This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on June 16, 2014
At the time of a disaster, children are very vulnerable and unable to evacuate by themselves.
So it is the role of kindergarten and nursery school teachers to help them escape to safety.
Drawing lessons from the Great East Japan Earthquake, new protective measures are being reviewed at kindergartens and nursery schools all over Tohoku.
“On a routine basis, we need to check all the roads and escape routes with our own eyes and feet.”
(Etsuko Satake: Former Principal of Yuriage Nursery School)
An experienced nursery school teacher who saved many children’s lives in 2011 is now working together with young teachers to create a manual on how to act at the time of a disaster.
“Unless each one of us acts based on a sense of danger, a disaster control manual will be a useless and unpractical tool.”
“There has been a strong earthquake. Please evacuate immediately.”
(Disaster drill announcement)
At a nursery school in Iwate Prefecture, the teachers are trying to ensure the safety of both the children and their parents by revising their emergency drill methods.
How can we protect the lives of children? Jason Hancock, who used to teach at a junior high school in Japan, visits Tohoku to report on the current situation regarding disaster control.
A nursery school in Yuriage in Natori City, Miyagi Prefecture attracted a lot of attention after the 3.11 disaster.
“This is Yuriage, a town built on fishing. This coastal town was destroyed, and casualties of the tsunami were more than 700. However, here at Yuriage nursery school, the lives of all 54 children were saved.”
(Jason Hancock: Reporter)
The Yuriage area is quite flat. So it was said that if it was hit by a tsunami the entire area would easily be flooded and it would be difficult for people to evacuate.
Yuriage Nursery School was situated in a heavily-populated area on the coast.
The school has long overseen the growth of many of Yuriage’s children. The sound of children’s laughter could be heard every day.
However, the school was totally destroyed by the tsunami three years ago. And the whole Yuriage area suffered immense damage.
Jason visits Etsuko Satake, who was then the Principal of Yuriage Nursery School and saved the lives of all 54 children.
“Where were you on March 11th, 2011, and what it was like?”
“At the time the earthquake hit, I was running errands about one kilometer inland from the nursery school. I wanted to get back to the school at once, but I couldn’t because the quake was so strong. So I waited for about four minutes. There were still aftershocks, but I was so worried about the children, and I managed to get back to the school.”
(Etsuko Satake: Former Principal of Yuriage Nursery School)
Etsuko returned about seven minutes after the earthquake. She found all the teachers busily preparing for evacuation.
“It was around the time they wake up from their nap, so they were all in pajamas. The teachers had checked the safety of the backyard, spread blue sheets in the center, and gathered all the children there. They followed instructions of teachers and didn’t cry.”
As soon as Etsuko got back, they started evacuating. It was the evacuation route they had chosen that saved the children’s lives.
They headed for the elementary school two kilometers away. Under Etsuko’s direction, the teachers put all 54 children into five cars and set out for the school.
The normal route from the nursery school to the parking lot at the back of the elementary school is marked in yellow. However, there was one important issue: it involved passing through an intersection of five streets, where the traffic is regularly jammed.
“This is the street between the nursery school and the elementary school there is one main intersection. On a street with already many cars, this big intersection combining 5 streets could potentially cause a traffic jam and slow down a evacuation process.”
In fact, a traffic jam had started developing at the intersection right after the earthquake.
“According to the evacuation manual, created by Mrs. Satake and other teachers, to avoid this intersection...
...everyone was instructed to take this back street to the elementary school.”
Etsuko and the teachers decided to avoid the intersection and use the backstreet to get to the school yard. They did this automatically because they had done research on which evacuation route to take in advance.
“We were determined not to go through that intersection but use another street. The teachers had found that street because they had made it a habit to look for the best route during their commuting time. It was not something I’d asked them to do. They did all the research and considered routes on their own.”
So the children were able to reach the elementary school smoothly thanks to the very route the teachers researched on.
“When everyone arrived at the school, Mrs. Satake and the children came to the 3rd floor for the safety. Just under one hour from the earthquake. A short 15 minutes later, the tsunami hits the Yuriage area.”
About one hour and 15 minutes after the earthquake, the tsunami reached the elementary school.
At the main intersection, which had a huge traffic jam, many cars were engulfed by the wall of water.
The tsunami then reached the elementary school, and Etsuko and the others went up to the roof.
“I saw something like a big black chunk. I didn’t want the children to see it, so I put them in the middle of the roof. And the teachers surrounded them so that they couldn’t see anything. But after a while it got cold, and we decided to go back down to the third floor.”
The teachers and children stayed there overnight, and they were all rescued the following day, safe and sound.
“The main factors leading to the children of Yuriage nusery school safety evacuation are one the quick decisions, two the alternative route previously determined in evacuation procedures. And most importantly, I think, is the preparation and action of each and every one of the teachers involved that day.”
