Shizugawa | Andrew Littlejohn


Shizugawa | Andrew Littlejohn
GrDl 194 | Gruen Digital > [order]
5.1. WAV & Stereo WAV


On March 11, 2011, a tsunami devastated the northeast coastline of Japan following an undersea megathrust earthquake with a magnitude of 9.1. The wave destroyed many inhabited coastal areas. This included Shizugawa, the central district of a small town in Miyagi Prefecture called Minamisanriku.




I recorded in Shizugawa between 2013 and 2015 while conducting research on how survivors experienced its reconstruction. I was motivated partly by dissatisfaction with the excess of distant ruin photography that appeared after the tsunami. Instead of gazing on destruction from afar, I wanted to try and understand the experience of being “in the midst of a changing landscape,” as one resident described it. For those in this midst, I found that two Shizugawas overlapped: one of memory and one emerging. The first was lost in the flood; the notes below provide some clues regarding what people no longer heard as a result. In the second, another resident wrote that the sounds of wind and water had replaced those of daily life. But many other voices could also be heard: frogs, birds, diggers, cicadas. Together, they filled the evacuated space, providing people with food for thought even as they rubbed unevenly with memories of what had been.




These voices and atmospheres—and the composition that I have made from them—were punctuated regularly by the daily tests of the town’s emergency broadcast system (also known as the chimes). The chimes are loudspeakers that play music at 6am, noon, 5pm and 9pm. During 3.11, a municipal employee called Endō Miki used the system to warn residents of the incoming tsunami in Shizugawa. She died sounding the alarm when the waves reached the town’s Disaster Prevention Center, as did the composer of the midday song. More than 90% of municipalities in Japan have such systems; while many use stock music, all of Minamisanriku’s songs were composed by locals. The chimes’ official purpose is to warn people of impending disasters, but like village bells in Europe, their daily tests also structure the rhythms of life. The composition seeks to model this; the notes below also provide details regarding the songs themselves.




All recordings were made using a DPA 5100 Mobile Surround Microphone and a Sound Devices audio recorder.


全ての録音はDPA 5100モバイルサラウンドマイクとサウンドデバイスオーディオレコーダーを使用しています。


00:00 The Valley: Night. In rice-growing regions, the irrigation of rice paddies leads to nightly frog choruses during the summer months. In 2014, frogs also sang in the stagnant pools left behind by tsunami-related subsidence. This recording was made in one a short drive south of Shizugawa’s town center, in a valley where 33 houses had been washed away when the tsunami struck. The pool was drained and concreted over during reconstruction. To atone for what he called the “sin” (tsumi) of such destruction, a Shizugawa resident has since created a small biotope nearby, posting “soundscapes” (otofūkei) recorded there on Facebook.


00:00 谷あい:夜


03:50 The Valley: Early Morning. The morning chimes ring at 6am. They play the opening theme of the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion—one of the most popular of all time—whose composer Satō Hidetoshi hails from Minamisanriku. Ironically, Evangelion contains many eschatological themes, with its story unfolding in the time between a catastrophic event and the end of the world.


03:50 谷あい:早朝
朝の放送は毎朝6時に鳴ります。ここでは史上最も人気のあるアニメの一つ、「新世 紀エヴァンゲリオン」のオープニングテーマが流れます。作曲家の佐藤英敏氏も南三陸出身です。皮肉にも、エヴァンゲリオンでは、大惨事と終末の間の時期について描かれており、多くの終末論的なテーマが含まれています。


06:03 The Town Center: Late Morning – Midday. This is the center of Shizugawa, which used to be the most densely populated area of the town. I made the recordings while walking through Tōkamachi and Itsukamachi: districts that once contained both houses and the main shopping areas. Before the disaster, people wrote that the area resounded with the calls of shopkeepers. During my fieldwork, however, the center was an empty plain, with the sounds made by diggers and trucks replacing those calls.


