On the afternoon of March 11,
2011, a magnitude 9.1 earthquake struck the Pacific coast of northeastern
Japan, triggering a tsunami that devastated many coastal communities in the
region. Miyagi Prefecture suffered, by far, the greatest loss of life and
damage. This presentation, created by retired architect Mr. Alan Butler,
focuses on the city of Ishinomaki and nearby areas in Miyagi Prefecture.
March 11, 2011 - The Great East Japan EarthquakeEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0-9.1 struck off the coast of northern Japan. The epicenter was 80 km east of the city of Ishinomaki. It was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, and the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900. The subsequent tsunami overwhelmed the west coast of northern Japan. Miyagi Prefecture suffered, by far, the greatest loss of life and damage.
This presentation focuses on the city of Ishinomaki and nearby areas in the Miyagi Prefecture. It is seen through photographs taken by a US Army doctor, George Butler, stationed at nearby Camp Matsushima in 1951; in a series of articles written by local historian Seiji Henmi; and contemporary photographs and commentary by George Butler’s son Alan, taken in 2018-2019.
Many of George Butler's 1951 images were donated to Harvard University by Alan Butler in 2017, and are now part of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology's archives.
Kyukitakami River Mouth (1951) by George ButlerEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
Ishinomaki is the second largest city in Miyagi Prefecture with a population of 147,000 in 2020. In 2011 it had a population of 163,000 and suffered 3,415 deaths related to the tsunami and earthquake. Nearly 76% of the housing stock was lost or damaged, with nearly 20,000 dwellings suffering total collapse. Many inhabitants were forced to leave the area and more than 15,000 were later placed in temporary housing.
Ishinomaki is a major fishing port in northern Honshu and had significant facilities related to the fishing industry and other industrial uses, mostly along the ocean front and the Kyukitakami River. George Butler’s many photographs of the region portray Japanese society and city life before the post-war economic boom transformed the nation.
Utsumi Bridge leads to Nakase Island (1951) by Gerald ButlerEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
The Utsumi Bridge to Nakase Island, upriver from the river mouth, has long been a major crossroads in the city and one of the best-known locations in Ishinomaki.
In 1951 houses, fisheries, and lumber mills lined the Kyukitakami River. Residents could step from their homes into their boats, and for many the river was the focus of life in the city.
Mouth of Kitakami River 2018 (2018)Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
The 2011 tsunami scoured the ocean frontage all along Miyagi Prefecture and washed many structures off of Nakase Island and much of the riverbanks 5km upstream.
Contemporary photos were taken by me during visits to Japan in 2018-2019. I maintain the www.miyagi1951.com website of George Butler’s photographs.
Nakaze Island, Kyukitakami River (2018)Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
Today the best-known landmark is the flying saucer-like Manga Museum, which is and was the largest tourist attraction in Ishinomaki prior to the tsunami of 2011. The island was largely scoured clean in 2011 except for the Manga Museum. The river banks, once densely populated, are protected by levees and new, less dense land uses.
Nakaze Island, Kyukitakami River (1935) by Kawase HasuiEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
This woodblock print was made in 1935 by Kawase Hasui (1883-1957), one of the great masters of the Shin Hanga movement and a Japanese national treasure.
Kitakami RiverEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
George Butler, unknowingly, took an image from the Utsumi Bridge in 1951 that nearly replicated the woodblock print of 1935. Homes were on the edge of the water, an easy step into their boats. The tree and shrine at the north end of the island can still be seen.
Nakaze Island, Kyukitakami River (2019)Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
This is a view from a nearby Hyoriyama Hill overlooking the Kyukitakami River. I took this in October 2019 and it shows the north end of Nakase Island and the Manga Museum. The north end of the island in previous images has been removed and a new higher vehicle bridge is being constructed. The smaller bridge with blue railings is the modern replacement of the wooden bridge seen in 1951 and will continue to lead to Nakase Island and further across to the opposite shore. Construction of new levees along the opposite shore can be seen.
Utsumi Bridge, Nakaze Island, Kyukitakami River (2019) by Ishinomaki KahokuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
Long before the Manga Museum became a major tourist draw in Ishinomaki, the Utsumi Bridge was a major crossroads of the city and one of the main points of access to the northern reaches of the city. George Butler took a number of photographs in 1951 of the bridge, the island and its users. In post-war Japan in this region automobiles and trucks were very rare and the view of activities on the bridge may have looked much like it had for hundreds of years.
