On July 20, I once again was able to attend the Next Generation Academy (次世代塾, jisedai juku), a year-long program organized by the Kahoku Shimpo and hosted at Tohoku Fukushi University. In each session of the Next Generation Academy, two lecturers give talks about their experiences during the 3/11 disaster. This session’s theme was “evacuation.” The two speakers were Atsushi Asokawa, former principal of Togura Elementary School, and Katsumi Miura, sole survivor of his office in Minamisanriku.
First is Mr. Asokawa’s presentation. He was responsible for deciding where the students of Togura Elementary School world evacuate. In the school’s emergency manual, both the roof and a nearby hill were listed as places to evacuate in case of a tsunami. Although evacuating to the 3rd floor and roof of the school building were said to be safe, local residents informed Mr. Asokawa that the hill was a better option. The teachers of the school initially believed the roof would be safer. They feared that children could be swallowed by the waves trying to flee to the hill. As Togura Elementary School was close to the sea, it was said that a tsunami could reach the school in as little as three minutes. In actuality, it took 40 minutes for the tsunami to arrive. Having ultimately fled to the hill, Mr. Asokawa saw the school be submerged completely under the waves. The students’ houses were destroyed in minutes. Seeing this, Mr. Asokawa and the other teachers started to fear the hill would not be safe, and decided to start evacuating to a shrine located on even higher ground. One teacher decided to go back, worried about her husband, who was probably still asleep. That was the last he saw of either of them. Mr. Asokawa says he still remembers her driving off. He told the students that they couldn’t go back. That night was spent at the shrine-with no food, water, or bathrooms. The children were scared, separated from their parents. All around them was the sound of trees being felled by the tsunami.
Mr. Asokawa warns of overreliance on manuals. Even a perfect manual will only be able to cover some situations. He emphasizes the importance of searching for a “better” solution, instead of the “best” solution. There aren’t right answers in emergency situations. While the school was ultimately rebuilt on the hill, and the emergency manuals were revised, what’s more important than any of those are critical thinking and decision-making skills.
The other theme of Mr. Asokawa’s talk is “connecting” with those who have suffered losses after the disaster. He says that even well intentioned words, like “I’m glad you’re alive,” can actually further hurt survivors. Many of his students, even months after the earthquake and tsunami, would act out, or say things like, “I want to die,” or “I have no right to live”. To tell children burdened with feelings of survivor’s guilt “I’m glad you’re alive” can just reinforce their negative emotions. In order to connect with people, you have to listen and understand their individual situations.
He also discusses connections with the local community. For many years, Togura Elementary School would have a day where citizens of the surrounding area would teach classes. Through this, both teachers and students were able to meet locals.
Next was Mr. Miura’s presentation. Mr. Katsumi Miura was one of 45 employees of Minamisanriku’s Disaster Emergency Center. When the tsunami hit, he was in a conference room on the second floor of the building.
He recalls clinging to the antenna on the roof of his office building when the tsunami came. Unfortunately, Mr. Miura let go and was swept away. He describes how he tried to swim to the surface of the water several times, but wreckage blocked his path. He almost ran out of breath, but managed to surface. He tried to gather tree branches into a makeshift raft, but was unsuccessful. His legs were starting to lose heat, when miraculously he spotted a tatami mat behind him. He describes trying to wave out to what he thought was a ship in the distance, only to realize that it was part of a nearby building?he had been swept away to a hospital, where he was saved.
Mr. Miura says he was surprised that he was the only survivor. He had expected that if he were able to survive, then surely others would have been able to. He details how he lived alone in temporary housing, how unusual it was to be so isolated. At that time, he went to pachinko parlors. He would often think of his lost family and coworkers and start to cry, even when winning.
His speech highlights the problem of groupthink. He wanted to try running away, but because no one else around him was concerned, he convinced himself there was no need. He told himself there would be no way he could run away in time. Little did he know that, below him on the first floor, people were evacuating. 10 people survived because they were able to escape in time.
He also discusses what happens to those who are left behind. He says, “If we die, then our families will not be able to stay the same.” He says that they will literally “go crazy.” When he eventually visited the families of his departed coworkers, he noticed that there was something “off” about them. They weren’t the same, and would never be able to go back to they way they were before the tsunami.
