On Saturday the 15th of July, the Kahoku Shimpo sponsored the fourth 次世代塾(jisedaijuku) at Tohoku Fukushi University, Sendai, where students from the local area and other attendees gathered to hear the stories of two disaster survivors. After listening to the testimonials, attendees reflected on them in groups before presenting the results of their discussion to the rest of the participants. The Kahoku Shimpo sponsors many such events as part of its mission to educate younger people about the dangers of earthquakes and tsunamis, challenging students come up with their own strategies for dealing with future disasters.
In this entry, I am going to present some of the lessons that I learned while listening to the speakers, Mr. Asokawa and Mr. Miura.
I've written about the Mr. Asokawa of Togura Elementary in a past article, but here is a little bit of background for those of you who missed it: Mr. Asokawa was the principal of Togura Elementary school, a school destroyed by the tsunami, and a local leader in reconstruction efforts following the disaster. He decided to skip the traditional earthquake procedure in the interest of time and escape to hill 500m away. His decisiveness saved every child under his supervision.
For me, the most impactful part of his speech was his section on nurturing children, many of whom struggled to deal with emotional turmoil following the disaster, incurred by lost relatives, lost homes, and lost livelihoods.
While it may seem obvious that we should try to support these children, it is difficult to know exactly how to go about it. Yes, we should help all the kids. But that doesn't mean we can lump them all into the same box and treat them the same way. Adults who want to help them heal must pay close attention to each child and listen to their story not just as one aspect of a larger disaster narrative, but as the story of the individual.
Mr. Asokawa talked about "treating every child's wounds." Most doctors know that different treatments are necessary depending on the type of wound: Internal bleeding might require surgery to repair the ruptured blood cells while fractured bones might require splints to prevent movement of the broken appendage. Adults must understand that they must identify the specific root of the problem before applying any sort of 'medication' to treat a child's wounds. These kids need listeners - people who can sit next to them, nod their head, and speak only to ask, not to tell - people who are increasingly difficult to find in a society that is quick to prescribe and slow to diagnose.
Be Prepared for Anything.
The second speaker, Mr. Miura, was the only office worker from the disaster risk reduction building to survive the tsunami when it hit Minamisanriku Town. He was swept away from the office building, a building that has been temporarily preserved as a tall, wrangled mess in the middle of Minamisanriku. Clinging onto the tatami mat as the waves pushed him along, Mr. Miura somehow managed to swam into a hospital. He found some survivors there who lent him an odd assortment of clothes, and brought him to safety on the top floor.
Having gone through the meat of his speech, Mr. Miura eventually came to the topic of lifejackets. He suggests everyone have access to a lifejacket at all times in case another tsunami comes by. He himself keeps one in the back of his car.
Now, I'm assuming most people do not keep a lifejacket on hand and others perhaps scoff at the idea of doing so. It does seem like a little much. Mr. Miura realizes this himself, and although he recommends it, does not expect everyone to buy a lifejacket for their car and workplace-he noted that he is probably the only person in Minamisanriku Town to keep a lifejacket around.
Even so, Mr. Miura's story has an important function of challenging our precautionary framework. Even though carrying a lifejacket may seem ridiculous at first glance, if it saves just one life in the next tsunami, it is arguably more than worth it for everyone to start carrying one around. In that light, suddenly, it does not seem so strange to have a lifejacket in the backseat. Mr. Miura's lifejacket story questioned the validity of the risk-reduction status quo, and posed a difficult question to listeners: When death is involved, can we be too prepared?
Whenever Possible, Enjoy Life.
Mr. Miura's last piece of advice was not specifically related to the tsunami. After he had finished talking about how he managed to survive, he told us his newfound life theme: "出来るだけ笑って暮らす" - To live and smile as much as possible. Watching him talk about happiness after describing his hardships was moving. Mr. Miura had somehow managed to retain a positive outlook after being subject to the most powerful earthquake in Japanese history. And not only had he overcome despair, Mr. Miura had the courage to be willfully vulnerable, speaking to a crowd of strangers so that they may learn from his experiences.
Even considering Mr. Miura's circumstances, it is easy to take his advice to the wrong way. Self-forged happiness is a tricky topic. The idea of making your own happiness by smiling as much as possible is mired in difficult issues concerning depression and other forms of chronic melancholy. But Mr. Miura deftly skipped over the specifics by looking at the broader picture, later telling the audience: "皆さんに生きてほしい" - I want you all to live. When he delivered the message, it was not overly emotional or pleading, it was pure, genuine. Although I have heard similar statements elsewhere, this time the words remained, reverberating. Mr. Miura had touched on one of the most challenging areas of humanity, noting the intrinsic value of life. At the end of the day, we are living. That alone is reason enough to cherish our existence.
Through Mr. Asokawa and Mr. Miura's testimonies, I moved a little bit closer to understanding the Great Japan East Earthquake. Although, as someone who was in America it happened, I will never truly realize its impact, even the tiniest fragments of its legacy never cease to confound me. Mr. Asokawa and Mr. Miura's speeches challenged me to imagine the uncertain danger of a mysterious force and despair it wrought upon the lives of so many. Listening to them speak was both educational and haunting. I hope that they will continue to tell their stories so others also come closer to understanding the Great Disaster. Textbooks just don't compare.