Using sustainability science to analyse social–ecological restoration in NE Japan after the great earthquake and tsunami of 2011


In the wake of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that devastated part of northeastern Japan in March 2011, proposals for reconstruction and rehabilitation are still subjects of debate. The claim by many climate scientists that large-scale extreme events can be expected in the future, with similar catastrophic effects in coastal areas, suggests the need for long-term planning that aims at building resilience, the ability for socio-ecological systems to withstand and recover quickly from natural disasters, and continue to develop. We hypothesize that ecosystems and socio-economic resilience will provide affected communities with flexible barriers against future disasters and greater protection in the long run than will hard/engineering solutions such as high seawalls aimed at ensuring only physical security. Building social/ecological resilience in the Tohoku region will increase general security and is anticipated also to contribute to an enhanced quality of life now and for generations to come. This paper argues that building resilience in the affected area requires a transformation to sustainable agriculture, forestry and fisheries and we describe how the links between satoyama and satoumi, traditional rural territorial and coastal landscapes in Japan, can contribute to this revitalization and to strengthening the relationship between local residents and the landscape in the affected communities. Decision makers at local, regional and national levels need to take a holistic approach based on sustainability science to understand the inter-relationships between these landscapes and ecosystems to develop a robust rebuilding plan for the affected communities. Moreover, this paper suggests that building resilient communities in Japan that demonstrate the strategic benefits of satoyama and satoumi linkages can be a model for building resilient rural and urban communities throughout the world.

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  1. 1.

    Statistics provided by the Cabinet Office, Government of Japan. Communication of April 9, 2013, in Japanese.

  2. 2.

    For examples of engineering approaches to the promotion of sustainable development, see Kauffman and Lee 2013.

  3. 3.

    For origins of the term “resilience” and evolution as a widely used concept in many policy arenas, see Folke et al. (2010); McAslan (2010).

  4. 4.

    For other examples of regime shifts in terrestrial and aquatic environments due to human intervention and in relation to resilience of complex adaptive ecosystems. See Folke et al. 2004.

  5. 5.

    The reference includes many examples of regime shifts in ecosystems and addresses conditions that result from human interventions that can make ecosystems more vulnerable to changes that previously could be absorbed.

  6. 6.

    Tidball (2012) suggests that “when humans, faced with urgent disaster or hazard situations, as individuals and as communities and populations, seek out doses of contact and engagement with nature to further their efforts to summon and demonstrate resilience in the face of a crisis, they exemplify an urgent biophilia.” The idea of “biophilia” comes from Wilson’s (1984) hypothesis that there is an instinctive urge in humans to affiliate with other living systems.

  7. 7.

    Held at Arizona State University, February 20–23, 2012, see

  8. 8.

    Issues discussed in meetings with stakeholders and local residents in Kesennuma January 22, 2014. Report of meeting sponsored by Sustainability Science Council (SSC) of Japan to Integrated Research for Sustainability Science (IR3S) program, The University of Tokyo. (Unpublished). See also Asahi Shimbun (2014) Editorial: Residents’ views should come first in Tohoku reconstruction work. March 11. Online at

  9. 9.

  10. 10.

    Elinore Ostrom (1933–2012) winner of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economics in 2009 created a new theory of the commons which challenged the long-held theory of Garret Hardin known as “The Tragedy of the Commons”, which held that the protection of public (common) places required the assignment of property rights or other government regulation. In contrast to Hardin’s theory Ostrom found that people can and often do manage efficiently common resources like forests and fisheries independent of government intervention.

  11. 11.

    T. Elmqvist made the comment during a planning meeting on resilience and recovery in the aftermath of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami held at UNU, Tokyo. See, also, Tuvendal and Elmqvist 2012.

  12. 12.

  13. 13.

    These issues were discussed with stakeholders and representatives of three non-profit organizations in Miyagi Prefecture January 22, 2014. “Experts Meeting on enhancing resilience and local sustainabilty for the great east Japan earthquake disaster-affected areas” report, on file at IR3S Program, The University of Tokyo.

  14. 14.

    See also http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.ed/es/papers/Coastal_Zone_Pop_Method.pdf


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We are very grateful for the thoughtful and comprehensive comments and constructive critiques provided by anonymous reviewers. We also acknowledge the helpful insights to the on-going reconstruction efforts in NE Japan provided by participants in the experts’ and stakeholders’ meetings on sustainability and resilience held at the Tohoku University, Sendai, and in Kesennuma, Japan on January 22, 2014.

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Correspondence to J. Kauffman.

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Handled by Osamu Saito, UNU-Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (IAS), Japan.

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Takeuchi, K., Elmqvist, T., Hatakeyama, M. et al. Using sustainability science to analyse social–ecological restoration in NE Japan after the great earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Sustain Sci 9, 513–526 (2014).

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  • Social–ecological resilience
  • Great NE Japan earthquake and tsunami
  • Sanriku Fukko National Park
  • Satoyama and Satoumi