Ancient Tsunami Warnings Carved in Stones in Japan

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"High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants. Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point," reads a four-foot high stone slab in the hamlet of Aneyoshi, in the Iwate Prefecture, in Japan. Residents who heeded the advice from their ancestors kept their tiny village of 11 households safely out of reach of the deadly tsunami that stuck Japanese coast in 2011. The waves stopped just 300 feet below the stone.

All over the coast of Japan, there are hundreds of so called Tsunami Stones with warning messages and advice, some more than 600 years old. These flat stones, some standing up to 10 feet tall, collectively form a crude warning system for Japan, whose long coasts along major fault lines have made it a repeated target of earthquakes and tsunamis over the centuries. Many carry simple warnings to drop everything and seek higher ground after a strong earthquake. Others, such as the ones in Aneyoshi, specifically instruct where to build homes and where not to. Many stones lists names of the dead or past death tolls as a grim reminders of the waves’ destructive force. Unfortunately, in the bustle of modern life, many of these ancient warnings were forgotten or simply ignored.

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A tsunami warning stone tablet erected in 1933 on a hillside in Aneyoshi in Japan’s Iwate prefecture. Photo credit

According to local scholars, only a handful of villages like Aneyoshi heeded these old warnings by keeping their houses safely on high ground. Others chose to disregard the warnings 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. Many of these were wiped out on March 11, 2011, along with hundreds of miles of coast.

One stone marker in the coastal city of Kesennuma read, "Always be prepared for unexpected tsunamis. Choose life over your possessions and valuables." Kesennuma became one of the worst-hit places in the 2011 tsunami as fishing boats and large ships slammed into buildings and homes of people who ignored that advice.

Aneyoshi was different. It was a tightly knit community who revered their ancestors and their advice. The stone tablet was put up, along with more than 300 others all over the Japanese coast, after two tsunamis left the village devastated. The first one stuck in 1896 and left only two survivors. The second tsunami stuck in 1933 that left four survivors.

Repeated tsunamis have swept away a large number of these stones. At some places, new monuments were created to serve as tsunami warnings replacing the old stones. 

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In this March 31, 2011 photo, a tsunami survivor walks past a centuries-old tablet that warns of danger of tsunamis in the hamlet of Aneyoshi, Iwate Prefecture, northern Japan. Photo credit: AP

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A tsunami warning stone in Honshu. Although the inscription was worn out, this stone is believed to have been built after the great earthquake and subsequent tsunami that occurred in 869 AD. Photo credit

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A new tsunami warning tablet erected by the pupils of Onagawa Junior High School after the 2011 tsunami swallowed their town. The school has succeeded in raising money necessary to erect dozens of such stones along the shores of the town. Photo credit

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A tsunami warning stone tablet in Aneyoshi. Photo credit 

Sources: NYTimes / CBSNews

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