At the edge of Aneyoshi, a small village on Japan’s northeastern coast, a 10-foot-tall stone tablet stands, carved with a dire warning to locals.
"High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants," the rock slab says. "Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point."
While the Aneyoshi tablet might be the most straightforward, so-called “tsunami stones” dot Japan’s coastline, warning the carvers’ descendants to seek high ground after earthquakes in case they foreshadow destructive waves. The stones vary in degrees of repair, with most dating back to around 1896, when two deadly tsunamis killed about 22,000 people, Martin Fackler writes for The New York Times.
“The tsunami stones are warnings across generations, telling descendants to avoid the same suffering of their ancestors,” Itoko Kitahara, a historian of natural disasters at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, told Fackler in 2011 after an earthquake killed nearly 29,000 people. “Some places heeded these lessons of the past, but many didn’t,” Kitahara told Fackler.
Over the decades, the stones’ warnings were disregarded or forgotten by many as coastal towns boomed and people placed their faith in massive seawalls built by the Japanese government. But in some places like Aneyoshi, residents still heeded the tsunami stones’ warnings.
"Everybody here knows about the markers. We studied them in school," 12-year-old Yuto Kimura told the Associated Press in 2011. "When the tsunami came, my mom got me from school and then the whole village climbed to higher ground."
Aneyoshi’s tsunami stone is the only one found that explicitly describes where to build houses, but centuries of tsunamis have also left their marks on the names of places in the region, Fackler writes. While some places have names like “Valley of the Survivors” and “Wave’s Edge” that might indicate ground high enough to escape a massive wave, places that weren’t so lucky might instead be named “Octopus Grounds,” after the sea life left behind in the rubble.
"It takes about three generations for people to forget. Those that experience the disaster themselves pass it to their children and their grandchildren, but then the memory fades," Fumihiko Imamura, a professor in disaster planning at Tohoku University, told the AP.
Four years later, parts of Japan are still recovering from the March 2011 tsunami, with about 230,000 people still living in temporary housing. The tsunami and accompanying earthquake were also responsible for the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, when equipment damaged during the disaster triggered a nuclear meltdown