Fig 1.0 ––
Stone no. 31 located in Aneyoshi at 39° 32’2.88”N, 142° 2’43.82”E. Photograph by Elise Hunchuck (2016).

An Incomplete Atlas of Stones

In this ever changing world where mountains crumble, rivers change their course,
roads are deserted, rocks are buried, and old trees yield to young shoots, it was
something short of a miracle that this monument alone has survived the battering
of a thousand years.
— Matsuo Bashō [1]

On the sixteenth day of May in 1689, a poet named Matsuo Basho left Edo [2] on foot for a six-month journey along the shores and into the mountainous forests of northern Japan. Along the way, he wrote and sketched out what would become a Japanese literary treasure: the travel diary Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no hosomichi).[3] Basho’s journey from Edo to the edges of the Tohoku region would amplify his already acute awareness of the impermanence of nature, developed through a practice of closely observing, recording and reflecting upon his immediate environment.

In Japanese traditions there exists a continuity between nature and culture, in so far as the sense of a place speaks directly to the intricate interplay between human and natural forces. This continuity is most clear in the practice of naming utamakura–storied places shared through literature and art, imbued with geologic history, human history and cultural meaning.

As he journeyed north, from utamakura to utamakura, Basho was writing and drawing, weaving together fragments of literature and history, using prose to share geographic context and haikun to respond to the great Japanese poets and artists who had earlier written of each utamakura and their views. He travelled north to Hiraizumi before turning west, toward the Sea of Japan and then, returning to Edo. Five years later, after leaving home for another journey, Basho fell ill. He never recovered, but a lifetime of travelling and writing about his wanderings would inculcate future generations of writers, poets, and travelers with the value of seeing–that to name a place is to know a place, and that to do so in a place such as Japan is to call attention to the realities of everyday life in the face of knowable but unpredictable geologic forces.

A stratovolcanic land form, the island of Honshu is the largest island in the Japanese archipelago, with almost seventy percent of the island formed by steep, forested mountains and the remaining thirty percent tending toward deltaic or ria coastal landscapes. It is an island that feels alive in the most sensual of ways; temperate summers encourage exuberant flora; the ocean moves, desired and undesired, up and over the island, into the air; the earth, it shudders, from below. These movements, sometimes discernible and sometimes not, together define a precarious existence, an indelible part of Japanese life and cultural identity. It is the  geomorphology of the deltaic and coastal sites–that which makes them so desirable for human settlement which also makes them vulnerable to geologic events and their attendant effects.

On the eleventh day of March in 2011 at 14h45 local time, the Earthquake Early Warning system of Japan activated more than 1,000 seismometers throughout the island nation, sending a warning to millions of people. Sixty seconds later, a 9.0 magnitude undersea mega-thrust earthquake hit Japan, the most powerful earthquake to have hit the island in recorded history. A second warning was issued by the Japanese Meteorological Agency; a major tsunami event was likely but not certain.

As the earth moved near the convergence of the over-riding North American plate and the subducting Pacific Plate, an undersea landslide was triggered, and the immense body water we call the Pacific Ocean was displaced. Between ten to thirty minutes later–the times vary along the coastline–an earthquake tsunami event occurred. The ocean began to rise slowly, and then rapidly, into the hollowed out riatic formations along the Sanriku coast. In many locations, the swelling of the ocean was exacerbated by too-high or too-wide seawalls, and rather than dispelling incoming energy travelling in the water, the seawalls trapped the tsunami waves, intensifying the swells and currents. The height of water moving inland ranged from 5.0 metres to 40.5 metres, inundating an estimated total of 561 square kilometres of land. The tsunami would be named the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake Tsunami and, as it swept into ports along the coast, surging inland before retreating back into the sea, it would result in the death of 15,890 people, injuring 6,152, with 2,576 people still missing and presumed lost.

