The Heroes of Mizuhama: How a Japanese Village Dodged a Tsunami

As you can see from my recent posts I’ve been preoccupied with the Japan disaster of late. I feel like we’ve been exposed to enough doom and gloom this past month to last a lifetime. So Japanese wife and I have been on the lookout for uplifting stories to bring light and inspiration back into our lives.

Proud to say that based on what we’ve found so far, there’s no shortage of heroes in Japan.

At the top of my list are the heroes at the Fukushima nuclear plant–workers, many of whom lost family members and friends in the disaster–battling the crisis around the clock under unthinkable conditions. Japan and the the world are indebted to them and their families for their sacrifice.

Then there’s Hideaki Akaiwa, who had the presence of mind and courage to find a wetsuit after the tsunami hit Ishinomaki city then dive into the murky waters of his submerged neighborhood to save his wife who, unbeknownst to him at the time, was still alive and trapped in their flooded home.  Can’t vouch for all the details of the story, but Akaiwa found his wife alive and got her to safety. Two days later he saved his mother.

And how about Susumu Sugawara, who sailed his boat into the teeth of the tsunami braving a massive wall of water and ensuing surges so he would have a functional boat to assist his community in the aftermath of the disaster? And can you believe the owner of a local supermarket gave away all his food to the community? It happened.

These people inspire me.

But not all heroic deeds are so bold and dramatic. There’s another kind of heroism, less sexy, less flashy, but just as impressive–in some ways more so. For lack of a better term let’s call it “collective heroism”: the accumulation of many small acts of heroism within any group of people, behavior driven by a cultural norm that expects community members to assist each other–to be heroic–when called upon to do so.

The Heroes of Mizuhama

(The story that follows was gleaned from the following article published in Japanese by Sankei News Japan, MSN. Keep in mind that this is not a word-for-word translation, rather a summary of the basic story that incorporates my thoughts and observations.)

On March 11th a small fishing village on the Eastern coast of Japan called Mizuhama was about to be hit with a devastating one-two punch from nature: a 9.0 earthquake followed by a deadly tsunami, a disaster now referred to by the Japanese media as the “Higashi Nihon Dai Shinsai“, or “Great Eastern Japan Earthquake”.

Mizuhama is no stranger to tsunamis. In recent history it’s been hit with the Showa Sanriku Tsunami in 1933, then in 1960 an extremely destructive tsunami from the famous Chilean earthquake (the largest ever recorded in history), not to mention last year’s 70-centimeter tsunami from the most recent quake in Chile, a mere ripple by comparison.

What is incredible about this story is the short window of opportunity the villagers had to evacuate, although they had no way of knowing at the time just how precious every minute was. Reports vary on how long it actually took the tsunami to reach shore, but if you believe the residents interviewed in the article, it hit Mizuhama roughly 15 minutes after the quake.

Imagine 380 people evacuating within this small window of time. What are the chances of getting most villagers to high ground in 15 minutes? How many would you expect to make it?

Well, according to the Sankei article, out of their population of 380 people–many elderly, mind you–one person has been confirmed dead, with 8 more missing (all presumed dead). In the worst case scenario, that’s 9 out of 380, just over two-percent of the entire population.

Quoting statistics sounds a bit cold when discussing loss of life. The villagers’ deaths are sad and tragic for sure. But imagine how much worse it could have been. Think about it: a 30-plus-foot tsunami is on its way (the article said 20 meters), the village has less than 20 minutes to evacuate and 98% of the residents survive? That’s an incredible accomplishment.

It Takes a Village to Dodge a Tsunami

The story behind this happy ending works on so many levels. It’s about the human intellect working in harmony with the power of community. It’s about a culture–a particular subculture in Japan–with the right values, discipline and knowledge to prepare for a disaster and get its citizens out of harms way on very short notice. It’s about practice, cooperation and the sum total of many small acts of heroism.

In light of Mizuhama’s long history dealing with tsunamis in an extremely vulnerable location on an earthquake-prone coast, it makes sense its residents would be savvier than most folks when it comes to disaster preparedness.

