Effective Education for Disaster Risk Reduction - Learning Matters.
Local wisdom a lifesaver for kids Sho Komine and Yasushi Kaneko / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers
MORIOKA--The wisdom known on the Sanriku coast--the Pacific side of the Tohoku region--as "tsunami tendenko" saved the lives of many children in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, when the massive earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11.
Of 2,900 primary and middle school students in Kamaishi--where more than 1,200 people died or are missing--only five children who left school early or were off sick on March 11 were confirmed dead. However, nearly all the other students were confirmed safe.
Since 2005, the Kamaishi city government has invited disaster management education experts to offer advice, and among the lessons' important points was "tendenko"--a word coined from the city's long history of repeatedly being hit by tsunami.
The word means to "go uphill independently at the time of tsunami caring only for your own safety, not thinking of anyone else, even your family."
On the afternoon of March 11, about 80 percent of the 184 students were on their way home from Kamaishi Primary School due to a reduced-hour schedule toward the end of the semester. Tsunami hit many school zones except on the mountainous side of town, but all the students were safe.
"I was worried about my house and family, but I ran up to a higher place without thinking," said sixth-grader Hibiki Fujimoto, 12. He said he was with his friends playing in a residential area near the school when the earthquake hit the city.
Prof. Toshitaka Katada of Gunma University Graduate School, a disaster social engineering expert, said: "Tendenko is the wisdom based on trust within families. It has a very deep meaning."
According to Katada, who advises Kamaishi on disaster management, at the time of the 1896 Sanriku earthquake, family members tried to help each other but ended up failing to escape from tsunami that destroyed the entire region.
In the Taro District (then Tarocho) of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, only 36 of the town's 1,859 residents survived the Meiji era (1868-1912) catastrophe, Katada said.
The word "tendenko" was developed in Sanriku as a lesson from such disasters.
Katada has taught tendenko's importance since 2005 in Kamaishi, offering a special class at 14 primary and middle schools in the city.
"You might feel bad escaping tsunami alone. However, trying to confirm families' safety and whereabouts is the most dangerous thing one can do in such a situation. It's important that you mutually believe that 'They must've evacuated somewhere,'" Katada said.
Kamaishi schools conduct disaster drills to go uphill, teach tsunami velocity calculation methods in math class and discuss tsunami experiences during ethics lessons. The schools also encourage students to look for higher ground where they can evacuate on foot, and include evacuation routes in a disaster management map.
The point of tendenko is to stop looking for family members who are geographically far from each other at the time of a tsunami. However, the concept fosters a spirit of mutual aid among the people who are nearby.
Katada's instruction helped primary and middle school students cooperate with each other to escape the disaster.
Tsunami hit the Unosumaicho district in Kamaishi, with floodwaters reaching the third floor of Kamaishi-Higashi Middle School and the nearby Unosumai Primary School. Before the latest earthquake, the two schools jointly had conducted disaster exercises.
At the middle school, the announcement system malfunctioned right after the earthquake and become unable to broadcast evacuation calls. However, students were able to quickly leave the building and gym as they had practiced, and grabbed the hands of primary school students--who were also on the verge of escaping from the building--and together ran up to higher ground.
One middle school first-grader, Dai Dote, 13, held the hands of two third-grade primary school girls.
On their way up the hill, one of the girls cried and started hyperventilating, while the other became unable to speak.
"It's OK," Dote told the girls as they ran to the top of the hill, more than two kilometers from their schools. Once confirming the safety of all their friends, the girls looked relieved, Dote said.
Said Katada: "I've repeatedly told children in class that we might experience tsunami larger than ever expected. It's almost a miracle that this many children were saved. I'm proud of the children for making [lifesaving] decisions on their own."
(Mar. 29, 2011)