Japan, Catfish, and the Need for Disaster Preparedness

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According to Japanese mythology, earthquakes are caused by the giant Namazu catfish, a mystical creature which lurks under the earth’s surface. When the mischievous Namazu shakes its tail, it causes the ground to shake violently, much to the peril of the unsuspecting people above.

The big question on everyone’s mind is: when and where will the giant catfish strike next?

This past month, disaster prevention events have been drawing crowds across Japan to mark “National Disaster Prevention Week.”

The government-led campaign is held every year at the beginning of September in memory of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, a powerful tremor that struck Tokyo and surrounding areas on September 1st 1923 claiming over 100,000 lives and decimating much of the capital.

Throughout the week, government, private sector, community and nonprofit groups have been busy putting on an array of programs, ranging from traditional emergency drills and community-based festivals to disaster-themed concerts, as well as other educational activities focused on disaster preparedness.

Given that Japan is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world – at risk of earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, landslides, volcanoes, tornadoes, and other natural hazards – these efforts to prepare and educate citizens are very much a necessity.

Despite Japan’s technological advancements and sophisticated disaster management systems, the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and ensuing Fukushima nuclear meltdown served as a tragic reminder that no system is invincible, and that threats are abound on the Japanese archipelago.

The Need for Individual and Community Preparedness

In the event of a large-scale disaster, the government (despite its best efforts) may be unable to meet all the needs on the ground due to limited capacity. To cite one example, many government facilities (including government offices) were destroyed in the 2011 tsunami, which hampered the response in many areas along the disaster-affected Tohoku region’s coastline.

Individuals must be prepared so that if government resources are overstretched and assistance cannot be delivered, citizens can survive and help one another.

In Japan, citizens are encouraged to prepare adequate supplies to survive for a minimum of 72 hours, and to be ready to live without critical lifelines (gas, water, electricity) for several weeks – or even months – in the case of a large-scale emergency.

In addition to being physically prepared, community relations are crucial, given that neighbours are often the first to respond in disasters.

For example, in the wake of the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in Kobe, 80% of those successfully rescued were rescued by neighbours and ordinary people. There are countless other examples of community members helping one another in the days and weeks after disasters, such as the famous “Miracle of Kamaishi”, where school children led the safe evacuation of thousands of people to high ground before the tsunami struck in 2011.

The organization I work for, Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center (PBV), provides training for individuals and communities in the belief that people are the most essential ingredient in achieving resilience.

Through the “Household Disaster Preparedness Planning” workshop, PBV teaches citizens practical skills to make their homes safer, protect their loved ones in an emergency, and make effective disaster plans for all members of their family. This ensures that families have the fundamentals of disaster preparedness covered, including evacuation plans, emergency supplies, and emergency communications procedures shared with all family members.

The “Community Emergency Aid Capacity Building” workshop is targeted to community groups and local governments, and is based on the first-hand experiences of people who were involved in the 2011 tsunami response. Learning from real-life case studies and testimonies, this program serves to empower local communities and enhance their ability to coordinate internal resources and external assistance in disaster time.

Lastly, PBV’s “Disaster Relief Volunteer Training” program focuses on training volunteers and volunteer leaders. One of the key lessons learnt from the 2011 tsunami is that volunteers can provide a major impact in disaster response, if properly trained and organised. PBV holds these training sessions across Japan to prepare and empower citizens to respond as volunteers in the wake of disasters.

The Three Elements of Disaster Management in Japan

In Japan, there is a well-known conceptual framework for disaster management, comprised of three elements which intersect to form a strong, holistic system.

The first element is “Jijo” (individual self-reliance), meaning the ability of individuals and households to protect themselves. The second is “Kyojo” (community support), meaning mutual support within and between communities. The third is “Kojo” (government assistance), such as the fire department, police, and other government-led services.

When these three elements are well developed and complement one another, it is thought to create the foundation of a strong and well-prepared society.

Whilst disaster prevention has been ingrained in the Japanese psyche for centuries, and whilst Japan has one of the most advanced disaster management systems in the world, there is no room for complacence. Research and experience suggests that many people are under-prepared.

Awareness is higher than usual during National Disaster Prevention Week. The real challenge is keeping people engaged, and ensuring that individuals and communities are prepared after this week comes to a close. Because who knows when that catfish will strike next?

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