Bosai no Hi – Japan’s National Disaster Reduction Day

by Setsuko KAWAHARA, III MEF/MCIPAC Consolidated Public Affairs Office
U.S. Marine Corps

TOKYO, JAPAN -- Have you ever heard the phrase, “Bosai no Hi,” or Disaster Reduction Day? As is well-known, Japan has experienced a number of serious natural disasters, so much so that I often describe Japan as a department store of natural disasters. In fact, the disasters which have hit the country in the past are wide-ranging—from earthquakes and tsunamis to typhoons, landslides and volcanic eruptions.
The Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1, 1923, was the most serious natural disaster in modern times for Japan, killing more than 100,000 people and destroying more than 370,000 structures. Most of the deaths were caused not by collapsed buildings, but by the fires triggered by the earthquake. From this experience, we learned the importance of reacting immediately after an earthquake.
Unfortunately, another type of natural hazard brought about a serious disaster in September, 1959. At this time, the Ise Gulf Typhoon hit the Tokai area (Aichi, Mie, Gifu and Shizuoka prefectures). There were 5,000 deaths and more than half a million households were affected. The people of Japan were once again struck by the horrifying power of the nature and importance of the preparedness to mitigate the damage. Based on these experiences, the government officially designated September 1 as the Day for Disaster Reduction in 1960 to raise awareness on natural disasters among citizens and to enhance preparedness at the local and central government levels.
The Disaster Reduction Day was expanded from just one day to the Week for Disaster Reduction by a Cabinet Decision in 1982 so that the preparedness could be further strengthened by wide-ranging activities such as seminars, exhibitions and nation-wide evacuation training. On September 1 every year, the central government conducts a Comprehensive Disaster Reduction Drill, which is led by the Prime Minister and joined by all of the Ministers. Last year, the scenario for the drill was the so-called “Nankai Trough Earthquake,” a 9.1 magnitude earthquake and tsunami of the Pacific coast in the Tokai and Shikoku areas, which is expected to occur in the near future.
This initiative has taken root deeply in local communities. During the Week for Disaster Reduction, a number of evacuation drills and seminars are conducted all over the country, and about two million citizens participate in the activities. As a child, I myself participated in evacuation and rescue drills at school every year. In fact, education plays an important role in disaster reduction both for adults and children.
As for children, they are vulnerable and may not be with their parents when a disaster strikes. Therefore, they need to know exactly how to act for their own survival. There are a variety of materials and activities to educate children from kindergarten to high school students, depending upon their interests and ability to learn. There are disaster prevention poster contests, speech contests, interviews with elderly people on disaster experiences, and efforts to create hazard maps of the towns and villages in which they are living, just to name a few.
As Japanese people have numerous experiences in disaster reduction education, there are many on-going projects to provide these methods and tools with disaster-prone countries, especially in Asia. 
For adults, too, education and awareness are key to mitigate damage. Even though advanced warning systems have been created and evacuation towers against tsunamis are built, disasters cannot be mitigated if we do not change the mindset and attitude of people on the ground. That’s why more and more attention is being paid to the combination of hardware and software. One of the success stories is the reduction of the victims by cyclone in Bangladesh. Japan, together with other donor countries, assisted Bangladesh in establishing evacuation shelters and providing meteorological radars. Combined with awareness-raising activities, that country was able to reduce the number of victims to 1/100th compared with a similar disaster in 1970.
In the global arena, the kick-start to disaster reduction efforts was seen in 1989, when the United Nations’ General Assembly decided that the 1990s would be the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction and also designated the second Wednesday of October as the International Day for Natural Disaster Reduction (A/RES/44-236). The objective is raising awareness among the international community and strengthening partnership between different actors. In recent years, several countries voluntarily established their own National Day for Disaster Reduction. This demonstrates that the importance of disaster education and raising awareness is widely accepted. It is a very positive trend. But what is most important is to try to translate the spirit of “the Day” into concrete activities.        
Recently, the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education published education materials for primary school children, which is entitled, “We will not forget 3.11 (the day of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011).” It includes data and facts on historical disasters, oral histories of affected people, and concrete advice for survival. The cover conveys a clear message to teachers and students: “with a view to saving one’s own life, helping neighbors and contributing to the community.”
I hope disaster reduction education continues to be promoted globally so that we can build more resilient communities and countries. As we approach September 1 this year, I hope the peoples of the United States and Japan learn from each other about their experiences and tragedies to foster efforts and mutual cooperation at disaster prevention and preparedness.    

This editorial was written by Setsuko Kawahara, with whom Dr. Robert Eldridge, Government and External Affairs Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff, Marine Corps Installations Pacific, co-presented a lecture on disaster preparedness at the Asia Pacific Forum, Awaji Conference, on Aug 1, 2014.  Marines from Okinawa and MCIPAC have participated in 15 humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in the last 10 years in the Asia-Pacific, including a major response to the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

Kawahara is a professor at the Graduate School of Law, Hitotsubashi University, at the Kunitachi Campus in Tokyo, Japan.

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