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Tsunami Survival Guide: Japanese Culture is Not Conducive to Staying Alive

If you have Japanese values, you shouldn’t expect to survive a devastating tsunami – let me explain. After Principal Michiko Kishima of Nobiru Elementary School felt the magnitude 9 earthquake on March 11, she immediately started following protocol. She ushered around 350 students and teachers into the gymnasium, located about five kilometres from the Miyagi coast, instead of leading them to higher ground up the hills behind the campus. “We didn’t think about fleeing up the mountain,” she said, in an interview a month after the incident. “We were prepared for aftershocks, not a tsunami.” With internet connections and cellphone networks disrupted, there was no way to know that a tsunami was heading towards them. “We would have gone up the mountain road; but there was no information, so I had to follow official policy.” The thunderous tsunami drowned many, and more froze to death by the end of the night. Could this have been avoided? It’s easy to say yes in hindsight, but the truth is that there are places that had the foresight to prevent such casualties. And surprisingly, such survivors went against everything the Japanese culture stands for.

The Japanese Virtue of Group Unity

Cultural anthropologists, cross-cultural psychologists, and other worldly researchers, never like to say that one culture is “better” than another, because there’s no way to rate the “greatness” of a culture. So for better or for worse, the Land of the Rising Sun may be the most communal and group-oriented place in the world.

Everyone who goes through the Japanese education system learns from an early age that collectivism is more important than individualism. In fact, if you ask any expert in Japanese cultural studies what the Japanese culture boils down to in one generalized statement, most would probably give the same answer. While some would say that Japanese people “respect their elders,” most would probably say that they “look out for the group, and not for themselves.”

This is seen everywhere in Japan, as anyone in the Japanese education system understands well; but let’s use the workforce as an example. In the West, employees tend to move from job to job, looking for the next best thing. They typically have much less loyalty to their employers than Japanese people. A Japanese worker generally would pass up better opportunities such as a new job with higher pay, and stay with their current employer, simply because they are more loyal to them. As you can imagine, there are pros and cons on both sides, but what’s clear is that Westerners tend more to look out for themselves whereas Japanese look out for each other.

Principal Kishima from Nobiru is not a bad person. She was only doing her job, and she made a mistake. She thought it would be just another false alarm – she thought if a tsunami came, it would only go up to their knees, like every other time. If there’s blame to go around, it would be on the protocol or education itself. I would never suggest that Western culture is better than Japanese culture (like I said, that’s unmeasurable) but if we were looking at the social psychology of tsunami survival, it would appear as though traditional Western values are more adaptive to surviving a tsunami. That is to say, Japanese people ought to start looking out for themselves, and not each other.

Following the Rules

Elementary Education

After the huge 1993 Hokkaido Earthquake (M7.7) caused a tsunami that killed hundreds of people within 10 minutes, researchers had collected data and eventually created hazard maps to help future generations in such crises. The Unosumai Elementary School in Iwate Prefecture was one school that used this information to educate their students on tsunamis. There were disaster preparation classes, where students went through emergency drills, and were shown the hazard maps. They were also taught three main principles:

  1. If the ground starts shaking, even if it feels small, don’t go back to your house; run to high ground.
  2. Don’t necessarily follow the hazard map; examine the current situation, consult with others, and make the best judgment.
  3. Help others.

This is not typical of all elementary schools in the coastal regions, as many of them, like Nobiru Elementary, have more rigid plans. But when the earthquake started, students from Unosumai reacted quickly. The 350 students all ran up to the 3rd floor of their school, perhaps assuming that the tsunami would not reach them. When they looked outside, they saw over 200 middle school students from the neighbouring middle school congregating in the playgound. This is standard earthquake protocol – make your way outside of the school, line up with your class, and wait for directions from the teachers. But the Unosumai Elementary students felt they had to warn the middle school students, so they immediately ran back down the three flights of stairs to meet up with them.

What happened to them can be explained by a principle that is, in a word, “foreign” to almost all Japanese people.


I first heard of “Tendenko” from a phenomenal episode of Al-Jazeera’s series “Witness.” This 20-minute program, which aired in November, goes through the perspective of a family as they faced the tsunami on 3/11. They retraced their steps and explain what happened, exactly how and where it happened. It’s a chilling and unbelievable video that I urge you to watch:

“Tendenko” comes from the Tohoku dialect, basically meaning “protect your own life.” Some Japanese people know what it is about, even if they don’t know what it’s called, but most have little knowledge about what to do in a such an event. Most students would naturally revert to waiting outside their schools for teachers to tell them what to do, as is customary. “Tsunami-tendenko” is a simple concept that includes only two principles when you feel an quake:

  • Rule 1: Do not go back home for any reason, just keep running towards higher and higher ground, immediately.
  • Rule 2: Do not go out of your way to help someone, worry only about yourself.

