All victims of the disaster have lost things that are precious and irreplaceable to them as individuals. They have lost people, and ways of life. But as a society, we still retain things that are precious to all of us. One of these is our cultural assets, our cultural heritage—artefacts and environments created by people who lived 500, even 1000 years ago, that have been handed down through succeeding generations to us. Surely we have a responsibility to protect these things from any possibility of destruction in the future by natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunami, so that we can hand them on to our descendents.
In the Sanriku coastal region, an area often hit by tsunami, it is said that every time a Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine suffered damage from a tsunami, the building was rebuilt higher inland, relying on the know-how of older generations. Once temples and shrines and the artefacts they hold are destroyed, they are gone forever. Particularly if they are destroyed by fire, and reduced to ashes, no method will be of any use in bringing them back to life. Disasters pose a terrible threat to the conservation of such cultural assets. This is why we at the Center are looking into any means available to us to carry out research into how we can best protect our cultural assets from any destruction in future disasters.
In the Tohoku Region, the Shirakami Mountains were granted UNESCO World Natural Heritage status in the early 1990s. Last year in June, the Buddhist temples and related properties at Hiraizumi, in Iwate Prefecture, were granted UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status, the first in the Tohoku region to be so designated. This was one bright bit of news for a region so beset by natural disasters. Exactly how many cultural assets have suffered damage as a result of the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 has yet to be investigated in detail, but it is hoped that the World Heritage status granted to Hiraizumi will act as a powerful spur for restoration of damaged cultural assets and indeed of all the areas that suffered damage in general.
The cultural heritage of Japan has been looked after with love and respect by our communities down through the centuries nationwide. At times, it has offered a unique source of comfort and security to our people. We pray that damage to our cultural assets in this disaster will not have been too great, and that this may provide support and encouragement to people as they try to rebuild their lives. If our work can help in any way to show, perhaps even more than before, the profound emotional support to people in times of trouble that can be provided by our rich cultural heritage, we will consider part of our duties fulfilled.