Why Japan’s tsunami survivors risked everything for their belongings

Homes destroyed. Shutter stock

The massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011 led to the loss of some 24,000 lives. In the aftermath, there was much finger pointing as authorities tried to figure out why, despite rigorous annual disaster training, so many had died.

Some blamed an over reliance on warning systems and sea walls. Others claimed there was no preparing for a disaster of such magnitude. Many agreed that delayed and poorly executed evacuations were largely to blame.

While complacency led to a bungled evacuation, many victims actually died trying to retrieve personal belongings. Despite a high chance of death, some local residents ran towards disaster.

So what led to such seemingly irrational behaviour? Why did years of community training break down at the moment it was needed the most?

From childhood, we are taught that in an emergency, saving life trumps all else. When the fire alarm sounds in the office, you’re supposed to exit the building without collecting your belongings.

But in reality, when that bell rings, you might easily be tempted to grab your laptop, search for your mobile phone, and check the wherabouts of your house keys. This is because a person’s life is more than their living self. Our material possessions are part of our life, and people are willing to risk their living self to save them.

During my field work in Japan, studying community development in affected coastal towns, I heard survival stories that showed how “life” is considered in much broader terms than just physical well-being.

Local residents told me that after the tsunami hit and they were successfully evacuated, they returned, thinking they had enough time to save family heirlooms, documents and photographs. But such drastic miscalculations saw them engulfed by quickly rising waters, scrambling for high ground and clinging to floating debris.

One woman delayed evacuation to look for her cat. She told me she could not bear the thought of leaving it, as she’d been raising it since it was born. A man returned home to protect the valuable tea he kept in the house.

Both were swept into the sea, and miraculously survived. They later conceded their decisions had been reckless – but expressed no regret for their actions.

While these stories are anecdotal, there are many of them.

Other survivors told me of the importance of material possessions in their lives. As I sat leafing through the family photo album of one of my sources, he told me: “These are the only photos we have of our children when they were little. Luckily we had given this album to my wife’s mother.” He had watched his entire house float into the sea.

Most of the people I interviewed had lost everything in the tsunami and were now constructing their lives along a timeline of “before and after” the tsunami. But bridging the gap between the past and the future is challenging when there is little physical evidence of the past left.

Some of the most severely struck towns in Tohoku are engaging in a complete overhaul of their physical environment, leaving little trace of what life was like before. Combined with the loss of your personal past, building a sense of continuity between the past and the future is a daunting task.

So how should the Japanese authorities better prepare for future disasters? If people are willing to take calculated risks, the solution may not simply be a more rigorous enforcement of evacuation. Perhaps an adjustment in evacuation guidance is required to minimise the risks associated with the desire to save stuff. How can we match people’s actual behaviour with preservation of life as a priority? And how could this lead to a more positive recovery experience for victims and communities?

Rebuilding from the rubble

As a first step, this requires a deeper understanding of the shortcomings of current emergency preparation in terms of material culture. But one which acknowledges the role material culture plays in the construction of identities and a sense of continuation with the past.

This is not impossible in a country like Japan. They already have well organised emergency preparation councils on national and neighbourhood levels, annual emergency drills, technical expertise, and a frequency of natural phenomena which allows changes in policy.

Marking the sixth anniversary at Arahama beach. EPA/MAYAMA

A large scale disaster has long been expected to hit Tokyo, with catastrophic consequences. Mastering a more realistic emergency and evacuation procedure prior to such an event would undoubtedly save thousands of people – and help survivors reestablish their lives more quickly afterwards.

Fresh and tragic memories of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami provide ample leverage for such radical policy reevaluation. Learning from the mistakes of these horrific disasters would be a way of honouring the deceased – and smoothing the road to recovery for many Japanese communities.

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