The 11th March 2011 tsunami in Japan caused widespread devastation and human casualties. The losses as a result of the event will be felt through the generations. But there are always lessons we can learn from such a tragic occurrence. In a coastal community in the Iwate Prefecture, the majority of school-age children survived. The survival rate seems miraculous in the face of so much devastation. The survival of the children is attributed to a concept taught to them through an education scheme. The term is tendenko.
In Japan family bonds are very strong, which can become a problem during a disaster situation. During the 1896 Sanriku earthquake, family members tried to help each other but ended up failing to escape from the tsunami that destroyed the entire region. In the Taro District (then Tarocho) of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, only 36 of the town’s 1,859 residents survived the Meiji era (1868-1912) catastrophe. Family bonds were causing people to delay evacuation after an earthquake because they were gathering to check family members were ok before evacuating. In a earthquake-tsunami situation, this is incredibly dangerous as every minute to get to higher ground to escape a tsunami counts. Since 2005, the Kamaishi city government has invited disaster management education experts to offer advice to combat this phenomenon.
“Tendenko is the wisdom based on trust within families. It has a very deep meaning.” – Prof. Katada
An education program for schoolchildren led by Professor Toshitaka Katada from Gunma University Graduate School has been run since 2005 in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. Kamaishi schools conduct disaster drills to go uphill, teach tsunami velocity calculation methods in math class and discuss tsunami experiences during ethics lessons. The schools also encourage students to look for higher ground where they can evacuate on foot, and include evacuation routes in a disaster management map. Among the lessons’ important points was tendenko; a word coined from the city’s long history of repeatedly being hit by tsunami. The term means to “go uphill independently at the time of tsunami caring only for your own safety, not thinking of anyone else, even your family”. The term tendenko was one that had fallen from modern use. The idea is one of self-sufficiency and familial trust. Each member of the family must trust that the other members are evacuating to safety ahead of a tsunami. This stops people from trying to check on each other in geographically distant locations, and increases their chance and ability to escape the tsunami wave. The idea also fosters a sense of camaraderie and mutual aid for those evacuating in the same location.
“You might feel bad escaping tsunami alone. However, trying to confirm families’ safety and whereabouts is the most dangerous thing one can do in such a situation. It’s important that you mutually believe that ‘They must’ve evacuated somewhere,'” – Prof. Katada
The casualty toll for Kamaishi was more than 1,200 in total. Of the 2,900 primary and secondary school children in Kamaishi, only five children who were off sick from school or who had left early were confirmed dead as a result of the March 2011 tsunami. This is a phenomenal survival rate. Of the children’s parents, only 40 were killed, which suggests the message and lesson of tendenko had been passed from child to parent. School children were seen to be holding the hands of the younger students as they ran uphill to evacuate in advance of the tsunami. At one of the middle schools, the announcement system malfunctioned right after the earthquake and become unable to broadcast evacuation calls. However, students quickly left the building and gym as they had practiced and escaped uphill. Without the concept of tendenko, the schoolchildren would have been more at risk, stopping to gather outside school to be led by teachers, or returning home to wait for parent’s instructions. The loss could have been much greater in Kamaishi.
The case of Kamaishi during the March 2011 tsunami is one that teaches us the important role education can play in disaster risk reduction. Empowerment of people who are likely to be affected by disasters is key to survival. If they expect to be told what to do and where to go by official lines of communication during an event, it can lead to unnecessary casualties. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, communication lines are very likely to be broken or unavailable. People who are key to helping or directing evacuation will also have been exposed to the disaster and may be unable to respond or fulfil their official role. In this case, it is vital that people know to take action, and know what that action is; this cuts down on the time spent making decisions in a stressful situation. The more self-reliant they are, the more likely they will be able to respond appropriately to the challenges they may face. This does not mean we need to act selfishly – helping others nearby to get to safety is a common occurrence in disasters (more on this in another blog post). Kamaishi and tendenko can be taken as a positive example of the benefits of education and empowerment in disasters.
“I’ve repeatedly told children in class that we might experience tsunami larger than ever expected. It’s almost a miracle that this many children were saved. I’m proud of the children for making [lifesaving] decisions on their own.” – Prof. Katada