Heartless? It sure sounds like it, and it would probably be the last thing I would ever expect Japanese people to adopt. But these two simple principles are significant.

You must have noticed by now that the Unosumai school’s #3 principle contrasts with Tsunami-tendenko. In fact, it breaks tendenko’s rule #2. While this is true, it inadvertently made the students follow rule #1. We know now that if the students had stayed in their schools, they probably would have died, or at least there would likely still have been many casualties. But that’s not what happened.

Running down to meet the 212 middle school students, the 350 students of Unosumai Elementary urged everyone to run to higher ground. Together, the nearly 600 students fled one kilometer to a nursing home up in higher ground. From the safety of the hills above, they looked down to see the tsunami engulf their schools. Everyone survived. In fact, of the 3000 elementary and junior high school students in the entire district, only five were missing – four of whom were absent from school that day.

The Power of Tsunami-Tendenko

Success in Kamaishi

A true testament to tsunami-tendenko was in the city of Kamaishi, also in Iwate, as described in the video above. Despite it being absolutely demolished, the city had a much smaller death toll than other places on the Sanriku coast. You can tell just how bad it was by clicking through the following video. In just a few short minutes, the water rises from the sea to the roofs of the buildings, taking everything with it.

The Tendenko video follows the Yorozu family, and shows one junior high school in Kamaishi that was destroyed in the tsunami. The eldest boy of the family, Shingo, was at the school when the earthquake hit. Though the school was destroyed, the students all survived, just like the Unosumai students. But something profound happened because of the education in the Kamaishi schools.

Professor Toshitaka Katada of Gunma University had Shingo’s school start a tsunami-tendenko program since 2003. For example, students made videos explaining how to react in the event of an earthquake using tsunami-tendenko, and showed them in class. That single day vindicated any doubts of the efficacy of this program.

The profound difference made by the education was not just in saving the lives of the children, but also the childrens’ parents. Consider the stunning data that Katada found in his recent research of death tolls. Kamaishi had 1300 casualties, practically all of which were adults. The city had indeed taught their children appropriately. But the surprising part is when he looked at the parents of 3000 students in Kamaishi, to find how many had died. There were about 40 deaths among parents of 3000 students. Though the numbers are presumed to be rounded, they are absolutely staggering. The professor emphasizes that there were very practically no children dead in Kamaishi; perhaps just one or two, as in the case of the district of Unosumai. So this is what the death toll looks like with the numbers provided:

If you had children, you were significantly more likely to survive

What is going on here? The students who are learning tsunami-tendenko are telling their parents about it, so adults without children are less likely to know about it.

Akiko Yorozu, the mother in the tendenko video above, describes quite unapologetically how she literally abandoned her feeble father. Moving at a dangerously slow speed, she helped him down the stairs outside their house. It very quickly got to a point where she realized that what she was doing was putting herself at great risk, and the tendenko principles kicked in. “I know it sounds heartless,” she said hesitantly, “but I didn’t think twice about it.” She ran up the hills and didn’t look back. I can’t describe what happened to her family members better than they can, so please watch the video for the full story.

Why Tsunami-Tendenko is Absolutely Necessary in Japan

The concept of running away and looking out for yourself may sound obvious, but this is especially not the case in Japan. With such an emphasis on being a family-oriented society, Japanese people all look out for one another. In times of trouble, Japanese people become meticulous perfectionists that ensure the safety of everyone in the group. Like the camaraderie of an army unit, leaving someone behind is unthinkable. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is what comes up in Japan most often, and it results in the failure of that group.

People go home, they check on others, and they ensure that everyone’s okay. By the time everyone has checked up on each other while neglecting themselves, it’s too late; and they all die together, as so many families did. They don’t realize that when everyone tries to save the whole group, what ends up happening is that no one saves anyone. So tsunami-tendenko is naturally considered “backwards thinking” for many Japanese people. Unfortunately, that means a lot of sad stories for Japan. And perhaps nowhere was sadder than what happened to the school of Ōkawa Elementary School, in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. It was five kilometers away from the coast.

