October 22, 2013


The 'Miracle of Kamaishi': How 3,000 Students Survived March 11

Keywords: Disaster Prevention / Reduction Newsletter University / Research institute 

JFS Newsletter No.133 (September 2013)

Two and a half years have passed since the disastrous sequence of, earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear accidents that occurred during the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011.

What we experienced in these unprecedented disasters profoundly shook our ideas about safety and security and taught us many lessons we must never forget to pass on to coming generations. We learned that the important thing is to save our lives even if the means to do so are not normally visible, even if the plan is not efficient, and even if it is not immediately obvious how it is going to work.

Through the courtesy of Public Relations Office, Government of Japan, we present an article about disaster prevention efforts in Kamaishi City, Iwate Prefecture, known as the "Miracle of Kamaishi."


In the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, catastrophe, which claimed more than 15,800 lives and have left some 2,660 people still missing, the fact that almost all the nearly 3,000 elementary and junior high school students of Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, miraculously survived has brought hope to many people.

A prime example was the children in Unosumai, the hardest-hit district in the city. Immediately after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck that afternoon, the students of Kamaishi East Junior High School ran out of the school to higher ground. Their quick response prompted the children and teachers of the neighboring Unosumai Elementary School to follow, and consequently drew in many local residents.

As they continued to run, older students supported the younger school children, and together they reached a safe location while behind them the mega-tsunami swallowed their schools and the town.

The city lost more than 1,000 lives to the disasters, but only five of them were school-age children, and they weren't at school when the quake hit. The story of the successful evacuation came to be known as "the miracle of Kamaishi."

In fact, their prompt response to the urgent situation was the fruit of a tsunami disaster prevention education program that Kamaishi schools had been working on over the past several years under the guidance of Toshitaka Katada, professor of civil engineering at Gunma University.

"The top priority of disaster prevention is to save lives. To accomplish that, we need to educate children who can save their own lives," Katada says.

Raising Awareness

Originally a flood disaster prevention specialist, Katada came to focus on tsunami disaster prevention after he witnessed the tragic aftermath of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004. He became very concerned with the fact, that even though Japan's coastal regions had been warned of a possible major earthquake, the alert level among the people was low.

Katada recalls how shocked he was back then when some children in the Sanriku region -- which stretches from Iwate Prefecture to Miyagi Prefecture and has been affected by two major earthquakes and tsunami in the past century -- said without hesitation that they wouldn't evacuate if another earthquake hit the region because the adults in their families wouldn't.

"Children look at the grown-ups and do what they do. I felt that if those children lost their lives to tsunami, the fault would lie with not just the parents, but adults and society. I knew I had to do something so the children can save their own lives," he said.

Katada's enthusiasm eventually moved the teachers in Kamaishi to work with him. Together, they came up with various classroom plans and activities for the children to learn about tsunami and the importance of evacuation.

But rather than simply focusing on informing children about tsunami, Katada put the emphasis on developing the right attitude to deal with natural disasters.

"It's about respecting nature with awe, and becoming proactive about saving lives," he said. To make it easier for the children to understand this, Katada created "three principles of evacuation."

Three Principles

First, don't put too much faith in outdated assumptions. "In other words, don't trust hazard maps," Katada said. "When people look at hazard maps and see that their houses are located outside the affected zone, they're often relieved. But those maps are based on past tsunami and there is no telling that the next one is exactly the same. It's important not get caught up with such assumptions," he said.

The second rule of thumb is for people to make their best efforts to deal with the situation. "On that day, I believe the students actually did their best. They urged the teachers to keep moving higher," Katada said, adding that the older kids also remembered to help the younger ones.

And finally, Katada encouraged children to take the initiative in any evacuation. "In general, people don't evacuate even though they know they should. It's natural to be reluctant to escape when no one else is escaping. So I told the students that they must be brave and be the first ones to evacuate. If you do, others will follow you and you can save their lives, too," he said. "And that is exactly what happened."

The three principles of evacuation actually apply to any other hazard that people may face, according to Katada. "It's the same because in the end what's important is your attitude toward nature, and how you live in that environment."

Katada also stressed the importance of continuing this kind of education. "These kids will grow up and become parents," he said. "If you have adults who will evacuate, their children will act accordingly."


From MADE IN NEW JAPAN by Public Relations Office, Government of Japan