slowed the speed of the waves and broke their impact. Upon some further research in the press it became clear that there is more than anecdotal evidence that trees provide excellent tsunami protection, mitigating the impact and making the difference between flood damage and mega catastrophe. This is almost comically illustrated by a village in India that survived the 2004 tsunami unscathed because it had planted 80,000 trees just two years prior in an effort to make it into the Guinness Book of Records.

It also appears that Japanese institutions have taken notice of this and studied the benefits of trees in tsunami prevention decades before it became popular to create eco-barriers or trees in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Arial imagery of the Tohoku coastline taken post 3/11 points in the same direction. We see trees and houses behind trees and areas that seemed erased. Houses are essentially never seen unless sheltered by trees or on higher ground.

Recent reports from Tohoku indicate a loss of roughly 1,700 hectares of forest – a bit more than half of it was designated tsunami protection forest. In other words, the tsunami claimed up to one million trees (and almost another million through fires in the aftermath). The lost tsunami defense forest translates into a 100 km long strip, 80 meters wide.

There is no question in my mind that these trees should be replaced and once again grow where they used to be. Besides their positive protective effect in tsunami mitigation, they also provide desirable ecozones for biodiversity. Studies also show that they work even better when they provide some income for the communities by harvesting the wood and producing a host of products from Pine Schnaps to bath oil and other aromatic products.

And last not least, the beauty of the Japanese coast is something worth to nurture and to re-nature. Much of it may have been a construct of man in the first place, such as the famous Mastubahara that attarcted millions of tourists over the years. And while indirectly benefitting Rikuzen Takata, The city dewllers took back more than fresh air and the scent of fresh pine – a sense of serenity, beauty of nature, and trust, strength and meaning that among the very few phaenomena on earth, the stoic presence of old trees seem to manage to instill.

The scarred landscape needs healing as well as the souls that were effected and by literally growing over the reminders of the tsunami we can heal our own tentative relationship with nature. And in a big way contribute to a healing of our shaken confidence in mother nature.

It is clear that nobody in Tohoku can either be burdened or tasked with such considerations. The immediate practical needs trump all other questions and musings. And it seems inhuman not use all the funds available for helping survivors in the most direct way possible.

But there are so many people outside Tohoku – both in Japan and outside, that wish to do something constructive. The instinct to help is so ubiquitous: A fairly successful Hollywood producer friend of mine wanted to take time off his company to fly to Japan and help clean up. And so many others called me and asked me if I would know a more direct way to help than sending a check to the red Cross. And let’s not forget the 76 million tamagotchis sold over the last 15 years. Caring and the desire to help is as natural as eating and more so – a human needs.

If only every 7th school child in Japan would grow a pine tree on their window sill or as a classroom project, it would yield 1 million trees in a matter of a year. Logistics and registration of tree sapling transport and planting etc. aside, it would tie the kids’s tree to a specific location in Tohoku. And thus the regional fate is long term intertwined with the rest of Japan. I would equally suggest that a flavor of the American invention of “Adopt a Highway” can be turned into an adoption program for a foot (or meter) of the Tohoku coast. While a square foot of shoreline cannot write letters back to their sponsors, there are all kinds of data that can be made available in this day and age of datafication and media.

I imagine matching tree pairs on the avalanche prone Swiss Alps and the tsunami prone shores of Japan. I hope for children and adults to jointly grow trees at home or in schools. And to exchange their experience, share their notes and eventually lastingly connect. But the important thing is to sort of plant peoples identity there. To connect them forever. To create memories and future expectations, To create places and local identities for people that do not live there. To give them a place where they made something, let some thing, where there can be something that might even outlast them – where their grandkids can go and say – grand mom grew this tree when she was a kid…

Is see the pine seed as a node, a vector in a network of alike spirited people, be they in japan or abroad. The tree would be the social catalyst – and eventually can be offered to the communities when the time comes.

The re-forestation of the Tokohu shore should not be a burden on scares resources and if done right, it need not be.

And as is mostly the case with helping – it is the one who helps that is helped the most. I for one would feel a lot better if I’d known that somewhere among the debris and destruction I would have been contributed to one small fresh tree growing for many years from the ashes keeping company to that lonely and last battered pine of Matsubara.

But for this to work, it has to start now to work later. And it has to start outside of Tohoku.and be offered once ready – with no cost or effort to subtract from the immediate reconstruction. This is decidedly a non – competitive approach. We might just see something growing from pure good will alone … And with this socio-emotional alchemy is one of the more gratifying aspects of cultural engineering – or – as one of my heros, political artist Joseph Beuys would have called it – social sculpture.