Yet, when Mr Toda went back this week to see the same concrete barrier on north-eastern Japan’s Yoshihama Bay, he found little left.
“When the Chile tsunami came 50 years ago, I was a schoolboy in Yoshihama and I looked up at that wall as a success,” says Mr Toda, now mayor of the town of Ofunato of which Yoshihama is a part. “But this time it was completely demolished.”
The collapse of the Yoshihama wall was just one example of the much wider failure of anti-tsunami measures in place along the north-eastern coast of Japan in the face of the ferocious pulse of water sparked by last Friday’s magnitude 9 earthquake. Tsunami victims account for most of the 10,000 reported dead or missing.
Such losses will be deeply troubling for other regions around the world that are vulnerable to tsunamis, because the area is widely seen as having among the strongest sea fortifications and most sophisticated warning and evacuation systems on earth.
Japanese coastal residents have been building anti-tsunami defences at least since the 1850s, when merchant Goryo Hamaguchi paid for the construction of a 600m long, 5m high breakwater in western Wakayama prefecture. This combined a stone and earthen embankment with plantings of pines and spindle trees.
In the Sanriku coastal area that was hardest hit by Friday’s disaster, defences have been repeatedly extended and modernised since 1896, when the first Great Sanriku tsunami levelled whole towns and killed about 22,000 people.
Official determination to shield coastal communities was reinforced when a tsunami of a similar size hit in 1933, killing more than 3,000 people around Japan, and in 1960 when the wave triggered by the Chile event left more than 100 dead.
As the first line of defence, communities built sea walls with tsunami gates for river mouths that could be closed when waves approached, as well as offshore breakwaters and raised river dykes.
Equally important was the creation of increasingly automated early warning systems, defined safe areas and the implementation of regular evacuation drills, often held on the anniversaries of the 1896 and 1933 disasters.
That such efforts were unable to prevent the heavy death toll caused by Friday’s quake can be explained in large part by the size and power of the tsunami it created.
Before Friday, there were two stone tsunami memorials in the village of Hongo near Kamaishi town, the tip of each set at the height the water reached in 1896 and 1933.
Based in part on such precedents, villagers felt safe building homes
behind the village’s stout seawall, which residents say was indeed high and strong enough to hold back the first wave of Friday’s tsunami.
However, the waters soon returned, pouring over both the sea wall and the monuments. Such was the force of the flow that a heavy stone marker to the 1933 disaster was knocked down and dragged away.
Around the region some defences – including the Yoshihama sea wall and a barrier built at the mouth of the bay on which Ofunato port is built – failed completely in the face of such fury. Others, such as Ofunato’s final seawall, were simply overwhelmed.
“We have never expected such a big tsunami,” says Mr Toda. “I think no one expected such a big one.”
The mayor, a former construction company manager who has been in office only three months, is already trying to find ways of ensuring that this latest disaster is his town’s last.
Any reconstruction plan should include the realisation that nature cannot be tamed, Mr Toda says.
“Even if we have the protective wall against the tsunami, it is meaningless,” he says. “My idea is that we had better follow the natural geography to avoid future tsunamis.”
In practice, that will mean at the very least limiting reconstruction of homes on the lowest-lying areas – no easy matter given Japan’s high population density, narrow coastal plains and steep hills.
Yet Mr Toda is hardly alone in coming to the conclusion that nature must be accommodated and that the best defence can be avoidance.
After the 2005 hurricane that wrecked much of
New Orleans, there were calls for low-lying areas not to be rebuilt, but instead left as a natural buffer against floods. In the UK, too, opposition has been growing to the use of flood plains for new housing.
From his ringside seat on natural disaster, Mr Toda has no doubt that even the richest and most advanced societies cannot expect to defy geological realities.
“Nature’s power is beyond our expectations [and] beyond our imagination,” he says. “I really felt that this time.”
日本沿海居民修建抗海啸设施至少可追溯至19世纪50年代，当时，商人滨口梧陵(Goryo Hamaguchi)出资在和歌山县(Wakayama prefecture)西部修建了一条长600米、高5米的防波堤。这道防波堤由石头与泥土筑砌而成，上面种植了松树与丝棉木。