Remarks by Consul General Yoichiro Yamada at Symposium for Natural Disaster Management (February 23, 2018)

Good morning. It is an honor to say a few words at the opening of this symposium. I would like to welcome everybody in this room today as we are going to discuss a topic very important to both Japan and Washington State, that is, natural disaster management, particularly regarding earthquakes. I would like to especially thank the Japanese speakers for coming all the way to Seattle. My great gratitude goes to Tohoku University and the University of Washington for their joint efforts in addressing this issue and for their generous support in making this event possible.

Both Japan and Washington State are located in a seismically active zone. The earthquake in 2001 brought material damage to Washington State’s capital, Olympia. It is known that a magnitude 9.0 earthquake took place in the Puget Sound area in year 1700, causing a massive tsunami that reached Japan’s shores.

In Kobe, a powerful earthquake in 1995 caused the death of more than 6,000 people. In northeast Japan in 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake caused a huge tsunami that killed about 18,000 people and caused a nuclear disaster in Fukushima from which we are yet to recover. We are very grateful to the US military forces stationed in Japan for their extensive and selfless support during that most difficult time.

My presence here today is closely linked with an earthquake. All my grandparents lived near the coast in Iwate prefecture and were affected by a huge tsunami in 1933. My grandmother’s home in Iwate was directly hit when she was at home in the early hours of the morning, and it was only by a miracle that she survived. Many of her family members in the house were killed. My grandmother gave birth to my mother the following year. That means you might have had a different consul general here today with a shorter story to tell about earthquakes for these opening remarks.

Seattle and Kobe are not just each other’s closest sister city. They are both port cities with hilly terrains and of comparable population. They both sit uncomfortably near seismic fault lines. The two cities can therefore only benefit by comparing their ideas on disaster management. It is no wonder why disaster management is an important item in the Memorandum of Cooperation between Japan and the State of Washington, signed in 2016.

We want today’s discussion to be of practical use. There are three points that I want to briefly mention.

First, hardly anyone can give the right answer to the question, “What do people find the most difficult living in the aftermath of a disaster?” In a situation where electricity, water and sewage systems are not working, access to functioning toilets is always the No.1 problem. The lack of access is a particular problem for women. In fact there have been many cases of rape when they go out to relieve themselves. In many ways, we face the same situation as that of developing countries where 2.5 billion people do not have proper access to toilets. This also means that a toilet that works in a condition of water scarcity in the aftermath of a disaster also works in water-stressed countries.

You might know that when we discuss international aid, very few aid agencies address toilets despite its importance. It is the same situation with disaster relief. In order for society to hold on to a sense of normalcy in adversity, we need to address the issue that does not appear in normal conversation. We will hear more about it in today’s discussion.

Second, women play a leading role in the afflicted communities. They are always the ones that give special attention to vulnerable people such as the elderly and children. Still, in many countries, including Japan, it is usually men that plan disaster preparedness or execute disaster relief. In many cases, they don’t get it right. Women should be very closely involved in the process, or ideally, they should be at the helm. Were you thinking of Seattle’s mayor? Yes, she came to my mind as well.

Third, the role of schools and community centers cannot be emphasized enough. In a time of disaster, neighbors help and rescue each other. These institutions are usually the lead trainers in disaster preparedness. The government should also regularly spend money to prepare people through media outlets, even if it does not look like an issue of immediate importance.

To conclude, I would like to quote a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) study on disaster risk management from a few years ago. It said “every dollar invested into disaster risk reduction could save seven dollars in disaster aftermath.” In reality, many governments are reluctant to invest in disaster risk reduction. With better disaster preparedness resources at hand, the next generation would no longer need to rely on miracles. Thank you for your attention.