In the aftermath of Japan's worst disaster in living memory - the terrible March earthquake and tsunami - reports surfaced about hundreds of stone tablets warning citizens in the worst-hit region about the dangers of a tsunami.

One tablet in Aneyoshi, a small coastal town, reads: "High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants. Remember the calamity of the great tsunami. Do not build any homes below this point."

Although this warning was heeded and the town was largely spared the destruction in the surrounding Tohoku region, the horrors of the past were largely forgotten.

Professor Jun Iio, a member of the Reconstruction Design Council, a government appointed group tasked with drawing up the blue print for rebuilding Tohoku, wants to see the region's communities once again return to higher ground.

"We want to move people back to where their original ancestors lived - back to a safer place," he says.

Iio says that despite a lot of talk about deep historical roots to the land, most of the communities wiped out by the tsunami had been in their current location for about 60 years.

One hundred years ago there was virtually no one living close to the sea.

As the ancient warnings in stone attest, tsunamis are not new to this vulnerable part of Japan. In 1896, during the Meiji Period, a tsunami killed at least 22,000 people on the same Sanriku Coast - a death toll chillingly close to the recent disaster which left an estimated 23,000 dead or missing.

Smaller tsunamis in the area - one in 1933 and another in 1960 - claimed more than 3000 lives.

Japan's Reconstruction Design Council, which released its roadmap for reconstruction in late June, wants a new approach to natural disasters.

The new strategy involves "disaster reduction".

This shift recognises that the regions badly damaged in March had extensive tsunami protection systems in place, yet these largely failed to save lives.

Kamaishi Town's famous 1950m-long and 63m-deep tsunami protection breakwater proved no match against 4.1m waves which claimed 1250 lives.

The wall is believed, however, to have slowed the arrival of the first fatal wave by six minutes.

The massive seawall took three decades to build, cost US$1.5 billion and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's deepest breakwater.

The new strategy still includes the use of sea walls, but these are only the first line of defence. A greater focus is placed on relocating and educating the local population.

The Reconstruction Design Council proposes creating a zoning system, which restricts the use of tsunami-prone, coastal, flatland areas to industry or agriculture. Residential populations shift to higher ground.

Additional elements, such as a second line of defensive sea walls or earthen dikes positioned between these industrial flatlands and the residential areas and the construction of large evacuation towers at least five or six stories high, are also on the drawing board.

Yet the plan to relocate large populations to safer areas of high ground is a complex and controversial one.

Professor Jeff Kingston, tsunami expert and director of Asian Studies at Tokyo's Temple University, believes that although well intended, the Council's plan to relocate communities to higher ground will be difficult to implement and will raise problematic issues relating to land rights.

"Most of these coastal communities are small bits of flat land between mountains and ocean and there isn't a lot of safe, high land around," he says.

In addition, getting people to leave the land their families have been living on for generations will be difficult. "The single largest asset most households own is land. This land has zero utility value now because everybody recognises how vulnerable it is," he says.

Decisions have yet to be made by the government on how to resolve the issue of land rights, but a home purchase scheme where individual home owners sell their properties to the government, like that established for residents in Christchurch's Red Zone, seems unlikely and is not supported by the Reconstruction Design Council.

"We support relocation by consensus. The government buying individual houses would prevent a consensus from forming," Council member Iio says.

The Japanese tsunami created vast volumes of rubbish. Estimates by the Environment Ministry put the figure at nearly 25 million tonnes of debris - more trash, possibly, than would normally be created in a century in affected areas.

Iio believes many of the companies destroyed in the tsunami could move into recycling.

It is also an opportunity to create better long-term recycling systems in the area, he adds.

The Council also proposed the idea of using some of the tsunami debris to construct coastal dikes to protect the region from future waves.

"We think using waste as a core for a tsunami break is a good idea, but only for the core," Iio says.

These kinds of ideas, although innovative, have come under some criticism for being potentially unsafe and very costly.

"What that suggests to me is that people are not learning the lessons," says Kingston.

"It is possible to make it stable, but it is costly and not certain."