To underscore the acute level of tsunami awareness in this part of Japan, a monument was erected in a nearby district inscribed with the following words: “When earthquakes occur beware of tsunamis.” In a cruel twist of cosmic irony, the March 11tsunami washed away that monument.

But these villagers know exactly what to do with or without that monument.

Akiyama Katsuko (67) escaped with even less warning than other residents of Mizuhama as she lives just 30 meters from the coast. When the earthquake hit she and her husband said they headed immediately for high ground. Some 15 minutes later they arrived at the evacuation area only to see a massive wave consume their entire village. Of 130 homes in Mizuhama, over 90% were washed out to sea.

How Did They Do It?

Practice, practice, practice. Every year the community practices safety drills designed to quickly evacuate the villagers to high ground. All residents of Mizuhama know by heart the quickest route to the designated evacuation area.

Some households, according to the article, even keep their valuables, photo albums, etc. in backpacks at all times so they’re ready for quick retrieval at a moment’s notice.

Keep in mind that Japan has an aging population: 20% is now over 60 years old, a demographic that continues to grow. Mizuhama, like many villages in outlying prefectures, has more than its share of elderly, many of whom live alone.

To ensure the elderly aren’t left behind, residents throughout their village are expected to learn who lives in every single home around them. Able-bodied neighbors take responsibility for helping elderly neighbors get to high ground. During this recent quake for example, the district Chair, Ito-san, said he went immediately to the home of an elderly neighbor living alone then helped him get to high ground by actually pushing him up the hill from behind.

If getting residents to high ground wasn’t enough of a challenge, the community was presented with a new challenge immediately after evacuation: the moment the tsunami hit they were isolated from the rest of the world.

Mizuhama is a geographically remote coastal region to begin with, more than 30 kilometers from Ishinomaki City (which also, by the way, turned into a 10-foot lake as the entire village dropped a couple feet in elevation thanks to the quake). As you might imagine the roads in and out of the city were impassible. For 4 days the villagers were on their own.

And yet no one panicked.

That’s because the residents of Mizuhama, isolated in their  remote little community far from the city, are always prepared for disasters: most residents keep reserves of water, fuel, and non-perishable goods such as rice, canned food, etc. just for these kinds of situations.

The Power of Community and Teamwork

But without the power of community and teamwork, all the preparation in the world ain’t worth a hill of beans.

Well, Mizuhama had the community and teamwork part covered as well: shortly after the water receded, residents returned to the village to retrieve food reserves from homes that survived–then shared it with all the other villagers. They pooled the village gasoline reserves, and agreed to use only one car to conserve. After a few days they organized a shopping run to the stores they could reach, and also found orderly, organized ways for everyone to get in contact with friends and loved ones.

As of April 2nd, about 120 people were still living in the evacuation center at high ground. At the time they were without electricity, water and phone.

You’d think that this little village with an economy built on harvesting sea scallops would despair after losing all but 4 of its 50 boats. But the villagers are upbeat, especially Ito-san who said, “We won’t let this defeat us. If we support each other we can come back and do it again.”

Lessons from Mizuhama

This is a text-book case study of a community prepared for the worst. What strikes me is that success came from a low-tech place: people putting their heads and hearts together to harness the power of the team.

Then again, one could argue that harnessing the power of a community is more complex than any high-tech device known to man. An old colleague used to say that the technology of the mind was “the highest of all technologies”, and that knowing how to harness the power of people’s minds was the difference between mediocre teams and great teams.  I can’t help but believe that the incredible survival rate of  Mizuhama residents after this tsunami had everything to do with their “mind technologies”, a strong community spirit, and the discipline and dedication to master the basics of survival.

The Mizuhama story inspires me. It proves that a community can, as a collective, be heroic. My hat’s off to all of them!

And while communities around the world would do well to study and adopt a Mizuhama-style community model, the Mizuhama tsunami really hits close to home here in Hawaii. A mega-disaster could happen where I live; someday it will. (And if you think Mizuhama is isolated, keep in mind that we live on the most isolated landmass on the planet.) Of all places, it makes sense for my community–and those all across Hawaii–to plan for the worst and hope for the best.

If Mizuhama is our benchmark, we have a very long way to go.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

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