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The Difficulties of Recovery

It is more than twelve years since the Great East Japan Earthquake. In a lot of ways, the recovery has gone well, but the sheer scale of the disaster means that it is far from complete, even now. The magazine “The Imperial Family” has a series of articles chronicling the recovery of a wide range of jinja, although the pandemic meant that it went on hiatus for a couple of years, because the journalists were unable to visit the jinja in question. They have restarted in the Spring 2023 issue.

This article covers several jinja, and in this post I will write about one of them: Imaizumi Tenmangū, in Rikuzentakata, Iwatë Prefecture. I think I have mentioned this jinja on the blog before: all the buildings were swept away by the tsunami, and the sacred cedar tree, which was estimated to be about eight centuries old, succumbed to salt poisoning despite the best efforts of the priests and locals. Specialists were brought in to cut it down and remove it, but the job proved bigger than anticipated, the weather turned bad, and the tree surgeons had to do to another job. In the end, the branches were taken off, and the trunk cut down to 4.5 metres, which was roughly the height that the tsunami had reached. It was then capped off, and left, because it was judged to be safe.

The jinja had another important decision to make about the recovery. Most of the town was being moved to higher ground, which was artificially created — either by raising existing ground, or by cutting away hillsides to make new flat areas. This was common around the area, and I hope that the cut material was used for the building up, but there’s always the risk that it wasn’t suitable. The jinja had the option of being included in the recovery area, or not. If it was included in the area, it would be moved to higher ground, which might have been created by building up the current site, or might have been a completely new location. However, the chief priest did not want to risk being moved, because he felt that the location of the jinja was important. He felt that if the jinja were no longer where generations of ujiko had venerated it, they would feel as though they had been abandoned.

Thus, the jinja was left where it was. The chief priest, Revd Araki, drew up a plan for rebuilding that would make the jinja safer in the case of a disaster, but the budget came to hundreds of millions of yen, and that was completely unrealistic. In the end, the sanctuary was rebuilt in the same pattern as before, but on a smaller scale. This cost ¥60 million (about $600,000 at the relevant point in time). Twenty two million yen were contributed by Jinja Honchō, while the jinja in Tokyo where the chief priest’s younger son was serving set up a support group that raised ¥12 million. The rest was raised from devotees across the country, and from the chief priest himself. Even that money was insufficient to cover everything, and the jinja office is still housed in a temporary building today.

Another side effect of the reconstruction was that, while the jinja used to be on a small rise, overlooking the road, it is now in a depression, with steps down from the side of the road. The roads have all been raised on banks, so that they are less vulnerable to flooding, and as the precincts of the jinja were untouched, they are now low ground.

The chief priest is also looking for a successor. The jinja had traditionally, since its founding in the fifteenth century, been looked after by the Sakakibara family. The male line had died out, and a daughter married into the Araki family of the current chief priest (at some point). Although the Araki family had been performing the matsuri on behalf of the Sakakibara, Revd Araki had been trying to restore the situation to its original form, by finding a descendant of the Sakakibara family to take over as the chief priest. He has now found one, but there is a new problem. Before the disaster, the Imaizumi Tenmangū had 150 households of ujiko. Now, after people moved out of the area altogether, or were relocated away from the jinja within Rikuzentakata, it has four. That is not a viable number, and so it is unclear whether it makes sense for someone to take over the jinja.

Amid all this, there has been one good sign. It seems that the cedar did not succumb completely to the salt, because saplings have sprung up from its roots. They are now nearly as tall as the remaining trunk. I hope that they are a good omen.

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3 thoughts on “The Difficulties of Recovery”

  1. This is all very sad apart from the news of the shoots springing from the trunk of sacred cedar lets hope it is symbolic and that the jinja will also regenerate. They it is very hard to kill a tree. I would be very pleased to see some snaps of this regrowth

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