On Friday, June 13 I had the opportunity to meet with Professor Imamura Fumihiko, director of the International Research Institute of Disaster Science (IRIDeS) at Tohoku University. Established in 2012, the mission of IRIDeS to so promote interdisciplinary research on disaster prevention and disaster mitigation. In spite of the wide-ranging impact physical, social, psychological, and cultural impact of major disasters, most earthquake and tsunami research is conducted exclusively by researchers in earth science and engineering who have limited influence on the institutions which actually implement disaster-prevention policy and deal with the aftermath of environmental catastrophes.

The harmful effects of these knowledge gaps between disciplines were made abundantly clear in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Although historians were aware of the region's history of major disasters and geologists had long warned of a large-scale earthquake off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, members of local communities were astonished at the unimaginably terrible force. As I have spoken to survivors of the triple disaster - from educators to housewives to employees of the Tokyo Electric Company - shock is the most common sentiment expressed. "No one could have predicted this disaster," "no one saw this coming," "no one thought a tsunami would come here," and "we had no idea the waves would be so tall," are common refrains.

Although it is true that the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake (magnitude 9.1) was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, the truth is that it was not entirely unexpected. The 2011 T?hoku earthquake occurred in exactly the same area as the year 869 earthquake, which had an estimated magnitude of at least 8.4 but may have been as high as 9.0. More recently, the 1896 Sanriku earthquake, which killed over 22,000 people, had a magnitude of 8.5 and tsunami waves as high as 38.2 meters (125 ft.), only 2 meters shorter than those of 2011. Although seismologists had predicted a magnitude 7.5 earthquake in the region, their use of only recent seismic historical data (a few hundred years) resulted in a failure to properly predict the massive size and source of the Big One.

Medical institutions were also tragically unprepared to deal with the massive scale of the disaster. In addition to the unprecedented number of people killed and injured, hundreds of healthy people swarmed hospitals looking for food, water, and shelter. Dealing with shortages of food, water, and medicine, hospitals had to triage patients to first manage those with major injuries who had the greatest chance of survival with the least expenditure of time, equipment, supplies, and personnel. In addition to the shock, panic, and anxiety experienced by patients, hospital workers were overwhelmed and traumatized themselves. As I explained in a previous post, evacuation centers failed to consider the needs of women and special-needs evacuees.

Recognizing the importance of extending disaster research and awareness to all disciplines, IRIDeS has gathered researchers not only from earth science and engineering, but also from sociology, psychology, information science, economics, medicine, and history. Today, over 60 researchers work together to conduct action-oriented research in cooperation with local communities and governments.

Although the cutting-edge tsunami simulation software and deep-sea precision acoustic transponders were indeed awe-inspiring, I was most impressed by IRIDeS commitment to increasing awareness of disaster science in the field of medicine. One project of the Human and Social Response Research Division is analyzing the cognitive processes underlying human perceptions of and responses to risk. "It can't happen here" or "it won't happen to me" is the deadliest of all disaster misconceptions, yet it seems to occur regardless of time, place, and culture. I lived in Tokyo for three years and warned dozens of times of the 70% chance of a magnitude 7-class earthquake hitting the city within 30 years, but I didn't give fifteen minutes of thought to the risk, much less prepare. My hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah, faces a 43% chance of at least one magnitude 6.75 earthquake in the next 50 years, yet I don't have a single friend or family member taking the risk seriously. There is clearly an urgent need to develop communication and education strategies which actually provoke concrete action.

For me, visiting the disaster sites and speaking with survivors has a powerful motivating force. I am ashamed to admit that in the past when thinking about disaster risk I have thrown up my hands and thought, "well, if I die in a disaster then I'm dead." Meeting men and women who experienced 3/11 suffering from survivor's guilt has been a razor-sharp rebuke of such selfish thinking. Although they have done nothing wrong, survivor after survivor speaks of being tortured by endless loop of counterfactual thoughts that if they had acted differently they could have saved a victim's life. Am I so self-centered as to inflict such anguish on my loved ones by failing to prepare for a disaster? Or depend on others to bear the heavy responsibility of response and recovery? Now I have the chance to prove that I am not.


About the Author

Hello! My name is Terasa Younker and I am a graduate student at Harvard University. This summer I will be working as an intern in the Disaster Prevention & Education Section of the Kahoku Shimpo. As a second‐year student in the Regional Studies ‐ East Asia program I study gender, material culture and consumption, social stratification and popular culture, globalization and cultural diffusion in contemporary Japanese society. I received my undergraduate education at New York University (’10), where I studied East Asian language, literature, art history, philosophy, history, and film theory. My study abroad experience includes Columbia University in Beijing, Princeton University in Ishikawa, and the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies.
After graduating from NYU, I spent a year as a translator, a year studying advanced Japanese at the Inter‐University Center for Japanese Study in Yokohama, and three years as an account manager at Rakuten, a Japanese firm in Tokyo. At Rakuten, I was a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Sales group and worked with hotels in central Tokyo as well as the Tokyo Islands.
Although I lived in Japan for a total of five years I never had the opportunity to visit Tohoku. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to explore of an area of Japan not well known in the United States and hope to promote understanding of the region upon my return.