Reclamation projects underway at Rikuzentakata, Japan


Crafting a Legacy We Can All Be Proud Of

By Janet Kirkton, Dredging Industry Steward

In my last post, I shared a definition and a summary of what reclamation means to members of the sediment management industry. For part two of this series, I offer the city of Rikuzentakata, Japan, as the finest and most comprehensive case study of reclamation I have encountered to date. Truly a remarkable example of resilience and persistence, I encourage you to read more about the city either on the internet or in the book, Let’s Talk About It: What Really Happened in the Disaster Area, written by Futoshi Toba, Mayor of Rikuzentakata.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, a massive tsunami nearly decimated the coastal community of Rikuzentakata, Japan. During the height of the tsunami, waves and storm surge exceeded 13 meters in the sections closest to the sea, destroying a floodplain forest of 70,000 pines and nearly 80% of the city’s infrastructure. The tsunami also claimed about 1,700 lives and dramatically impacted the ability of the city’s farmers and fishermen to generate revenue and sustain the local economy.

Although the tragedy is well documented, perhaps most notable about this event isn’t what was lost, but what survived. For amid the terrible wreckage and devastation of the storm, a single pine stood alone. Drawing tremendous hope and inspiration from this pine tree, the city of Rikuzentakata and its residents have become an international symbol of endurance and resiliency.  

By definition, reclamation is the process of claiming something back or of reasserting a right to exist. Since 2011, Rikuzentakata has been doing exactly that. Under the leadership and direction of its mayor, Mr. Futoshi Toba, the city itself is being reclaimed. To date, the environment is being restored and renewed, which in turn is rejuvenating the local economy and giving its residents continued hope for the future. 

Miracle Pine of Rikuzentakata Miracle Pine of Rikuzentakata
"The pine was the only thing that gave us hope in the despair of the disaster." Mayor Toba (photo courtesy of the City of Rikuzentakata)

Reclamation projects typically contribute to the economic, environmental, and cultural development of the community they serve, which from a sustainability perspective is pretty awesome. As part of Caterpillar’s commitment to sustainability, we often think about the long-term significance of what our solutions are creating – well beyond just the physical infrastructure. When you consider what is happening within in Rikuzentakata, the following core concepts seem to apply – often in intersecting ways.

Hope & Vitality

The Takata Matsubara was originally planted during the Edo Era (1603 to 1868) as a storm surge barrier to protect the village and to limit the salt spray impacting inland agricultural fields. At the time of the tsunami, the Matsubara had 70,000 trees within it and had protected Rikuzentakata for over 300 years. As I mentioned earlier, only one tree from the entire forest survived the tsunami. Referred to as the Miracle Pine, it has been preserved and made into a memorial of the disaster. A silhouette of the tree also serves as a symbol for the city. 

Busloads of tourists come daily to see this tree and eventually an entire forest will be recreated either from pine cones that had been previously collected or from DNA that was reclaimed from the Miracle Pine before it died.  

The Miracle Pine and now this nursery full of saplings are excellent examples of Hope and Vitality, but also reflect the strength and character of the residents of Rikuzentakata – whose roots go back centuries, literally. This is why it is so culturally significant to reclaim the Takata Matsubara.  

Pine tree saplings in the reclamation of Rikuzentakata, Japan Pine tree saplings in the reclamation of Rikuzentakata, Japan
These pine tree saplings will eventually recreate the Takata Matsubara. (photo courtesy of the City of Rikuzentakata)

Confidence & Opportunity

Confidence and Opportunity are most reflected in the rebuilding strategy that Rikuzentakata chose to undertake. While many of the surrounding municipalities got right to work restoring their towns to how they were before the disaster, Rikuzentakata opted to take this once in a millennium opportunity to start over from ground zero and build a totally new, modern town, which is easier to live in.  

Currently, many neighboring towns are finished with reconstruction and the towns look just like they did before the tsunami. On the other hand, Rikuzentakata is just getting started and it looks like a construction zone. However, five to ten years down the road and beyond, the residents of Rikuzentakata will be so glad that their town chose the more difficult and lengthy path.  

From his book, the following statements are indicative of the vision Mayor Toba has for the city:

Bridge of Hope for the reclamation of Rikuzentakata, Japan Bridge of Hope for the reclamation of Rikuzentakata, Japan
A giant conveyor belt, named "The Bridge of Hope," efficiently transports material reclaimed each day from a neighboring mountain. This material is being used to raise the elevation of the city center by 10 meters. (photo courtesy of the City of Rikuzentakata)
“I have something to say to our children, our young people who will carry the future generations. We are working towards recovery for the children.” 

