Japan: Looking to the past for answers

Survivors of Japan’s worst natural disaster in decades may be forced to re-consider an old code of self-preservation.

By Donald Harding

The great Tohoku earthquake of March 2011 resulted in the most devastating tsunami to hit Japan for generations, forcing people in coastal communities to question how they prepare for future disasters. Many looked to the past for answers.

“I did not plan to let go of my grandfather’s hand, I just did it. I was pulling him, but he was too slow and I felt the huge wave bearing down so I let go of him and ran up the hill. I didn’t look back,” says 39-year-old Akiko Yorozu, recalling her escape from the massive tsunami that devastated her hometown.

Shortly after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off Japan’s northeastern coast, a colossal body of sea water smashed onto land and, within minutes, hundreds of towns and villages were swamped. It was the largest tsunami seen for generations and with the official death toll over 20,000, Naoto Kan, the then Japanese prime minister, called it the worst natural disaster to affect the country since the end of World War II.

Many, like Yorozu, faced split second choices that decided their fate.

“At that point, I thought, I had to get to higher ground or I would drown. You have to save yourself first. It may seem cold hearted but it is really the only way.”

Yorozu was practicing Tendenko, a code of tsunami survival that teaches people to ignore others and save themselves. It appears to be a starkly selfish ethos, but if practiced across an entire community, it is a simple and effective way to ensure that the highest numbers survive.

“As children we were taught, if the earthquake strikes you should not try to come home or look for parents, you have to save yourself, otherwise the tsunami will wash you away” says Yorozu, who now has two children of her own.

The communities living on Japan’s north east, or Sanriku, coast have always been at the mercy of massive and destructive geological forces. Lying directly along the fault line created by the shifting Pacific and Eurasia plates, it is an area of intense seismic ferment. Earthquakes under the sea produce frequent tsunamis – some only a few inches high that result in nothing more than official warnings from authorities relayed by loud speakers along the fishing ports and harbours that dot the inlets and bays of this scenic coastline.

However, once every so often (on average every 100 to 150 years) a massive wave is sent pulsing towards the land. One such tsunami hit in 1896, killing 22,000 people and destroying thousands of homes. In 1933, another large tsunami killed 3,000 in the same region – in one town alone 98 per cent of homes were lost.

The practice of Tendenko emerged from these repeated disasters. A local Sanriku folk wisdom, it urges individuals to forget everyone else and save themselves. In some senses this Darwinian-like survival instinct should come naturally to anyone sensing their life is in danger. But in Japan acts of individualistic self-preservation do not come easily to a society firmly rooted in putting others before yourself.

“It may seem obvious to say ‘save yourself first’, but actually most people in Japan don’t,” says Professor Toshitaka Katada of Gunma University, a social engineer who specialises in disaster management and tsunami survival.

Al Jazeera talks to Professor Toshitaka Katada, a Japanese disaster management specialist

For the past eight years Katada has been re-introducing Tendenko to schools in Yorozu’s home town, Kamaishi in Iwate prefecture.

“What actually happens is that people do not run even though they know a tsunami is coming. Instead they seek out family members and they all end up dying – they die together because they thought they could save each other. This happened repeatedly in this region and so Tendenko arose from this. It teaches you to resist that impulse and to act immediately and do whatever it takes to save yourself. And if everyone does this then more people survive. So it is also about trust, trusting that others will do the same. It does not mean that you cannot help others around you, but your own survival is your first priority.”

More than any other country in the world, Japan is well prepared in the event of a tsunami: huge imposing sea walls on land and out at sea are there to protect the towns and villages against the waves, whilst countless safety and evacuation drills are rehearsed in communities and schools across the country, in case the water ever breaches these forward defences.

In a land where earthquakes and tsunamis are a constant threat not much was left to chance, but the sheer size of the March 11 tsunami meant many of Japan’s well-planned precautions proved inadequate. The sea walls built at huge public cost were overwhelmed by the wave while evacuation centres and muster points were inundated, often with tragic consequences.

There is a growing debate in Japan as to how best to plan for future tsunamis, with many now asking why the existing preparations proved inadequate.

Katada believes that the teaching of Tendenko is essential to help at risk communities to radically change their thinking.  It prepares people, particularly children, to rely on themselves and to always expect the worse.

“These communities are experiencing small and medium-sized earthquakes and tsunamis quite often, and this breeds a kind of complacency. I found too that because there were periods of several generations between the ‘large tsunami’ like the one that hit in March 2011, the folk memory of their power and destructiveness fades – so too does the idea of self-reliance and an individualistic approach to escaping. People rely too much on a single fixed evacuation plan,’ says Katada, who claims that the teaching in Kamaishi helped save many lives.

According to the figures, in Iwate prefecture where Katada has been teaching, only 27 pupils died out of a total number of 3,423 deaths; a rate of less than 1 per cent. Neighbouring Miyagi prefecture had a rate of more than 3 per cent.

Some now believe that infrastructure like sea walls give a false sense of security. Many people died because, despite the approaching wave, they opted to stay in their homes, such was their faith in concrete barriers. At the same time, the fixed safety drills that direct people to gather in designated muster points, where they wait for further instruction from the team leader, also failed in many instances. In the town of Minamisanriku, Miyagi prefecture, 31 out of the 80 evacuation sites were hit by the massive wave.

At the Unosumai disaster evacuation centre in Kamaishi – opened just last year – of the approximately 200 people who sought refuge there, less than 30 were found alive after the building was overwhelmed by the surging waters. In contrast to this, Katada cites the example of school children in the town, where nearly all of the 2,900 pupils survived. School was finishing for the day and pupils were starting to make their way home or to clubs when the quake struck. In one case, children from Higashi Junior High and the neighbouring elementary school began running up the hill away from the school and stared in horror as the wave smashed onto their school – even ramming a car into the third floor, where only minutes before they had been gathered. And still the wave continued to surge towards them. Taking the initiative the pupils ran further up the hill – from that vantage they watched as moments later the evacuation point itself was engulfed.

“We had felt the earthquake  – the tremors were huge and cracks opened up in the ground, I was pretty frightened by that,” says Shingo Yorozu. “I don’t know what started it but we all began running out thinking we better just in case a tsunami came. There was no guidance from the teachers, I am glad we did run because there’s not much left of our school.”

Japan is just beginning the long process of rebuilding the towns and villages along the devastated coast, and people are slowly starting to rebuild their lives. Many in those communities have been forced to change their perception of tsunamis and as people prepare themselves and their children for a time when they will face another huge tsunami, many are learning from the past so that they might have a future.