Concrete Sovereignty

On March 11, 2011 a major earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a massive tsunami that destroyed many of the cities, towns, and villages along the coast. This was the largest tsunami since the Jōgan tsunami of 869, with water reaching as high as 38 meters at points.  


In response to the event, the government embarked on a massive ten-year civil engineering project to build concrete seawalls along the coast. 


The new seawalls are much larger than the previous ones, many of which were destroyed in the tsunami. However, since the new seawall construction is supposedly a “re” construction, no environmental impact survey was deemed necessary. 


The walls will traverse three prefectures along the northeast coast of Japan’s central island of Honshu. The construction will not be single wall, but rather a series of walls. 


Part of the bureaucratic complexity of the project is that the various seawall sections falls under different administrative and jurisdictional branches of town, city, and prefectural government. In the diagram above, this division of responsibility is indicated in the different colors for sections of seawall. 


At the highest points the new seawall will be 14.7 meters — just short of the Great Buddha at Nara. The 14.7 meter high wall will have a base of 80 meters. 


The seawalls, are only one part of this project. The other components are the raising of coastal communities on mounds covered in concrete. 


And the paving of rivers. The result will be that a small river such as this (Okinodagawa) will look like this (below).


Not surprisingly, seawall construction has become a point of social and political contestation, dividing communities and neighbors. On the one side are individuals who view the construction of giant seawalls as the quickest means to regaining to something close to the way of life that was lost. 

On the other side are those for whom the seawalls embody tragic repetition of an intransigent government incapable of change. In the view of this latter group, 3.11 was not a natural disaster. It was, rather, a technosocial disaster born of a postwar economic modernization plan that encouraged the exploitation of coastal regions for the development of industry and housing. Under that plan seawalls were built, coastal marshes drained, land filled, and roads and tracks laid down to expedite the arrival of factories that would encourage a shift in economic focus in the region from marine industry to commodity production.

For this group, 3.11, marked a final limit to this mode of life. It was a tragedy but also an event that made unequivocal the mistakes of the past and thus provided an opportunity for society to learn and to change. 

Construction of the seawalls for this latter group, however, signals the nation’s refusal to acknowledge this lesson of limits and a tragic entrenchment grey infrastructure in the name of economic progress. Nothing encapsulates this view more concisely than the title of a 2016 Digest published by Asahi Newspaper: It wasn’t supposed to be like this with Giant Seawall Reconstruction Shaking the Disaster Area (image of digest below).


In contrast with this view, I want to suggest that the current seawall construction is not simply a reiteration of the postwar paradigm of modern development, which I place under the rubric of what I call Concrete Sovereignty. 

Concrete sovereignty names a modern phenomenon that is, nevertheless, irreducible to a formula of Western modernity. It denotes a specific relationship between materiality and the political philosophy of self-governance in Japan. While the conditions of this relationship emerge in Japan in the early twentieth century, concrete sovereignty takes shape through a legislative reorganization in the 1950s that transforms the coastline into a front line of disaster defense border. Concrete sovereignty emerges with the idea of producing the nation as a stable and autonomous enclosure, set apart from the destructive cycles of natural history and aligned instead with an emerging logic of a global economic order under nations.


Concrete sovereignty corresponds with what James Scott calls “seeing like a state.” That is, it exemplifies the “social engineering schemes of the twentieth century” that aspired to a clear control and re-ordering nature, separating it from civilization. We can see an encapsulation of this in the example of Gunkanjima (battleship Island). 


Gunkanjima, or “Battleship Island” provides one of the first, and most iconic pre-WWII gestures toward concrete sovereignty as an autonomous enclosure. 

To reiterate, I contend that the current seawall construction project is not simply a tragic repetition of postwar concrete sovereignty. It diverges in one very important way. The new seawalls are not concrete boundaries intended to produce an absolute enclosure, separating nature and culture. Rather, they articulate with a new regime of extreme infrastructure that works from the premise of the ineluctable entanglement of nature and culture while attempting to hedge on degrees of disaster. Put simply, the new seawalls seek to manage entanglement in accordance with computationally driven risk scenarios, not prevent it. As such, the seawalls mirror the kinds computationally generated anticipatory disaster infrastructure that Orit Halpern finds fostered under an emergent logic of resilience. As Halpern writes, “the logic of resilience is peculiar in that it aims not precisely at a future that is “better” in any absolute sense but at a smart infrastructure that can absorb constant shocks while maintaining functionality and organization.”

What is important is that in the postwar era the placement and height of the concrete seawalls was determined from records of tsunami in the 20th century. Following 3.11, a new system was adopted whereby the placement and height is determined according to computerized modeling of tsunami scenarios according to two different levels: 

Level 1: High frequency (every several decades) events that have a relatively low impact.

  • 1896 Meiji Sanriku

  • 1960 Chile Tsunami.

  • 1933 Showa Sanriku

Level 2: Low frequency (every several hundred years) but high impact events. 

  • Jogan 869

  • 3.11.


Following 3.11, Japanese government introduced a law mandating that in zoning coastal lands local governments must conform to this system in determining the placement of communities and industry.

The illustration shows the city topography of Onagawa divided into three main areas in accordance with the projected heights of L1 and L2 tsunami. Area A, which is reserved for housing, is just above the water level of the 3.11 tsunami and the anticipated height of an L2 tsunami. Area B, however, falls somewhere between the levels of an L2 and L1 tsunami. This area is designated as the shopping district, with the being that its buildings can be sacrificed to a tsunami while the people can escape to higher ground. Finally, Area C is raised only slightly and is vulnerable to a L1 tsunami, as well as typhoon storm surges. 

There are three important differences between this disaster defense system and the pre-3.11 concrete seawalls. First, the seawall is not a barrier separating land and sea. Rather, it is intended as a medium to regulate the degree of interaction. Second, following this principle, the system reflects a logic of resilience that is about absorbing and accommodating the excess of that interaction and not about preventing it. Area B is the clearest instantiation of this. It is an area that exists in anticipation of its destruction, on the threshold between safe and unsafe. Finally, the schema produces a new kind of ambiguous terrain in Area C, which becomes a “disaster danger area” (saigaikiken kuiki) and thus not permissible for building but still intended for use.

What interests me in particular is that under this new regime of computational landscape, certain areas that were once highly developed are now determined to be too low to be protected against even a Level 1 tsunami. Such areas are thus classified as outside the parameters of disaster management. Categorized as “disaster danger areas” (saigaikiken kuiki), they cannot be used for building residences. 

This categorization has opened these disaster danger areas to alternative articulations of resilience, turning them into  a space of confrontation between two competing visions of nation, nature, and future in what I see as an instantiation of “experimental ecology.”