A stone tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below it. Hundreds of these so-called tsunami stones, some more than six centuries old, dot the coast of Japan.
ANEYOSHI, Japan — The stone tablet has stood on this forested hillside since before they were born, but the villagers have faithfully obeyed the stark warning carved on its weathered face: “Do not build your homes below this point!”
Residents say this injunction from their ancestors kept their tiny village of 11 households safely out of reach of the deadly tsunami last month that wiped out hundreds of miles of Japanese coast and rose to record heights near here. The waves stopped just 300 feet below the stone.
“They knew the horrors of tsunamis, so they erected that stone to warn us,” said Tamishige Kimura, 64, the village leader of Aneyoshi.
Hundreds of so-called tsunami stones, some more than six centuries old, dot the coast of Japan, silent testimony to the past destruction that these lethal waves have frequented upon this earthquake-prone nation. But modern Japan, confident that advanced technology and higher seawalls would protect vulnerable areas, came to forget or ignore these ancient warnings, dooming it to repeat bitter experiences when the recent tsunami struck.
“The tsunami stones are warnings across generations, telling descendants to avoid the same suffering of their ancestors,” said Itoko Kitahara, a specialist in the history of natural disasters at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. “Some places heeded these lessons of the past, but many didn’t.”
The flat stones, some as tall as 10 feet, are a common sight along Japan’s northeastern shore, which bore the brunt of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that left almost 29,000 people dead or missing.
While some are so old that the characters are worn away, most were erected about a century ago after two deadly tsunamis here, including one in 1896 that killed 22,000 people. Many carry simple warnings to drop everything and seek higher ground after a strong earthquake. Others provide grim reminders of the waves’ destructive force by listing past death tolls or marking mass graves.
Some stones were swept away by last month’s tsunami, which scientists say was the largest to strike Japan since the Jogan earthquake in 869, whose waves left sand deposits miles inland.
Aneyoshi’s tsunami stone is the only one that specifically tells where to build houses. But many of the region’s names also seem to indicate places safely out of the waves’ reach, like Nokoriya, or Valley of Survivors, and Namiwake, or Wave’s Edge, a spot three miles from the ocean that scholars say marks the farthest reach of a tsunami in 1611.
Local scholars said only a handful of villages like Aneyoshi heeded these old warnings by keeping their houses safely on high ground. More commonly, the stones and other warnings were disregarded as coastal towns grew in the boom years after World War II. Even communities that had moved to high ground eventually relocated to the seaside to be nearer their boats and nets.
“As time passes, people inevitably forget, until another tsunami comes that kills 10,000 more people,” said Fumio Yamashita, an amateur historian in Iwate Prefecture, where Aneyoshi is situated. He has written 10 books about tsunamis.
Mr. Yamashita, 87, who survived the recent tsunami by clinging to a curtain after waters flooded the hospital where he was bedridden, said Japan had neglected to teach its tsunami lore in schools. He said the nation had put too much store instead in new tsunami walls and other modern concrete barriers, which the waves easily overwhelmed last month.
Still, he and other local experts said that the stones and other old teachings did contribute to the overall awareness of tsunamis, as seen in the annual evacuation drills that many credit with keeping the death toll from rising even higher last month.
In Aneyoshi, the tsunami stone states that “high dwellings ensure the peace and happiness of our descendants.” Mr. Kimura, the village leader, called the inscriptions “a rule from our ancestors, which no one in Aneyoshi dares break.”
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The four-foot-high stone stands beside the only road of the small village, which lies in a narrow, cedar-filled valley leading to the ocean. Downhill from the stone, a blue line has been newly painted on the road, marking the edge of the tsunami’s advance.