06:03 中心街:昼前〜正午


14:55 The Town Center: Midday. The noon chimes play Osubade Samba, which is considered Minamisanriku’s theme song. Osubade means small side dishes eaten while drinking in the local dialect. It was composed 2 years prior to the disaster by Minamisanriku municipal employee Satō Yoshio, who died during the tsunami.


14:55 中心地:正午


16:29 The Deep Interior: Afternoon. The workday is ending, and construction workers will soon return to their lodgings. At 5pm, the chimes play Hikoro no Kaze (Wind of Light), written by local musician Takahashi Izumi. She has composed and performed a number of benefit songs for Minamisanriku since the tsunami, including a new version of Hikoro no Kaze.


16:29 内陸: 午後


19:32 Above the Town: Evening. Hachiman-sama, Shizugawa’s main shrine, overlooks the former center. In the late evening, like elsewhere in the town the trees around it shimmer with higurashi: tanna japonensis, the cicada whose cries mark the transition from day to night (and back again) during the late summer. Their ringing, melancholy voices have inspired much poetry and literature in Japan; in the tsunami’s aftermath, many fear that their populations are suffering due to radiation.


19:32 町を見下ろすエリア:夕方


22.11 The Waterfront: Night. This final recording was made in another hamlet south of central Shizugawa. Like the valley we opened with, most of its houses were washed away by the tsunami. The small fishing boats in the harbor produce a squeaking sound as they rub against their moorings. The day’s final chime, Minamisanriku Anata no Umi e (Minamisanriku, To Your Sea), also composed by Satō Hidetoshi, bids the townsfolk goodnight at 9pm.


22.11 河口付近:夜




MP3 (Stereo)


MP3 (Stereo)


MP3 (Stereo)


1 Track (27′24″)


Field Recording Series by Gruenrekorder
Germany / 2020 / GrDl 194 / LC 09488





Leiden University
Anthropologist Andrew Littlejohn composes sonic ethnography in Japan
Andrew Littlejohn composed a sonic ethnography with sounds recorded in Japan’s northeastern region. He decided to make recordings because he wasn’t satisfied with the images and videos that appeared after a tsunami struck there in 2011. Most of it was ruin photography, often involving gazing on destruction from the distance. To understand the experience of being in the middle of a changing landscape, Littlejohn composed a sonic ethnography called Shizugawa, named after a district in Minamisanriku Town where he recorded. The work was released by the label Gruenrekorder on the first of December 2020.


Shizugawa is a work of field recording, or location-based sound recording: someone goes out into the world with a microphone and records the sounds of the surroundings. Field recording isn’t new in anthropology; today, a number of well-known anthropologists, like Rupert Cox, Steven Feld, Ernst Karel, and Stephanie Spray, use it as part of a multi-modal approach to exploring and representing sounded worlds.


Distance and Presence
In Shizugawa, Littlejohn used surround-sound to accentuate the feeling of being in the field. In the aftermath of the tsunami in 2011, many photographers made works depicting devastated landscapes full of ruined buildings. ‘One of the things that such photography emphasizes is destruction. But in doing so, it maintains a kind of distance from the actual experience of inhabiting the landscapes,’ Littlejohn explains, where loss is accompanied by presence and renewal. ‘There was some work that tried to understand the experience of people in the landscape, but a lot of work had a kind of gazing from a distance kind of feel, as opposed to being present and trying to understand the space. I wanted to resist this and try to situate myself and others within it. To try thinking from the inside or feel things from the inside.’


Art and research as parallel tracks
Littlejohn likes to think of his media work – he also makes short videos and photographs – as something that runs parallel with his research. ‘I’m a fan of a rather pretentious phrase that Stephen Jay Gould used when he talks about different aspects of life. He called religion and science non-overlapping magesteria. I really like that. So now I think about my art and my research, they occur in the same place and sometimes they tackle the same issue, but the sound work isn’t part of the scientific research necessarily. They run parallel with each other.’ The sound work made by Littlejohn is still anthropological, in other words, but not done to produce something that he can write about in a scientific article.


