SENDAI, Japan – When you live in a country where you experience 20 percent of the world’s most massive earthquakes, which could possibly send 10 meter waves your way, and flood your home and community, and quite plainly turn your life upside down, then you do absolutely everything you possibly can, to be prepared.
That means staying one step ahead of a disaster which could strike at any moment.
For the Japanese, this is a way of life, the only kind they know, lived with caution but not necessarily, trepidation where many are involved in workplace or community emergency drills and volunteer at their local fire department should the need arise.
But what if you could go even a step further in disaster preparedness? Well, a public elementary school has done exactly that, deploying an innovative way to truly prepare its young citizens in the event of a natural disaster.
The Shichigo Elementary School based here in Sendai in the Miyagi Prefecture has incorporated “Disaster Prevention Education” into their school curriculum making it part of their daily learning experience.
How so? Well, children from grades 1 up to 6 are taught about the risks of natural disaster, what to do in a situation like an earthquake or tsunami, how to recover from a natural disaster, ensuring food security by learning to grow rice and vegetables to replenishing food supplies and the list goes on. It’s a basic human survival kit, a 101 on what to do before, during and after a natural disaster be it an earthquake, flood or tsunami. All of this taught to children between the ages of 6 to 12 years old.
But why teach children? Well, why not? Children are among the most vulnerable in any disaster and being better equipped with the life skills to handle a situation means they are in control of themselves and will know exactly what to do should disaster strike.
The elementary school is one of two schools part of the municipal council’s model to bring disaster preparedness right down to the community level with a bottom-up approach. After all, if the knowledge is passed down to children, it’s easier for policy makers to work their way up. And the model has already been proven successful.
“As for the effect of the education, I see many children when they are at the school yard playing and when an announcement is made that an earthquake has occurred, and you must go to safe place and protect yourself, then children will gather at the centre of the school yard away from any buildings and trees or when they are in the classroom, they will immediately cover themselves under the desks.,” said Mr. Masaki Nakatsuji, the Vice Principal at the Shichigo Elementary School.
“I think they are now well aware of the risks and now what to do during an earthquake. They are not waiting on someone to give them guidance – they know,” he added.
It’s been in the making for the last four years. School teachers who had experienced the 2011 East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami were part of the research and development phase to design the “Disaster Prevention Education” model at the school.
“We try to design the content suited to the level of development of the children and make it sustainable so we can help spread the style of the curriculum to other areas.”
But there’s also the psychological aspects to consider too. How far can or should the school go in using memories of a disaster to teach lessons from the past?
“We have to be very careful looking at each’s student’s background as they have different experiences about the disaster according to the level of their physical and mental development so we really have to take that into account when designing the content of our curriculum,” assured Vice Principal Nakatsuj.
Disaster awareness measures by the Shichigo Elementary School appears to be part of a wider movement in Sendai, a city particularly made up of low-lying areas, to proactively address disaster prevention in all aspects of community “working up” to the highest conceptual level.
“It’s important obviously to teach children about disaster prevention but there should be a connection between this education at school and at home. What has been taught at schools should be also extended to homes and the community. The challenge right now is how to extend the impact of this education to a wider area,” said Shinichi Takeda, the head of Disaster Risk Reduction and Education Project Office based at the Kahoku Shimpo Publishing.
As one of Sendai’s leading newspaper agencies with a daily readership of 450,000, the media organisation decided it needed to take a more encompassing role when it came to disaster preparedness and awareness.
A survey carried out by the newspaper after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami revealed that 72% of its readership felt it’s publications in the area of disaster awareness was simply “not useful”. So the newspaper decided to tread into any area most media organisations wouldn’t think or spend money to do so – set up an entire department dedicated to enlightening its readers on disaster prevention.
“I understand that awareness and education on Disaster Risk Reduction is the responsibility of the government but I don’t think we should just depend on the government and municipalities. As a media organisation that has significant influence on the everyday lives of its readers, we have a responsibility and recognise the fact we need to do more,” Takeda says.
What essentially an elementary school and a media organisation have simply done is broken the barrier to what we often perceive as a “top-down” bureaucratic approach to an issue that impacts the lives of millions of people. Taking ownership of disaster awareness in the community means everyone knows their role, is responsible for themselves, accountable to the systems in place and involved in helping the next person and ultimately helping local authorities in an event of a natural disaster.
Story & Photos by Rachna Nath