“I believe it’s true with any kind of disaster, that you can’t evade responsibility by saying things like, ‘Oh, but our head or Principal wasn’t there at that time.’ The teachers, or whoever’s there on site, must have a sense of danger and activate the evacuation procedures at once. Otherwise, the evacuation manual you created will prove useless, and it may not be possible to save the lives of the children.”
Etsuko now works at a new kindergarten that opened in April. It is located in the Mitazono area, several kilometers inland.
This area was also submerged under about 60cm of water. There are now 42 children at the kindergarten. Etsuko’s new responsibility is to protect their lives.
She has started to create a new disaster control manual with the young teachers.
She wants to raise the general awareness of the teachers so that each one of them will be ready to deal with any situation independently and take appropriate action.
“I want you to make calm judgments and decide which route to take and where to stop the cars. It’s vital for you to be ready for anything.”
Today, they are discussing evacuation sites in the event of a tsunami. They are considering two places.
One is an elementary school 400 meters west of the kindergarten.
It is the closest of the evacuation sites designated by the City Office.
The other site is MANAWEL, 550 meters north of the kindergarten.
This facility houses a mental care clinic and a counseling center for children so it would be ideal because the personnel would be able to provide post-disaster psychological support.
Etsuko wants the teachers to check the routes to these possible evacuation sites for themselves.
“It’s important to see for yourselves what kind of streets or obstructions there are along the route. The most important thing is to find the safest evacuation route. If we choose a route where there are obstructions, that could slow down the evacuation. There’s also the risk of the escape route being blocked. You’ll feel very secure if you don’t have to worry about things like that.”
Two of the Mitazono Wakaba kindergarten teachers check the route to the elementary school for themselves.
“These manholes were pushed up after the earthquake three years ago. If they opened and water poured out, it would be dangerous, especially for the kids, but also for the adults.”
Manholes can rise about 40 or 50cm due to liquefaction or other causes. Based on the 3.11 experience, the teachers identified several dangerous spots.
The elementary school that’s a possible evacuation site is a three-story reinforced concrete building.
The surrounding area suffered about 50 cm of flooding in the tsunami three years ago, but this building was virtually undamaged.
However, the teachers find a major cause of concern: there is a river right behind the school building.
“It’d be dangerous if it overflowed its banks and the water contained trees and other debris.”
If the tsunami came upstream and the river overflowed, the area surrounding the elementary school would be flooded and the children’s lives endangered.
“Considering the possible conditions, this may not be a good choice.”
“I agree. It’s not ideal.”
Two other teachers are checking the route to MANAWEL, the other candidate site.
“Those building materials could be dangerous, so we should walk on this side, not the other side.”
Building materials left along the street or structures such as fences and walls can easily fall down and block the street when a strong earthquake hits.
This elevated structure is a railway station. It was well-constructed, so remained intact during the earthquake.
Beyond the station, there is a main four-lane road.
In emergency situations, drivers might ignore the traffic lights, so it could take time for the teachers to get the children safely across the road.
The teachers conclude that crossing this road would be the trickiest part of using this route.
MANAWEL is a facility that has been built by the prefectural government since the earthquake.
Like the elementary school, it is an evacuation site designated by the city.
“It took about 10 minutes on foot. That means the children would need about 30 minutes.”
“Yes, 20-30 minutes.”
Both candidate sites have a major issue: the river and the main road. So which would be better as an evacuation site?
The teachers discuss it again, and decide on MANAWEL as the first candidate site.
Etsuko has invited some disaster prevention experts from a university in Shizuoka to join the meeting. She is hoping they can provide them with some fresh and objective insights.
“I’m concerned about the evacuation route to MANAWEL because we will have to cross a main road or a crossroad with several lanes. This could be a huge problem during the evacuation process.”
“To ensure there are no casualties, MANAWEL might be too far.”
(Kishie Shigekawa: Professor, Tokoha University Graduate School)
“But MANAWEL’s the better choice if they’re going to evacuate somewhere.”
(Satoshi Tanaka: Professor, Tokoha University Graduate School)
“Yes, because it’s new.”
“How about making a stop at Mitazono Station, or somewhere else...”
“A station can be an evacuation site. In my hometown every JR station built at a high elevation is a tsunami evacuation site.”
“Oh, I see.”
“A station’s a good idea.”
The experts’ suggestion is to evacuate in two stages. First, they head for the station, and then move to MANAWEL when the situation is improved.
“We wouldn’t have thought about that! The only places we had in our mind were the designated evacuation sites. We were just thinking about HOW to get to them.”
“But if it’s dangerous, it is not appropriate for evacuation. You’d be in trouble.”
“You’d be asking for a trouble.”
The distance to the station’s quite short, and there are no big roads to cross. Also, it is far from the river so they will feel safe.
“At first we weren’t thinking out of the box, because we were only thinking about the designated evacuation sites. But once we start thinking out of the box, we had a breakthrough. And we could see things from a different viewpoint.”
Etsuko and the teachers decide to further review this idea so that they can finalize the evacuation manual.