30 hours of recording
Littlejohn started recording without having a set goal in mind. He set up a structure with certain rules on how to record. Littlejohn: ‘I came up with a process inspired by different models that I knew from both artists who use sound recordings and previous sound works by anthropologists. I decided that I was going to have a set number of locations and record in each every two hours during the day. So, I would go to a location and do my first recording at 5 am, the second at 7 am, the third at 9 am and so on. This mapped how a place sounds during different times of the day.’ The choices of the locations were shaped by the discussions that he had with people and texts written by them on how the areas sounded and felt afterward. The research that he had already done also informed where he recorded—for example, in a valley that used to be filled with houses but was then empty. In total, Littlejohn recorded over 30 hours of raw material from seven different locations between 2013 and 2015. All recordings were made using a DPA 5100 Mobile Surround Microphone and a Sound Devices audio recorder.


Reaching different people
The final ethnography is a digital recording that you can listen to in 5.1 surround-sound or stereo, accompanied by a text. ‘What I tried to do by putting the images and text together is to both cue people into what they are listening to and give them a sense of what they are not hearing. I wanted to create a kind of tension. You hear, for example, the town center. You should hear shops and shopkeepers, but what you actually hear is silence. You need to cue people into what it means to inhabit a space where something has disappeared but other things have taken their place.’ As already mentioned, Littlejohn doesn’t call this piece scientific but humanistic. ‘People who listen to this, probably won’t read my scientific papers. They are different people. In that sense, it will bring material from and about the disaster region into a different sphere and reach different people.’


Richard Allen | a closer listen
This resonant recording scores the aftermath of one disaster, but by extension speaks to those caught in the midst of another. Recorded in the flattened town of Shizugawa following the devastating tsunami of March 2011, Andrew Littlejohn‘s study traces what was lost, and what arrived in its place.


The survivors dig through the rubble, unearthing recent artifacts of suddenly vanished lives. They no longer hear pedestrians, commerce, children at play. The wildlife seems louder, as its competition is gone. The wind and waves are now a constant part of the audible soundscape, no longer soothing but lurking; what once seemed benign became a bearer of death.


According to Littlejohn, “two Shizugawas overlapped: one of memory and one emerging.” The only constant, present before and after the tsunami, is the quartet of locally-composed songs on the emergency broadcast system, sounding at 6, 12, 5 and 9, and all heard on this recording. Endō Miki died sending a final warning, as did Satō Yoshio, the composer of the noon song.


The frogs play and mate in the pools left behind by the tsunami. The human homes of Shizugawa were destroyed, while new homes for different species were created. Is this a fair trade? Balance? Recompense? The strains of Neon Genesis Evangelion ring out; what a theme to awaken to. What dire thoughts accompany the morning tea. In retrospect, might Satō Hidetoshi’s theme have been a warning, a prophecy? The searchers continue to scrape through the scraps, to place items in piles, to collect wallets to return to next of kin.


And now to the town center, no longer a shopping area, but a digging area. Construction trucks pass. Warning beeps sound as they maneuver in reverse: any such beep a post-traumatic reminder for those still on edge. Birds cry out in the distance: are they searching for loved ones as well? Yoshio’s theme echoes at noon, a ghost of a song, a composer’s final legacy, a repetition from beyond the grave.


Hammers hammer and dogs bark. Gulls cry and cicadas sing. Hulls creak; music seeps and retreats. The ancestral spirits seem to be sticking around.


Now we too are living in a time of disaster: a slower tsunami, yet no less devastating. We too are sifting through the rubble of our lives, seeking for items to salvage. We too have lost loved ones, opportunities, a way of life. And yet, the most fortunate of us have gained things as well: perspective, new priorities, an awareness of our own fragility. One disaster speaks to another. Shizugawa is forever changed. And yet, nature continues to be replenished, to find a way. Might our spirits find a way as well?