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Don't rely on disaster maps, nor on authorities

INTERVIEW/ Toshitaka Katada: Don't trust hazard maps and don't depend on authorities



By TAIRIKU KUROSAWA/ Senior Staff Writer

Although central and local governments have been upgrading their disaster damage projections and crisis management plans, Toshitaka Katada, professor at Gunma University, questions the usefulness of their disaster maps.

Katada said much more can be learned from the "Miracle of Kamaishi," in which children ignored hazard maps and led other youngsters and adults to safety after the Great East Japan Earthquake struck two years ago on March 11, 2011.

The professor says lessons in "attitude education" can also save lives in catastrophes.

Excerpts from his recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun follow:

* * *

Question: Isn't it necessary to project disaster damage and prepare hazard maps in anticipation of future catastrophes?

Toshitaka Katada: I'll be blunt. You shouldn't trust hazard maps. This is not to say that damage projections are useless. What I mean is that it's a big mistake to believe the maps will save your life.

Even if you follow a map faithfully and flee to a zone that's designated safe, you still could end up dead. That's because natural disasters sometimes defy predictions.

Q: But don't we all need to have some idea of where to flee?

A: The problem lies in our excessive dependence on administrative authorities. We expect them to create maps that show all the dangerous places to stay away from.

I don't mean to side with the authorities, but I keep thinking that the root of the problem lies in our society's tendency to hold the authorities accountable for a lot of things, including disaster prevention. But when it comes to protecting your own life, you can't and shouldn't expect someone else to do it for you. It's your own responsibility.

Q: Would children understand that?

A: Since 2004, I have visited the city of Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture many times to educate children in disaster prevention. One time, I showed them a hazard map of areas prone to flooding. Their immediate reaction was to see whose homes were in safe areas and whose weren't.

To the kids whose homes were in safe areas, I asked, "Are you sure you are really safe?" I went on to explain that the hazard map was based on the results of the Meiji-Sanriku Tsunami of 1896.

I then asked them, "When the next tsunami strikes, do you really think the results will still be the same?" That got them thinking about areas that were designated safe on the map but could be dangerous.

We've got to teach children to think and act on their own by asking them questions and encouraging them to come up with their own answers. This is what I call an "attitude education" in disaster prevention.

The Japanese education system emphasizes the acquisition of knowledge. This tends to produce people who have knowledge but are passive thinkers. If you tell these people to evacuate when an evacuation order is issued, they will interpret it to mean that they don't have to evacuate unless there is an evacuation order. Knowledge is useful only if you know how to act on it.

Q: That's rather abstract and difficult to explain to people, isn't it?

A: We teach children to raise their hand when they cross a street, but we ourselves don't do it. We are merely teaching them a formality, and we must stop going by the manual when we educate children.

But no matter how clumsy we may be as teachers, I believe children will sense our genuine concern for their safety if we speak to them in a way they can understand. This is what I mean by teaching an attitude, and that's different from teaching them knowledge.


Q: It's difficult to decide whether to flee.

A: What I always tell the kids is this: People will think you are a chicken if you are the first to flee, but you've got to muster up the courage to do it. If you flee, I say to them, other people will also start fleeing, and their lives will be saved as a result.

In Kamaishi, this is exactly what the children did, and many adults were saved because they followed the kids' lead.

I believe disaster management is about knowing disaster risks and yourself and controlling your own actions. It's your own self you must know better than your enemy. But people tend to want to take the easy way out. They make excuses for not fleeing by thinking they'll be all right because they were all right the last time they didn't flee.

This is called "normalcy bias" in social psychology. But you must snap out of this mental state and force yourself to flee.

Q: "Tsunami tendenko" is an old Japanese expression meaning that when a tsunami strikes, everyone should flee immediately and not even wait for their family members.

A: We must understand the real meaning of this expression. It cannot possibly mean that parents should abandon their children and vice versa. I believe the expression teaches the importance of establishing a solid relationship of mutual trust that enables all family members to believe that everyone will flee to safety.

For instance, if you are a parent and your child is at school, you trust your child to flee on his or her own without waiting for you to come and pick him or her up. Of course, this presupposes the existence of mutual trust between you and the school. I may be interpreting the meaning of "tsunami tendenko" a bit too liberally. But I intend to stick to it because I think this is what our forebears must have meant by "tsunami tendenko."

When people are unable to reach their loved ones during a disaster, they should do their best to cope with the situation they face. This way, they can maximize their chance of being eventually reunited with their loved ones. People should act the same way in the event of flooding and large-scale fires.

Problems occur for people who are unable to go home after a major disaster when they are worried sick about their families and try to get home at all costs. This goes against the meaning of "tsunami tendenko."

Q: Tsunami disaster projections keep getting worse and worse. How should we cope?

A: Because the March 11 tsunami was of an unanticipated scale, the recent trend to revise disaster projections upward seems to me like an attempt by the authorities to avoid being accused later of being unprepared. A tsunami of that magnitude is something that could occur once in a millennium, right? But the disaster projections we are now seeing don't really tell us if and when the next killer tsunami will strike.

So I think we'd be wise to focus on how we can live our lives happily and in peace. After all, a tsunami isn't the only thing that can kill us. There are car accidents and even meteors, too.

In the city of Owase in Mie Prefecture, I came across an 80-year-old man who was terrified by the new disaster projections he saw. I told him that those projections were about a very rare catastrophe, and that he most likely won't be around if and when it does strike. He beamed happily when he heard that.

Recently, a tsunami warning kept children at school until midnight. We just can't keep overreacting all the time.

Q: It appears that changing the awareness of adults is more difficult than changing the awareness of children, don't you think?

A: When a mishap occurs at a company, the company creates a manual to prevent a recurrence. If another mishap occurs, the company creates yet another manual. As it goes on like that, the company's stack of manuals keeps getting higher.

But recently, companies have apparently begun to realize that no manual can really help them cope with unforeseen situations. I've been receiving more requests to give talks at companies. They seem to want me to explain the sort of educational process I've been using for children in Kamaishi, so they can learn to train themselves to make their own decisions flexibly.

Our society certainly needs to snap out of its excessive dependence on authorities.

* * *

Toshitaka Katada, 52, is a professor at Gunma University's Faculty of Engineering. He completed a doctoral program at the graduate school of Toyohashi University of Technology in 1990. He took his current post in 2005 and has served on various disaster prevention committees of the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

His published works include "Hito ga Shinanai Bosai" (Zero-death disaster prevention), "Kodomotachi ni Ikinuku Chikara wo: Kamaishi no Jirei ni Manabu Tsunami Bosai Kyoiku" (Empower children to survive: Tsunami disaster prevention education based on Kamaishi's case). He was born in Gifu Prefecture in 1960.

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The killer tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake destroyed Kamaishi's seawall, which was said to be the sturdiest in the world. Immediately after the quake, schoolchildren in areas that were marked safe on the hazard map began to flee before the tsunami warning was issued. The youngsters led preschoolers and elderly citizens by hand as they fled, urging adults along the way to follow them. Almost all of the city's approximately 3,000 elementary and junior high school pupils survived the tsunami.

This episode came to be known as the “Miracle of Kamaishi.”

It was the result of Katada's disaster prevention education that taught youngsters not to believe blindly in damage predictions, to do their best in any given situation, and to urge everyone else to flee with them.




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