SENDAI, Japan—It’s a blustery day and I’m standing on a giant concrete seawall, staring over the water.

The seawall, as you might imagine, is a tall, sloped structure intended to keep the sea and the land somewhat apart. It stops the waves from beating down on the shore, whether during a gales of a tsunami or the daily lap of erosion. But the wall itself holds less interest to me than its supporting cast members a few hundred yards out into the water.

A stone’s throw off the coastline, dozens of gigantic, 10-ton concrete structures known as Tetrapods form a long row and look—if we’re being honest—as if a giant dumped a behemoth box of jacks into the sea. It is simultaneously majestic and odd. “After the earthquake and tsunami hit [in 2011], we’ve been rebuilding everything, but a lot hasn’t come back yet,” Yoshinori Okuyama, Director General of the Sendai Bay South Coast Office, noted. He gestured to a scrubby patch of trees where a veritable forest once stood. The landscape here has the underpinnings of recovery but still feels largely decimated: housing foundations lay bare while weeds and wildflowers grow chest-high. A nearby elementary school has been abandoned and converted into a future emergency shelter, just in case.

But the first step of recovery from the 2011 tragedy has been heaping up a stronger defense for the region—starting with protections from the sea. This has manifested, in large part, in the re-installation of these Tetrapods (and all of their concrete kissing cousins, like seawalls) along the most vulnerable coasts. And with the earthquake that occurred this week in Fukushima—an aftershock of 2011, experts believe—this effort seems more pressing than ever. A Tetrapod (which, Japanese engineers are quick to remind you, is a proper name, even if it has become a generic catchall) is a four-footed, porous, concrete “breakwater barrier” used to prevent erosion and water damage by dissipating waves. And boy, aren’t they popular. Originally created in France in the late 1940s, they’ve found a real home in Japan thanks to their mother company, Fudo Tetra. Today, the structures have an almost omnipresence anywhere land meets the sea.

Read More