He questions the measures the Center took to protect against a tsunami, wondering why there were no life jackets in the building. Perhaps it would have been possible for others to survive if they had been able to float to the surface. Survivors like Mr. Miura were able to live because they found something to help them float above the water-whether that was jackets, roofs, tatami mats. Having life jackets would have at least saved him the pain of struggling to surface. Now, Mr. Miura carries them in his car.
He also warns that it if you start running when you see a tsunami, it is already too late. Before it even comes, he recommends grabbing wallets and medications to take with you. He strongly emphasizes this point-that you need to have a wallet with ID so people can identify you. He also mentions that there were people who had trouble accessing their banks because they did not take their bank cards with them.
This time, our group was very focused on practical solutions that can be implemented to make people more ready for natural disasters. While most people won’t carry life jackets in their cars, what can we do to make preparation a part of people’s daily life? One thing that stood out to us about Mr. Miura’s story was his will to live. He explains he thought to himself, “why do I have to suffer, even though I haven’t done anything wrong?” He also explained his desire to save others he saw in the waves. Yet, while wanting to save others lives is kind, preserving one’s own life is most important. A member of my group, Ayaka Hino, who wants to be a teacher, says she wants to teach children to be able to save their own lives.
We also took from Mr. Asokawa’s story that you can’t just rely on manuals; you have to be capable of making quick decisions like he did. However, it came up that those kinds of judgment calls are incredibly difficult to make under pressure, especially for someone who has never experienced natural disasters before. Perhaps, manuals should be revised to have non-linear flowcharts and diagrams. It is difficult to include every possible contingency, but it is even more difficult to come up with solutions with no ideas. In other words, while relying too much on a manual can lead to disastrous results, completely eliminating manuals may not be any better. In fact, using a manual can help mitigate the sense of burden that you are responsible for people’s lives.
This proposal was given by Shouya Kokubo, who had experienced the tsunami firsthand. We also discussed the possibility of having those with experience living through the tsunami teach those with no experience. I didn’t realize at first how in some ways naive that idea is. Shouya said that he would never want to talk about what happened to him, because he wants to forget those traumatic memories.
Despite this, Mizuki Shiroto, another member of my group, said that it is because these experiences are painful that they should be transmitted. She points out that Mr. Asokawa and Mr. Miura have come to help us learn by sharing their stories with us. Through talks like the jisedai juku, they have been able to face their experiences, even if pain still lingers.
I think that it is incredibly difficult to make a judgment of what survivors should do in that situation. Those who have not experienced the psychological stress of a tsunami have no right to tell those who have how to cope with their trauma. However, Mizuki, a student at Miyagi University’s Sendai campus, was undoubtedly affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in her own way. Is it right for me to say that she has no position just because she didn’t literally face the tsunami head on? It seems callous to try and compare their internal mental states, even if on the surface one is suffering much more. In listening to their discussion on survivors talking about their experiences, I was faced with the question: are people obligated to talk about their trauma?
As while I understand that it is Shouya’s right to want to not discuss his traumatic ordeal, in order for us to learn from the experience, some people do have to talk about what happened to them. Although people cope in different ways, I have learned that there often aren’t spaces for those who want to air their trauma in Japan, or at least I have gotten that impression through the individuals I have talked to. I can’t know whether it is due to societal norms or simply personal coping style that Shouya wants to forget about the experience.
Regardless, it is important that we help survivors cope with their experiences in whatever works best for them, whether what means to become involved in preventing future disasters or simply trying to move one.
I hope, if nothing else, that because there do exist people who are talking about their experiences, we can learn from them, and those who want to move forward with their lives and put the disaster behind them can.
Nevertheless, actually putting into practice knowledge gained is critical to the success of any evacuation. Essentially, it is analogous to training muscle memory. Doing drills regularly makes it easier to play situations by ear. This point is especially key, as Mr. Miura, despite being part of a disaster prevention department, had barely done any emergency drills. Businesses need to know how to handle tsunamis and other kinds of situations. Thus, disaster prevention comes from two different angles: to prepare-practicing drills and gathering information-and to execute-to use one’s critical thinking skills and connections with others to save them and yourself.