The catastrophic loss of human life was not the result of warning systems that did not work; seismometers and tsunami warnings worked as they had been designed to. Instead, the loss of life was the predictable result of a series of choices that were made about where to build, where to work, where to live. And, in cases of emergency, when and where to evacuate to. There were, intermittently found between the reverberations of disaster, stories of small groups, of villages, of school children who had escaped significant loss of life. Seaside villages with bustling ports claimed few to no lives lost despite 32 metre waves sweeping up and over their schools, homes, villages.

How was this possible?

Hundreds of years before, in the wake of the 869 Jogan tsunami along the Sanriku coast of Japan, communities began to erect stone tablets called tsunami stones. These stones performed a dual function; they were warnings–markers of the edges of inundation, they indicate where to build and where to flee when oceans rise; and, they are memorials, erected as part of a ritual that memorializes geologic events and those lost. Some stones have no message, like a stone from the 9th century in Matsushima, as time has worn away the inscription; some record the past and project possible futures (in this atlas, these are labeled as ‘lesson’ stones); some bear instructions for evacuation and rebuilding, such as Stone no. 31 (fig 4.0), who tells its reader that an “[e]arthquake is an omen of [a] subsequent tsunami. Watch out for at least one hour. When it comes, rush away to higher places. Never reside on submerged land again.”

There exist hundreds of these stones along the Sanriku coast, ranging in height from a few inches to a few metres. Rising from the earth, many were placed in the landscape to mark either the height of the inundation line or to mark territory above the inundation line. The messages inscribed on the stones vary from stone to stone, with each community utilising stones as a memorial, as recorded, predictive knowledge, and often times, both. In some villages, the messages not to build below the inundation line were heeded. In others, not. In some villages, the messages to evacuate after an earthquake to an elevation above the stones were heeded. In others, not. This is how some villages and towns and school children were able to survive. And, how some did not.

These tablets–ancient technologies of linear marks in stone–have a pressing current and future relevance that is too important to be dismissed as mere marker of a past event, or as memorial to human lives lost. These tablets–each like utamakura–are part of a multivalent knowledge exchange through time and space, and with another five hundred stones planned for erection in the coming years to commemorate the Great East Japan tsunami, and as Japan decides how and if to continue moving forward with an almost 14,000 kilometre long seawall, they are critical in establishing an understanding that the crisis facing coastal landscapes is an ongoing project, not limited to the aftermath of emergency.

In the summer of 2015, having been awarded the Peter Prangnell travel award, I left Toronto for Tokyo. I proposed travelling to this geographical compilation of past events–the known tsunami stones along the Sanriku coast–to explore the importance of on-site research and of bearing witness. And, through travel, research, documentation and mapping, I compiled this Incomplete Atlas of Stones, a visual document as a way to see – and potentially develop a response to – the archipelagos unstable mineral base. The beginnings of an attempt to illustrate the dynamics of the coastline as a place.

What, we might ask, is the epistemological status of these markers? What kind of knowledge do they produce? What is the effect of these markers on the way communities and governments understand the always present risk of an earthquake or tsunami? The intention is not to offer an explicit response–yet. This incomplete atlas shares the stories of seventy fives places, each without a definitive beginning or end.

Those who survived the tsunami are now beginning to reclaim new land on higher ground. The process of carving out hundred-meter sections from the mountain, impossible a thousand years ago, is a gift of modern mining technology. The earth that is brought from the mountain every day with heavy machinery and conveyor belts is piled up daily on low ground. In the same way, in the midst of the frustration that is the present, we too are slowly stacking up time day by day. We are creating a new past, hoping all the while that, before long, from that past a new future will be born.

— Naoya Hatakeyama, on the Great East Japan earthquake tsunami of 2011 [4]

Notes on Design

The content of the atlas is organized by tsunami stone, following the coastline of Iwate prefecture from north to south along the Sanriku coast of Honshu.