After the Great East Japan Earthquake, many local residents lost all their personal possessions and memorabilia. His photographs have become an important touchstone to their lost past. A number of people have been identified in the photographs, to the great joy of family members and friends.
Man pulling cart over bridge (1951)Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
“A cart is crossing the Utsumi Bridge on the Kyukitakami River in Ishinomaki City. The photo was taken 18 years after the bridge was built in 1933, and the difference from when it was completed is the wooden parapets. ….
From the box-shaped body of the cart crossing the Utsumi Bridge, which was crowded with people and horses, I thought it was a sawdust carrier for a bath house. An acquaintance of mine in the center of the city, who was viewing the photo exhibition, saw the man pulling the cart and said, "That's Shoichi Masu of Matsunoyu," which led to the discovery of his name.
Matsunoyu is said to be the oldest bathhouse in the city, founded in 1845, at the end of the Edo period (1603-1868), and is located on the left side of the road from Ishinomaki Elementary School to Otemachi. According to his family, Mr. Masu was about 30 years old at the time. He received sawdust and sopé from the Sasaki sawmill in Nakase to use as fuel for his bath kettle, and made it a daily routine to transport them back and forth.”
-Article #37, Ishinomaki Kahoku (10/21/2018)
Ishinomaki street scene with horse-drawn wagon (1951)Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
This photograph led to a most interesting encounter for me in October of 2018. I was stopped on the street by Seiji Henmi, who had authored an article about this photograph. We were standing in front of the office of Dr. Nobuyki Suda, a 78 year-old dentist.
We were taken into his office and Dr. Suda related to us that when he was seven years old he had been standing on Nakase Island watching this wagon pass by. It was being pulled by his uncle and contained the dowry of his now 93-year-old aunt who was to move in with her new family. He was likely to have been standing very near by my father when the photograph was taken.
In creating this presentation, Alan Butler drew on photographs he took during visits to the region in 2018-2019 as well as a series of articles written by Ishinomaki historian Seiji Henmi and archival images taken by Alan’s father, Dr. George Butler, an American medical doctor stationed in the region in 1951. Alan donated a collection of his father’s photographs to Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in 2017.
George Butler in Yamoto (1951)Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
George A. Butler, MD (1911-1974)
From March of 1951 to early 1952, Captain George Butler was stationed at Camp Matsushima, Japan. This is now the Japanese Air Self Defense Force (JASDF), Matsushima base in the the city of Higashimatsushima. The forty-year-old doctor, who had spent WW II in medical school with the Army, was called up to serve in the Korean War. As Battalion Surgeon he was responsible for personnel on the base and public health in areas nearby the base. He spent most of his free time exploring the areas between Ishinomaki and Sendai, taking several thousand color photographs of great artistic and technical quality, rare at this time in Japan. These photographs are now preserved in the archives of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University and are online at miyagi1951.com.
Seiji Henmi on Hiyoriama Hill overlooking Ishinomaki (2019)Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
Beginning in 2018 the Ishinomaki Kahoku newspaper has published a weekly series of articles by local historian Seiji Henmi. Each of the nearly 150 articles published as of early 2021 describes a photograph taken in 1951 by George Butler.
The articles provide a wealth of information and commentary about post-war Japan in the Tohoku region. A local organization, The Ishinomaki Archive, of which Mr. Henmi has had a key role, has done much to document the history of the Ishinomaki area. They have published historical maps and held at least four exhibitions of George Butler’s photographs in the region.
Alan Butler portrait at architectural office (2018)Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
Alan was two years old when his father left California to serve in the U. S. Army in Japan. He grew up influenced by his father’s interest in Japan. Alan was a practicing architect and later partner in a Northern California firm for more than 30 years, during which time he traveled widely and sketched wherever he could.
In 2014 he discovered the archive of his father’s photographs, developed a website, and later traveled to Japan in 2018-2019 for a series of exhibits. Sharing the photographs with the people of Miyagi Prefecture, many of whom had lost all family records in the Great East Japan Earthquake & Tsunami of 2011, has been immensely rewarding.