On Saturday, July 15, I had the privilege of attending “Jisedai juku” (Next Generation Academy), a joint program of Kahoku Shimpo and Tohoku Fukushi University where students and interested adults have the opportunity to hear the stories of 3/11 disaster survivors. After listening to 30-minute presentations, attendees ask questions, reflect and discuss in groups and share their conversations with the larger group. “Jiseidai juku” is just one of Kahoku Shimpo’s many events as part of its mission to educate young people about the events of 3/11 and promote disaster preparedness.
The July 15 speakers were Asokawa Atsushi, former principal of the former Togura Elementary school, and Miura Katsumi, the only worker in his office to survive the tsunami.
“Planning for the worst, and dealing with the unexpected”
Principal Asokawa spoke first. When Asaoka-san became principal of the Togura, an elementary school in the fishing town of Minami-Sanriku, he realized the tsunami risk was high and immediately went to work revising the disaster manual to maximize his students’ safety. The manual had called for evacuation to a designated high ground, a nondescript parking lot which lay a twenty-minute walk from the school. Recognizing the school’s proximity to the ocean Principal Asaoka was concerned students would not reach the high ground in time and considered changing the primary evacuation spot to the school roof. He consulted with seismologists at Tohoku University and was told that tsunamis were capable of reaching the school in only 3 minutes, and that the probability of a tsunami so great it would overwhelm the roof was extremely low. In light of this new information, he proposed changing the primary evacuation spot to the roof.
However, teachers born and raised in Minami-Sanriku were vehemently opposed to the new plan. They insisted students should flee to the high ground. For two years the teachers at the school studied the disaster manual and discussed the best way to protect their students. Although disagreements remained, the experience resulted in a high level of disaster-preparedness consciousness among the entire staff and a much-improved disaster manual.
The 9.1 magnitude earthquake hit at 2:46 pm on March 11, 2011. The violence of the earthquake was such that Principal Asokawa had the correct premonition that a massive tsunami would shortly follow. He decided to abandon the idea of a roof evacuation and flee to the high ground. The past two years of discussions with other teachers had paid off. He explained, “If I hadn’t talked this through beforehand with the other teachers, I probably would have evacuated to the roof.”
By 3:00 all the students were safely evacuated to the parking lot overlooking the school. As he watched the dark waves overwhelm the town below them, however, Principal Asokawa realized the high ground would not be high enough. He quickly directed the students to retreat to the highest point possible - a small Shinto shrine located around 100 meters above the parking lot. Both children and students hurried up the steep stairs and reached the shrine just in time to see the cars in the parking lot below them washed away by the terrible waves.
Although Principal Asokawa’s advanced preparation and swift decision making saved 150 precious lives, not all evacuees survived. After arriving at the high ground, a student complained of the cold and retreated to the inside of a car. One of the teachers worried about her injured husband decide to drive home. “I still remember her waving as she drove away,” he recounted sadly, “it was the last time I would see her alive.”

However, the battle for survival was far from over. Many of the children were traumatized by the loss of parents, friends, and other loved ones and were tortured by survivors’ guilt. The adults in their lives were too overwhelmed to give them the love and attention they needed. Rather than ignore the symptoms of mental breakdown and PTSD which emerged around three months after the disaster, Principal Asokawa called upon professional psychiatrists, counselors, social workers, and mental health volunteers to help the children through the crisis.

“You can never be overprepared”

The second speaker, Miura-san, began his talk by showing a video clip of the tsunami as it overwhelmed his town. It was the first time I had witnessed the destructive power of a tsunami up close. Everything touched by the dark waves melted away like it was engulfed by lava. As it made its way inland the surface of the water became choked with homes, shops, boats, bikes, and dead bodies. The screams of men and women as they watch the destruction mingled with the sounds of the rushing waves, crumbling buildings, and crashing water.
It was by this tsunami that Miura-san, a worker at Minami-Sanriku town’s disaster management center, was wretched from his office into a deep, watery abyss. When he came to he saw a glimmer of light in the distance and began swimming desperately toward it. Gasping for air as he reached the surface, he was saved by clinging to a tatami mat which happened to be floating beside hm. Miraculously, he was washed to a hospital where he was brought to safety on the top floor.

The most tragic aspect of Miura-san’s story was how completely unprepared his office was for such a disaster. Although located near the ocean, the office had been designated as outside of the tsunami hazard map. And despite working in the town’s disaster management center, the staff had not conducted disaster drills and there were no evacuation orders given after the earthquake. After the building stopped shaking, Miura-san remembers thinking, “if I ran, I could make it to the third floor of the hospital.” However, he didn’t want to be the only one who ran; he didn’t want to look like a coward.
Miura-san obviously struggles with survivors’ guilt. As the only survivor in his office he alone was left to witness the suffering of bereaved families. He wakes up everyday wishing he had had the courage to raise his voice and warn everyone to run, that at the very least he had fled with the colleagues working next to him.
Miura’s message to attendees was that one can never be overprepared. If the hazard map had been more carefully constructed, if the office would have conducted drills, if someone would have given an evacuation order, if they would have had lifejackets in the office, they would have been saved. Even if we don’t care for our own lives, we owe it to our loved ones to survive.
At the beginning of the event, Disaster Prevention & Education Bureau Chief Takeda-san lamented the tragedy of those killed in the recent flooding in western Japan. In spite of the efforts organizations such as Kahoku Shimpo and individuals like Principal Asokawa and Miura-san in promoting disaster awareness, too many institutions and individuals still fail to take disaster threats seriously. Why does this happen?

As an anxious and sensitive person, I can personally attest to the fact that stories of horrific disaster tales, rather than promoting action, can cause incapacitating fear and anxiety.
How can we make people aware of the risks of natural disasters without psychologically terrorizing them? In my own life, I have found that narratives which focus on what was saved by disaster preparedness are far more effective than what was lost because of the lack thereof.
It is true that disasters in modern times can still cause devastating losses to life, but listening to stories of how the dedicated efforts of a single individual, such as Principal Asokawa, can save hundreds of lives, can provide us with the courage and motivation face disaster threats proactively.

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.