Onagawa’s spirit of togetherness: lessons from the 2011 tsunami

tsunami 19

(Zach Ahmajani, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Naoko Tochibayashi, Public Engagement Lead, World Economic Forum, Japan


November 5 is World Tsunami Awareness Day. According to the United Nations: “In the past 100 years, 58 tsunamis have claimed more than 260,000 lives, or an average of 4,600 per disaster, surpassing any other natural hazard.”

Also, according to UNDDR, by the year 2030 an estimated 50% of the world’s population will live in coastal areas exposed to flooding, storms and tsunamis.

The date for the annual celebration was chosen in honour of the Japanese story of Inamura-no-hi, or the “burning of the rice sheaves”. The story comes from an earthquake that shook the region in 1854, when a farmer set fire to his entire harvest to warn villagers of the tsunami when he saw the tide receding. The villagers fled to higher ground and later planted trees as an embankment for the future.

With a number of earthquake plates running across underneath the island, Japan is exposed to earthquakes. Children are taught to take cover under the desks from an early age in order to avoid things falling and hitting their heads. With an early warning alert launched in 2013, now we have a few seconds to prepare before the ground start shakings, like taking shelter and turning off the gas.

But the disaster that killed 18,000 people on 11 March, 2011 was not foreseeable at the time, though – that the casualties would be due to a massive tsunami.

A massive earthquake of magnitude 9 shook the nation on a Friday afternoon at 14:46, which immediately generated waves that may have reached 20 metres; enough to engulf towns located along the coasts. Up north, Onagawa in Miyagi province was one of them. The wave not only left the town flattened, but took the lives of 827 people out of a population of 10,014.

Eight years on, 6,434 people now live in a town that has rebuilt itself with a bold approach. It decided to “adapt” to the tsunami that Mother Nature generates every 100 years.

From any point in Onagawa, you can see the cove, the very point that brought waves into the town eight years ago. Instead of covering it with an 8-metre concrete wall as a tide-preventive breakwater, which the neighboring town has adopted, in Onagawa the view to the ocean is wide open. The town decided that it wants to not only live with the beautiful view of the ocean, but also be able to see the wave with their own eyes when it transforms itself into a monstrous tsunami, so that they know which way to run.

This police box overturned by the tsunami will be rebuilt by 2020.

The town also moved its centre to the coast where the ground is raised with an embankment. A cozy outdoor shopping mall was built, and the school, city hall and work places are located just few metres higher. The structure allows the whole town to act as one, guiding them toward a newly secured path that will save their lives on higher ground, instead of scattering in all directions.

Strong leadership brought the town to where it is today. What was once a flattened land is now “built back better”, as they strove for. Onagawa’s young mayor played a vital role in keeping the spirit of the people up throughout one of the town’s most difficult times. But it came down to other individuals, too, said Toshihiko Abe, former head of the recovery division of the city hall. “We can leverage on the size of the town, which is small enough to make everyone plays a role, leading in one way or the other. No one is left behind. We also make sure that those over 60 years old stand back and let the younger generation take the lead. It is never about a single point in time, but about the future.”

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