“I want to make a city that children do not have to give up their dreams for.” 

“I want Rikuzentakata to become a beautiful city, one that can boast to the world.”  

Endurance & Resiliency

The reclamation efforts ARE the future of the city. It was so totally destroyed that there is no city without reclamation. For generations, the residents of Rikuzentakata have primarily been farmers and fisherman. In March 2011, they pretty much lost everything. Rather than just letting the city die, I am inspired by the endurance and resiliency they have demonstrated to find new and innovative ways to jumpstart the economy, remediate the environment, and create a renewed way of life. Here are just a few examples:

  • Agriculture: Most of the fields were either washed away by the tsunami or covered in salt water – leaving them highly degraded and/or unusable to grow rice. Essentially a blank canvas, many ideas for new crops have emerged: tomatoes, sweet corn, and sunflowers to name just a few. Although sunflowers do not produce food per se, they remind the residents to be happy.  
  • Aqua Farming: Rikuzentakata raises scallops, oysters, seaweed, and shellfish – all of which were dramatically impacted by the tsunami itself, changes in salinity, and the resulting debris that sank into the ocean just off shore. Committed to the future of aqua farming, farming companies started anew and bravely endured until the first harvest – 3 years later.
  • Agritourism: Perhaps the most innovative was the origination of the Marugoto Rikuzentakata Project. This agritourism project offers guests the opportunity to work together with local farmers, fishermen, or craftsman with the hope that they learn more about the city and its residents. 

Agritourism as a part of the reclamation of Rikuzentakata, Japan Agritourism as a part of the reclamation of Rikuzentakata, Japan
Visitors participate in an agritourism project in Rikuzentakata, Japan. (photo courtesy of the City of Rikuzentakata)

Strength & Sanctuary

Using aggregate reclaimed from the local area, the new 12.5 meter sea wall makes it impossible to see the ocean from sea level. It’s a sad thing, to give up, forever, a view of the ocean, but it’s one of the many sacrifices Rikuzentakata has decided to make for the safety and peace of mind of those living there, now and well into the future.  

Despite the strength and perceived sanctuary the sea wall offers the city, reclamation efforts optimally seek to balance traditional and nature-based infrastructure solutions with the local ecosystem. The combination of the sea wall and the Matsubara will be a good example of this.

Sea wall at Rikuzentakata, Japan Sea wall at Rikuzentakata, Japan
12.5 meter sea wall protecting Rikuzentakata. (photo courtesy of the City of Rikuzentakata)

The lesson to be learned from Rikuzentakata is that no matter how we define reclamation, the results are so much more important than the quantity of earth that was moved. Reclamation can be applied to many things: recovering an economy after a natural disaster, creating sanctuary from a storm, restoring a way of life for a coastal community, preserving a single tree or regenerating an entire forest of trees. It can also be all of these things at once, within a singular vision for a beautiful city. Rikuzentakata is crafting a legacy we can all be proud of.

For part three of this series, check back soon for a breakdown of why we need land reclamation, what specific activities are included, and an overview of the Caterpillar job site solutions at work on reclamation sites worldwide. 


Janet Kirkton

As Caterpillar’s Industry Steward for Dredging, Ports & Waterways, Jan is constantly in pursuit of new opportunities and solutions to serve this vast industry. Her kids liken this job to being a "Master Transformer" - and truthfully, it kind of is.

In collaboration with customers and external partners, Jan leverages Caterpillar core products to develop new and innovative solutions for dredging companies and contractors. Whether you’re working on land or in the sea, our unique custom products benefit from the same incredible support from our dealer network as our standard Cat machines. How great is that?

Have an idea? She would love to hear about it. Connect with Jan on LinkedIn or email her at HMS_solutions@cat.com!

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Dylan Chapman

Coordinator for International Relations (CIR), City of Rikuzentakata

Dylan is a Germany-born American who's never lived anywhere longer than three years, so instead of having one hometown he has about a dozen. As the CIR for Rikuzentakata, every day is different, as he has to adopt a "jack of all trades" persona to help the city with whatever English-language support it needs, be that translating, interpreting, coordinating social media, or giving "foreigner's perspective" input on tourism initiatives. When not outside exploring the north of Japan, he likes to spend his time cooking, reading, and playing tennis.

We would like to thank Dylan for his input on this blog post and the insights he was able to provide to help us tell the story of Rikuzentakata.

Dylan Chapman, Coordinator for International Relations (CIR), City of Rikuzentakata Dylan Chapman, Coordinator for International Relations (CIR), City of Rikuzentakata

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