Surviving Tsunami: Photographs in the Aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake

8 October 2013 – 27 April 2014

Long Gallery

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This exhibition presents visual material from a volunteer-led project in Japan to salvage and conserve historic photograph collections after two museums and a library in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, were destroyed in the 2011 tsunami. A team of more than sixty volunteers continues to work on the Rikuzentakata Disaster Document Digitalization Project, drying, cleaning, digitizing and documenting over 65,000 photographs, many of which record life in the Tohoku region over the last century.

The Great East Japan Earthquake

On 11 March 2011 a devastating earthquake and resulting tsunami struck Japan’s north-eastern Tohoku region of Honshu, followed by a nuclear crisis at the power plant in Fukushima. At the centre of the tsunami’s destructive path, and among the most badly affected places in the region, was the coastal city of Rikuzentakata, in Iwate Prefecture, described variously in news reports as being ‘completely flattened’ and ‘wiped off the map’. A city of over 23,000 people, Rikuzentakata saw the loss of more than two thousand of its inhabitants and nearly all of its houses and larger buildings.

Rikuzentakata City Museum was one of three institutions in the city, together with the Museum of Oceans and Shellfish and Rikuzentakata City Library, which were destroyed by the onrush of water, leaving large parts of their historic collections waterlogged and covered in mud or fine silt. Following the immediate disaster relief operation, material was removed to the former Oide Elementary School where, in an effort coordinated by the regional authorities and carried out by several different volunteer groups, the initial process of drying and cleaning the items began.rd3
Removing prints from a damaged album.

Among the collections salvaged from the three institutions in Rikuzentakata was a wide range of photographic material, including prints, glass plates, film negatives and slides. Much of this was found to be in a poor condition, the result of water damage from the tsunami. Recognising that specialist expertise would be required, a general appeal for assistance was sent out, resulting soon afterwards in the establishment of the Rikuzentakata Disaster Document Digitalization Project (‘RD3 Project’). Bringing together professionals with a knowledge of photographic materials and non-specialists wanting to help, the RD3 Project was given responsibility by Iwate Prefecture for the full range of these damaged collections. After securing funding for conservation equipment, and premises for a workspace in Tokyo (later transferred to Yokohama), volunteer members of the project set about the task, which is still ongoing, to conserve as much of the material as possible.rd3
Fragile glass negatives, still in their original
boxes, are laid out to dry.

Once received, consignments of photographic material are laid out to dry in the RD3 Project’s workspace. A particular problem was found to be posed by Rikuzentakata City Museum’s collection of 1,600 glass plates, since the wet emulsion had stuck many of these together in their boxes, the solution discovered being to separate them carefully with a thin blade, a delicate procedure requiring patience and a steady hand. More modern materials, such as 35 mm film negatives, are meticulously cut out of their storage sleeves and arranged on tables to dry.


After drying, the assorted photographic materials have any remaining dirt systematically removed by hand. Each photograph is then digitized, with all additional information on both the front and back of items being recorded. Finally, the photographs are sleeved and stored appropriately for their return to Rikuzentakata, while digital information is uploaded to an online database, allowing museum staff based elsewhere instant access to the full range of material. An entirely volunteer-run initiative, the RD3 Project has to date involved more than sixty people working together to dry, clean, digitize and document over 65,000 photographs, many of which record life in the Tohoku region most seriously affected by the tsunami.



Glass plate from the early part of last century showing women and children relaxing outside on a summer evening. The photograph is from Rikuzentakata City Museum’s important Genzo Toba Collection. Toba (1872–1946) was a scholar who devoted his life to recording the traditions and customs of the Tohoku region of Japan, the area most seriously affected by the 2011 tsunami.


Print dated 1973 showing decorated floats being pulled through the streets during Rikuzentakata’s Ugoku Tanabata festival, held in the city annually on 7 August. The vehicles are covered in paper lanterns which are illuminated as night falls. The tsunami destroyed nine (out of a total of twelve) of these traditional floats. In August 2011, only five months after the disaster, survivors from the city – and from elsewhere in Japan – came together to repair the three remaining floats, and continue a local tradition which has lasted centuries.


Gelatin silver print showing a species of scorpion. This photograph clearly shows the effects of water damage from the tsunami, which has been recorded in its full extent in the reference images taken by the RD3 Project’s members. Many of Rikuzentakata City Museum’s collections of specimens were made by Ranji Chiba (1909–1993), pupil of Genzo Toba and a scholar who spent his life cataloguing the local flora and fauna from this part of Japan.


Oshirasama (Shinto ritual figurines) from the Tohoku region of north-eastern Japan. The wooden figurines, which are typically found in pairs, serve as traditional guardians of the home and are frequently enshrined in the alcove of a main room. Originally linked to agriculture and silkworm production, oshirasama are the focus of a ritual devotion in which women play a central role. The figurines usually consist of two sticks of mulberry wood about thirty centimetres long, with male and female faces (or sometimes a horse’s head) carved or painted on one end. They are covered in layers of cloth called osendaku which are added to each year.

Supported by The Japan Society and All Nippon Airways
Photographs reproduced courtesy of the RD3 Project/Rikuzentakata City Museum
Films shown courtesy of NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) and the RD3 Project
Part of Japan400

Exhibition curated by Philip Grover
Organised in collaboration with the Rikuzentakata Disaster Document Digitalization Project (RD3 Project)
Special thanks to Keishi Mitsui and members of the RD3 Project
Translation by Alice Gordenker
Exhibition prints by Malcolm Osman
Framing by Isis Creative Framing
Print design by Alan Cooke

To make a donation to the RD3 Project, please visit
The progress of the RD3 Project can be followed on Facebook.

Special Event

The Director of the RD3 Project, Keishi Mitsui, has been invited to speak about the ongoing work of the project at the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies, University of Oxford, on Friday 25 October 2013, 5.00–6.30pm. Nissan Seminars are not restricted only to University members and everyone is welcome to attend. For more details of the event, please visit the Nissan Institute website.