POINT OF VIEW/ Akira Kugiko: Public indifference to disaster preparedness worsened 2011 tsunami toll

POINT OF VIEW/ Akira Kugiko: Public indifference to disaster preparedness worsened 2011 tsunami toll
October 15, 2014



RIKUZENTAKATA, Iwate Prefecture–I began relating accounts of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami one year after the disaster, and I started my own storytelling business in spring last year under the name “Kugiko-ya.”

I am working to sow the seeds for raising public awareness of disaster preparedness because I believe that indifference to disaster preparedness worsened the damage of the March 2011 tsunami.

I have addressed audiences totaling more than 15,000 people, many of the clients in groups of volunteer workers, students and corporate workers.

A public gymnasium stood in Rikuzentakata before the quake and tsunami, located 1.2 kilometers inland from the sea and at an elevation of about 2 meters. The gym had been flooded by a tsunami triggered by the Chilean earthquake of 1960, but it had been designated an evacuation shelter under the assumption that no tsunami would flood its second and higher floors.

The towering waves that washed up there on March 11, 2011, measured more than 15 meters, and more than 100 lives are believed to have been lost in the gymnasium.

Somebody saw people fleeing for the gymnasium and called out to them, “Why don’t you evacuate to higher ground?” but they declined, saying the gym was their evacuation shelter. Some of them had enough time to escape, but chose to go to the gym, just because it was their evacuation shelter.

Administrative officials faced a barrage of criticism for designating such a vulnerable site as an evacuation shelter. But I doubt the administrative officials are the only ones to blame.

I make it a rule to ask the following questions whenever I conduct a tour: “Have you ever been to the evacuation shelter that you are supposed to go to in the event of an emergency?” and “Have you ever reflected seriously on whether it would be safe to be in that shelter?”

Only about 5 percent of my audiences say they have ever been to their evacuation shelters. And very few say they have ever reflected on whether it would be safe to be there. They are leaving decisions on their own safety up to administrative officials.

In fact, I was no exception. I had never thought about evacuation shelters until the quake and tsunami came. Immediately after the disaster, I joined efforts to set up an evacuation shelter at the municipal Daiichi Junior High School on elevated ground.

But we had no backup power sources and no means for communicating with the outside. Only when people from the Japanese Red Cross Society came did we finally get in touch with the outside world via satellite phone. And we had no depot for storing supplies.

Many believe they will never be affected by a disaster. But that is wrong, and that is why I ask people to realize that the problem is their own.

I am telling accounts of the disaster because we have had such a difficult time. We should be the last ones to live through something so agonizing. Our survival would be meaningless unless we shared what we have experienced and what we have remorse about.

That is how I was feeling when I began working as a storyteller in April 2012 with Tono Magokoro Net, a nonprofit organization. A leader of the nonprofit advised me to turn that into a business, so I applied for a Cabinet Office program for assisting entrepreneurs.

I received a subsidy of 2 million yen ($18,200), which I used to build a prefabricated shack where my home used to be in Rikuzentakata and opened my storytelling business in March 2013.

Work has begun to elevate land by eight to 12 meters in the central part of Rikuzentakata. The public gymnasium, like other disaster ruins where lives were lost, has also been removed as part of rebuilding work.

When the building remained, just being there rendered some people speechless. The tsunami, which broke through its walls, left the interior of the building filled with cars, refrigerators and other debris. Some people just wept in silence as they listened to my accounts.

Ruins of the disaster tell lessons in themselves even without a storyteller. So I wanted them preserved. Given that they are gone, the important thing is how you tell your messages.

My approach is to begin by using images and videos to show what the city once looked like–the Takata-Matsubara pine forest visited by more than 30,000 beachgoers a day, a shopping street in front of the station, and festivals. I don’t want people to wrongly believe that nothing was in the city from the beginning. I show in a time series how the disaster changed everything to what we see now.

I use photos and images not only to share our painful experiences, but also to convey my gratitude for and happiness about being able to live like we do, thanks to the support that came from many people.

We were not in a situation to hold the annual Tanabata summer festival in the year of the disaster, but the festival was realized by a strong passion of young people to hold one.

The festival floats could not have been towed without the help of the volunteer workers who arrived from within Japan and abroad. I will not forget that Tanabata festival for the rest of my life. I think it is important for somebody like myself, who feels that way, to have opportunities to give talks.

In conveying messages, it is also important to make sure that a point is stretched into a line and then into a plane. You have to sow the seeds of awareness of disaster preparedness.

While most of my clients are groups of volunteer workers, students and corporate workers, I have received repeat assignments from the same schools and companies.

Students touring disaster areas to learn about disaster preparedness take pictures before leaving to spread their messages to people around Japan. Such practices, when accumulated, could make a difference in emergency response.

Disaster areas could fall into oblivion with time. I don’t think our city could be revived in less than a decade. It is in my responsibility to continue to convey messages until the time of revival.

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Akira Kugiko, 56, was a hotel employee when the quake and tsunami left 1,763 either killed or missing in the city of Rikuzentakata, the largest toll of all municipalities in Iwate Prefecture. Of that number, up to 411 are believed to have perished in their evacuation shelters.

(This article is based on an interview by Kazumasa Sugimura.)