Each tsunami stone is introduced by its geographic coordinates: latitude, longitude, and elevation. Latitude and longitude site each stone on the surface of the earth while elevation situates each stone in relation to the mean level of the sea. The stones are further situated; first, by the boundaries of the village, town, or city they are located within; second, by their administrative prefecture; and, third, their geographical region. As each stone has been erected in response to a major tsunami, both the year and name of the tsunami is listed in addition to the stone’s relation to the inundation line (below the line, on the line, or, above the line) of both its target tsunami and the tsunami of 2011. Each stone, at the time of its erection, was engraved with a message. The stones mapped in this atlas may be considered as belonging to one of two categories: as a memorial, commemorating people and places lost to an earthquake tsunami, or as a lesson, providing a description of events and directions as to where to build, where to evacuate to, and where waters have risen in the past.

The tsunami stone is then mapped – using a combination of primary map data and open access data provided by the Japan Meteorological Agency – in relation to the inundation of the Great East Japan earthquake tsunami by overlaying the location and elevation of the stone, the coastline, and the 2011 inundation lines. The maps are constrained to a consistent frame with the exception of the inundation, which leaks out, in all directions, to the limits of the page.

Each tsunami stone is then revealed at a scale related to the human body; first as a specimen, removed from its context in a front facing, scaled photograph with measurements listed below; and second, within a photographic view containing each stone in its surrounding. Each stone is shown unobstructed, in isolation from its context on the left page so that readers may attempt to discern the location of the stone in the view displayed on the right page. Each view is taken from the nearest street or foot path, which, in the aftermath of an earthquake and in anticipation of a tsunami, are used as evacuation routes. It is along these pathways where people are forced – in moments of extreme danger and fear–to develop an understanding of personal vulnerability and respond accordingly. In addition to contemporary signage systems indicating evacuation routes and safety zones, known tsunami stones are an additional means by which to navigate these landscapes of risk.

Last, in an attempt to record change and constancy in relation to each stone and the reconstruction efforts around them, two aerial images are presented, each presented over two pages; one taken shortly after the 2011 tsunami and one taken after approximately 5 years of reconstruction. Each stone’s location may be determined by following the longitudinal and latitudinal markers found at the edge of the aerial photographs, and the precise dates of the imagery may be found at the bottom of each page.


1. See page 113 of Matsuo Basho’s travel diary, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, trans. with an introduction by Nobuyaki Yuasa, London: Penguin, 1966.
2. The Japanese word for ‘estuary,’ Edo was the seat of power in Japan with the establishment of the Tokugawa headquarters in 1457 (although Kyoto remained the official capital of Japan). On 2 September 1868, at the end of the shogunate, Edo was renamed to Tokyo (Eastern Capital, in English).
3. The earliest travel diaries of Japan were written by women, using their personal, domestic lives and homes as the domain of their writing. In the early medieval period, travel journals became responsive texts, moving between past and present, as the trend in Japanese literature moved away from writings on the personal the domestic to writings on Buddhism; away from women to men. Basho’s writing belongs to this second wave of travel diaries.
4. In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11, Boston: Museum of Fine Arts Publication, 2015. Page 47.

All geospatial data courtesy of the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan and the Disaster Management Library of Tokyo.

All aerial images courtesy Google Earth Pro V For each aerial image, the date of original imagery, location name, geographic coordinates, and eye altitude are listed on the bottom and edges of each page. Images were accessed from July 2015 through October 2016.

Tsunami run-up heights along the northeastern coast of Japan from Shunichi Koshimura and Nobuo Shuto’s ‘Response to the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster’ found in Philosophical Transactions: Tsunamis: bridging science, engineering, and society, volume 373: issue 2053, October 2015 and in the ASCE-COPRI Port and Harbor Facilities Survey Team’s Tohoku, Japan, Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011: Survey of Port and Harbor Facilities, Northern Region, Virginia, 2014.

Specific data on each stone is available upon request.

An Incomplete Atlas
Research, Writing, Image Production and Design: Elise Hunchuck, MLA (Daniels)

This book was generously funded in part by the 2015-2016 Peter Prangnell travel grant awarded by the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto.

This work is licensed under a 2016 Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivates 4.0 International License.

To publish excerpts, for high resolution images, or for other inquiries, please contact the author directly: elisehunchuck [at] gmail [dot] com

       Above: An Incomplete Atlas cover and excerpt. 

Berlin, DE     Toronto, CA