Just imagine the scene…

The most violent earthquake any teacher has ever felt, and the elementary students, all aged 6-12, are hysterical. At first they get under their desks to hide. When the shaking stops, the teachers have them put on helmets and make their way outside, as protocol dictates, and head for the gymnasium. The typical earthquake response is to wait until the danger fades. As they assemble together for ten minutes, a discussion between the teachers about what to do breaks out. The possibility of a tsunami makes the discussion turn to debate. Then, a heated argument.

Jinji Endo, one of the senior teachers present, desperately pleas with the rest to go to higher ground, while more jarring aftershocks come. Despite Endo having previous experience with a tsunami, he is overruled. Finally, before fleeing – an act that I’m sure caused plenty of teachers to think he was a coward – he convinces one child to come with him. They followed tsunami-tendenko rule #1, fled for higher ground, and survived.

Meanwhile, many parents of the students drove to the school to get their children. One of these children was the 12-year-old boy, Tetsuya, who also survived. He tells his story in the last 10 minutes of the BBC documentary “Japan Tsunami: The Survivors’ Stories,” which can be seen here:

Tetsuya’s mother had driven to the school, and was about to pick him up to drive them to higher ground, but she forgot something and had to return home. The house was only a few minutes away, just down the road, so she said she would hurry back soon. Tetsuya handed over his bags and said “see you soon.” He stayed there with the other students, among which was his younger sister.

Forty minutes after the M9 earthquake struck, the teachers had finally decided that moving them to higher ground would be okay, so they headed towards a bridge that would hopefully lead them to safety. It was far too late.

It’s unclear why they did not just climb the hill only a 30-second-walk away from the school, but what’s abundantly clear is that Mr. Endo was the only one who believed that a tsunami was capable of reaching the area. Now, the school clocks are frozen in time, right at 3:38. This was the precise time the tsunami hit the school.

As the students were on their way to the bridge, the tsunami overwhelmed them. Tetsuya was thrown all the way to the hillside, buried up to his waist in thick mud, and he was pinned under a branch. Luckily, he was high enough that he was not drowned. He called for help until he was rescued. Sadly, his sister was not so lucky.

Of the 108 students at Ōkawa Elementary School, 75 died that day. Most of the parents were outraged to hear of the behaviour of the teachers, but no one seems to hold a grudge after hearing that 10 of those teachers also perished in the tsunami. [Update: While earlier articles indicated that some parents were no longer angry, it’s clear from recent videos that many others cannot forgive the teachers for what happened.] A year on, the last of the debris is being cleared from the area. Tetsuya’s mother, having broken tsunami-tendenko rule #1, also died. Her body was found three weeks later – we’ll never know what she went back for.

The Virtue of Selfishness

If the idea of tsunami-tendenko seems hard for you to imagine in your own life, then think of modern airplanes. The idea of “help others before you help yourself” surely must have caused a lot of trouble for people in the past. This is evident from the content of the safety videos you see on every flight. In case you haven’t been traveling on a plane for a while, let me remind you of what they always say nowadays when discussing the safety masks:

“Put your own mask on first, before helping others who may need assistance.”

This is the exact same concept that makes tsunami-tendenko successful.

Selfishness is despised in most cultures, and Japanese people strive to be collectivistic. They look down on selfish behaviour, as you can tell from some of the responses I received in a survey I conducted with Japanese students a few months ago. Some of them thought Americans on Black Friday indicate that the greater American culture is selfish, chaotic, and dangerous. While many knew this was an atypical day of the year, several condescended to the U.S., perhaps walking away with a misguided sense of cultural elitism. This is unfortunate, because the traditionally non-Japanese way of thinking is what kept so many Iwate citizens alive.

I think the data speaks for itself – tsunami-tendenko is effective because people are selfish. As long as being selfish is not at the expense of others, it may be something that Japanese people should consider as less of a sin and more a virtue, in the appropriate contexts. I don’t think what happened at Ōkawa Elementary School would happen in a Western society, and that is a good thing. The students should have just ran to the hills, as the many children in Iwate did. But that would contradict the main lessons most children in Japan learn – respect and listen to authority, and care for the group. So I think it’s time Japan starts seriously teaching students what Swathmore College professors Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe calls “practical wisdom.” As Schwartz said on the TED stage in 2010:

“Practical wisdom is the moral will to do the right thing and the moral skill to figure out what the right thing is.”

Sadly, tsunami-tendenko is still largely unknown in Japan. Virtually no children outside the coastal regions have heard of it, and even most educators are uninformed. But perhaps the more people hear about success stories like Kamaishi and horror stories of Ōkawa, the more people can be saved the next inevitable time Japan is challenged with another threat from the sea.

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