World Monuments Fund and Cultural Heritage in Japan
Founded in 1965, World Monuments Fund (WMF) is the leading independent organization devoted to safeguarding the world’s most treasured places to enrich people’s lives and build mutual understanding across cultures and communities. Partnering with global teams of experts, local communities, funders, and governments, WMF has worked at more than 700 sites in 112 countries to preserve the world's diverse cultural heritage using the highest international conservation standards. Through the World Monuments Watch—a biennial, nomination-based program—WMF uses cultural heritage conservation to amplify voices of local communities and improve human well-being and resilience.
WMF has been active in Japan since 2002, initiating the concept of public/private partnerships in the country, expanding the vision for cultural heritage and local significance, and undertaking award-winning restoration projects. In collaboration with the religious community members, local machiya townhouse owners, community groups, and local and national government entities, WMF has implemented initiatives that include providing partners with technical and financial support, preserving historic sites at risk, and advocating for Japan’s architectural heritage at local, national, and international levels.
Responding to the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011
In March 2011, a powerful earthquake triggered a catastrophic tsunami that struck the northeast coast of Japan. According to Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, more than 700 national landmarks were damaged or destroyed. WMF responded quickly, partnering with Japan’s Foundation for Cultural Heritage and Art Research to launch the Save Our Culture initiative in 2012. Incorporating both international cooperation and a private/public partnership, the initiative focused on a five-year plan to raise funds for the preservation of historic buildings, art objects and collections, and intangible heritage, all of which were at risk in the east and northeast regions of Japan.
WMF also included the East Japan Earthquake Heritage Sites to the World Monuments Watch in 2012 and 2014 to catalyze the necessary funding and technical expertise for the restoration of damaged historic architecture.
Kakuboshi ready for Ridge Beam Raising Ceremony
The Kesennuma Historic Cityscape Project
Kesennuma’s long-standing historic significance dates back to medieval times, when the town served as a shipping port for the gold produced along Japan’s Golden Trail. Kesennuma continued to prosper during the Edo period (from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century) as a post station and a fishing port. Fires devastated the town in the twentieth century, but with relentless effort, most of Kesennuma’s historic structures were recovered or rebuilt, and it became a leading commercial coastal town in Japan.
When a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011, the town’s historic structures and fishing port were almost completely destroyed. Urgent action was needed.
WMF’s regional representative in Japan immediately reached out to national and local contacts to gather and analyze information about the situation on the ground, helping to identify short- and long-term challenges to recovery and organize resources to set up a strategic action plan to both protect cultural heritage and revitalize the local community. Encouraging collective action and calling for global attention and support, WMF included Kesennuma among the East Japan Earthquake Heritage Sites on the 2012 and 2014 World Monuments Watch.
While recovery efforts in Kesennuma in response to the humanitarian crisis caused by the earthquake and tsunami were prompt, it was expected to be several years before most of the affected community could return to stable conditions and restore the damage to the town’s built environment. Through the Save Our Culture initiative, WMF was able to begin raising funds to assist local residents and business owners in their recovery efforts.
WMF’s immediate engagement and commitment through this initiative served as the key to encourage historic building owners to contribute to efforts to save Kesennuma’s built heritage. It also provided the impetus for the Kesennuma Kazamachi Cityscape Preservation Association for Community Recovery (KKCPA), a local community organization, to take part in the protection and promotion of the town’s cityscape.
Kakuboshi Store - before the project
Revitalizing Community Spirit through Heritage Restoration
With the full support and cooperation of stakeholders and community members, the physical repair and restoration of cultural heritage developed into an important social element in Kesennuma’s recovery.
Starting in 2013, WMF worked with KKCPA on the restoration of six historic buildings, including machiya (traditional townhouses), dozo (traditional storehouses), and examples of Kesennuma’s landmark early modern architecture. The focus of the project was not only to preserve cultural heritage but also to revitalize the local economy and improve resilience against future disasters. The restoration of the six selected endangered historic buildings, all nationally registered Cultural Properties owned and maintained by the same families since their original construction, aimed to restore their cultural heritage value, create new opportunities for community gathering, business, and tourism, and serve as an example of best practices implementing seismic reinforcement measures and enhancing emergency preparedness.
Among the six historic buildings included in the Kesennuma Historic Cityscape project, Kakuboshi Store, the first to be restored, was completed in 2016. The restoration of Onoken Store Dozo and Sanji-do Sasaki Store was subsequently completed in the summer of 2017, with Takeyama Rice Store completed in 2018, Otokoyama Headquarters in June 2020, and Chida House in fall 2020.
The owners of these historic buildings were not only able to resume their businesses as before, but also put part or all of the restored buildings’ space to public use, transforming them into galleries, museums, or even community event venues. The restored historic structures became community hubs, showcasing the history of the district and encouraging its post-disaster vitality.
Recognition by UNESCO
By 2019, Kesennuma’s fishing industry had recovered by 80%, and the tourism economy had resumed with about 2.5 million tourists visiting annually—as many as during the town’s prosperous time before the earthquake.
A decade after the devastating tsunami, in December 2021, the Kesennuma Historic Cityscape project was honored with the Award of Distinction at the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. The Asia-Pacific Awards, which recognize efforts of private individuals and organizations in preserving structures of distinct heritage value in the region, honored WMF and KKCPA in recognition of the project’s extraordinary technical achievements and skill in setting up seismic retrofitting, recovering building components washed away by the tsunami, and using vernacular construction techniques.
Noting the project’s focus on economic revitalization and disaster risk reduction, the jury also awarded the project with a Special Recognition for Sustainable Development, praising its potential to encourage rehabilitation in cities like Kesennuma by making use of cultural heritage to build urban resilience and sustainable development.
World Monuments Fund aims to safeguard cultural heritage around the globe, ensuring that treasured places are preserved for present and future generations. The restoration of Kesennuma serves as a model for community recovery from disasters not only for Japan but other countries in the world.
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