Japan, Catfish, and the Need for Disaster Preparedness

A hilltop view of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture , one of the coastal settlements devastated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami
According to Japanese mythology, earthquakes are caused by the giant Namazu catfish, a mischievous creature which lurks under the earth’s surface. When the Namazu shakes its tail, it causes the ground to shake violently, much to the peril of the unsuspecting people above.

The big question on everyone’s mind is: when and where will the giant catfish strike next?

In ancient Japanese mythology, the giant Namazu catfish lurks under the earth’s surface, and is the cause of earthquakes. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

This month, disaster prevention events have been drawing crowds across Japan to mark “National Disaster Prevention Day”, 1st September.

The government-led campaign is held every year at the beginning of September in memory of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, a powerful tremor that struck Tokyo and surrounding areas on 1st September 1923, claiming over 100,000 lives and decimating much of the capital.

Government, private sector, community and nonprofit groups have been busy putting on an array of programs, ranging from traditional emergency drills and community-based festivals to disaster-themed concerts, as well as other educational activities focused on disaster preparedness.

Given that Japan is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world — at risk of earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, landslides, volcanoes, tornadoes, and other natural hazards — these efforts to prepare and educate citizens are very much a necessity.

Despite Japan’s technological advancements and sophisticated disaster management systems, the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and ensuing Fukushima nuclear meltdown served as a tragic reminder that no system is invincible, and that threats are abound on the Japanese archipelago.
Young people from around Japan taking part in an overnight disaster resilience training camp, hosted by the TOMODACHI Initiative.

The Need for Individual and Community Preparedness

In the event of a large-scale disaster, the government (despite its best efforts) may be unable to meet all the needs on the ground due to limited capacity. To cite one example, many government facilities, including government offices, were destroyed in the 2011 tsunami, which hampered the response in many areas along the disaster-affected Tohoku region’s coastline.

Individuals must be prepared so that if government resources are overstretched and assistance cannot be delivered, citizens can survive and help one another.

In Japan, citizens are encouraged to prepare adequate supplies to survive for a minimum of 72 hours, and to be ready to live without critical lifelines (gas, water, electricity) for several weeks — or even months — in the case of a large-scale emergency.

In addition to being physically prepared, community relations are crucial, given that neighbours are often the first to respond in disasters.

For example, in the wake of the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in Kobe, 80% of those successfully rescued were rescued by neighbours and ordinary people.

There are countless other examples of community members helping one another in the days and weeks after disasters, such as the famous “Miracle of Kamaishi”, where school children led the safe evacuation of thousands of people to high ground before the tsunami struck in 2011.

I work as a disaster preparedness trainer for Japan-based NGO Peace Boat. We provide training for individuals and communities in both English and Japanese in the belief that people are the most essential ingredient to achieving disaster resilience. This philosophy also underpins the “Three Elements of Disaster Management” in Japan.

Participants in a disaster preparedness workshop organised by Peace Boat examining hazard maps of their local area.

The Three Elements of Disaster Management in Japan

In Japan, there is a well-known conceptual framework for disaster management, comprised of three elements which intersect to form a strong, holistic system.

The first element is “Jijo” (self-reliance), meaning the ability of individuals and households to protect themselves. The second is “Kyojo” (community support), meaning mutual support within and between communities. The third is “Kojo” (government assistance), such as the fire department, police, and other government-led services.

When these three elements are well developed and complement one another, it is thought to create the foundation of a strong and well-prepared society.

Whilst disaster prevention has been ingrained in the Japanese psyche for centuries, and whilst Japan has one of the most advanced disaster management systems in the world, there is no room for complacence. Research and experience suggests that many people are under-prepared.

Awareness is higher than usual during National Disaster Prevention Week. The real challenge is keeping people engaged, and ensuring that individuals and communities are prepared after this week comes to a close.

Because who knows when that catfish will strike next?


To read more about disaster resilience in Japan, see “6 Things NOT to do after an earthquake in Japan”, “Preparing your Emergency Bag in Japan”, or “Preparing Your Home For Disasters: Emergency Stockpiling”. You can also see the Explore Tohoku project. In July 2017, I set off on a 600km walk along Japan’s tsunami-affected coastline, following the newly opened “Michinoku Coastal Trail” (みちのく潮風トレイル ). The project aims to document the region’s recovery, 6 years on from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, and support local communities by promoting tourism to the area.