“We shouldn’t relax just because we’ve made a manual. We have to actually carry out drills using the manual, consider them and revise the manual if necessary. Then do the drills again. These repeated actions and revisions need to be conducted. This process will give you the base to take action calmly. It’s very important to make it part of your daily life, instead of taking actions on the spur of the moment.”
What can we do to save children’s lives?
It’s been three years since the earthquake. Many documents have been created reporting on cases where children were successfully saved at various facilities.
Important points include the stockpiling of food and information-gathering. But another vital and life-threatening factor is how parents should pick up their children.
On March 11, 2011, there were cases where parents died on the way to a kindergarten or a nursery school to pick up their children, and other cases in which both parents and children were engulfed by the tsunami. So whether or not to pick up children from a school is an important issue.
Just like Yuriage, Rikuzentakata City in Iwate Prefecture was devastated by the tsunami.
“What more can be done to protect the children? Some local nursery school’s created a new plan of action not only about the children, but the families as well.”
Takekoma Nursery School was badly damaged by the earthquake. It was reconstructed in a different place in 2013.
“Thank you for coming”
(Wakae Murakami: Principal)
Wakae Murakami has still been the principal of the nursery school since before the earthquake.
56 children attend the school. It is the duty of Wakae and other teachers to protect the children’s lives.
“We give thanks!”
(Children & Jason)
This is a special day of the month because it’s the day for emergency drills for everyone at the nursery school.
“There’s been a strong earthquake. It’s dangerous so evacuate immediately.”
(Disaster drill announcement)
Nursery schools in Japan are required to conduct emergency drills once a month. The idea is to reduce the childrens’ panic by making drills part of their daily life. Since 3.11, a new plan of action has been taken at Takekoma Nursery School.
They have started to involve parents and other family members in the drills.
“Today, your grandfathers, grandmothers, mothers and fathers are also participating.”
The main purpose of this drill is to let the families know the location of the evacuation site. Another purpose is to deepen the families’ trust in the teachers, so that parents will not feel forced to pick up their children at the time of a disaster.
“We don’t want families to strain themselves. We want them to secure their own safety as the first thing. Because we will be here with their children and we won’t leave them. So if we continue to appeal to them in this way, we feel they will deepen their trust in the teachers at the nursery school.”
Wakae came to think this way because of her own experience during the 3.11 disaster.
The Takekoma Nursery School was located five kilometers inland, so she was not expecting it to be hit by a tsunami.
However, the tsunami was heading up the river, and the nursery school was threatened.
Based on the evacuation manual, the teachers moved the children to the designated evacuation site nearby.
It was a community center right across from the nursery school. But soon after moving there, Wakae realized something was odd.
“When I looked outside, I could see smoke. Then I heard someone shouting ‘Evacuate now! Hurry up!’ Also, I could see cars in the distance weren't moving at all. So I realized something was really wrong.”
Thinking a tsunami could be coming, she started leading the other teachers and 13 children to a higher place.
Because they had never done drills with a tsunami in mind, they had no idea where to go. However, a decision had to be made to protect the lives of the children.
After about 40 minutes, they reached a house and asked the owner to let them stay. However, the phone was not working and they were unable to inform the parents. So the decision worried both the parents and the children a great deal.
Wakae does not want a similar thing to happen again. To avoid that she came up with drills that involve families as well.
The first evacuation site is the parking lot of a shrine 100 meters from the nursery school.
“Today, we’re going to the second evacuation site. The second evacuation site is the Community Center.”
Wakae designated this second evacuation site as another option. The Community Center is located on a hillside 30-meters high, so they do not have to worry too much about a tsunami reaching there.
The Community Center is located on a hillside 30-meters high, so they do not have to worry too much about a tsunami reaching there.
To boost the local residents’ feeling of security, Wakae explains that even though the community center is quite small place, it has stockpiles of food, water, baby formula, and other necessary items.
“There are ship’s biscuits and stockpile of other types of food here. So you mothers, fathers, grandfathers, and grandmothers, please remain calm and prioritize your own safety.”
In order to enhance a feeling of security to the families, this new type of drill is conducted twice a year. The intentions of the principal of the nursery school are gradually being passed on to the families.
“Is this your first time?”
“Yes, the first time.”
“How was it?
“I feel assured because I’ve been able to see that the teachers are very attentive to the young children.”
“At the time of a disaster, what worries us the most is that we have no idea about where our children have evacuated to. But as long as we know the location, we can go and pick them up. It was the really good emergency drill.”
“The families told me your guidance was very good and they felt relieved. What do you think?”
“Well, I think it’s good for families to know both the first and the second evacuation sites beforehand.”
“That’s mutually assuring. Both parents and children feel assured.”
“And the teachers as well.”
Teachers at kindergarten and nursery schools are attempting to create better action plans to protect children at the time of a disaster by regarding things from a wider perspective.
“I think what impressed me most was the responsibility showed by the teachers. And how the responsibility became a detail plan of action in case of emergency like this.
Their actions were exemplary and I feel like we can all learn something from nursery school teachers.”