This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on March 31, 2014
Masayuki Yoshinaga runs a lunch box catering service.
Shigeto Niiya works for a dried bonito manufacturing plant.
Neither of them is a professional fireman.
They are both members of a local fire corps operated with a volunteer spirit. While engaged in their own regular jobs, whenever a disaster occurs they make the first response by racing to the site of the trouble.
In the Great East Japan Earthquake, 254 volunteer firemen lost their lives. They bravely committed themselves to continuing their activities in unsafe neighborhoods, trying to guide people to safety.
After the 3.11 disaster, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency issued new safety guidelines, which state that volunteer firemen should place priority on evacuating to protect their own lives.
“To be honest, I might have to leave people to their fate.”
(Member: local fire corps)
“Of course, I would want to go and help anyone who was left behind.”
(Member: local fire corps)
A duty to protect local residents while securing their own safety... How can those conflicting interests be reconciled?
American journalist Eric Talmadge visits members of volunteer fire corps now embroiled in emotional turmoil.
“One of the first groups of people to respond to the disaster were local volunteer firemen, who, even though they’d lost their own homes and often their own families, went right to work closing floodgates and leading people out of danger, putting the lives of other people before their own. We’re going to take a look at the job that they did and how that’s changed over the past three years as communities have learned more about how to respond to disasters like the one that hit here.”
(Eric Talmadge: American Journalist)
Three years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake.
A memorial service is held in the town of Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, which suffered tremendous damage.
Most of the around 20,000 victims of the disaster are believed to have lost their lives because of the tsunami.
They included 254 local volunteer firemen who tried to save the lives of others until the very last moment. 14 volunteer firemen died in Kamaishi alone.
The 20-meter-high tsunami that slammed into the town washed away 4,700 houses. About 10,000 of its residents are still living in temporary housing.
When Eric came here right after the disaster as a journalist for a news agency, he learned that many volunteer firemen had lost their lives trying to save other residents.
“It’s a very hard decision to make, and I think people who go into that line of work, the first responders, the people, the firemen, the policemen, who are activated for emergency disaster relief like that, one of the reasons why they choose to do that job is because they want to save lives; that’s something that they want to do, and it’s part of their job. And so it’s such a hard decision to make: when you should draw the line of actually trying to save someone who you really can’t save, and you’re just putting your own life on the line, which could cause more problems. It’s a really difficult decision to make.”
The Kamaishi No.6 Firefighting Squad is a volunteer corps in the part of Kamaishi that suffered the worst damage. As the leader of the squad, Kenichi Suzuki engaged in rescue activities in the face of the tsunami along with about 20 other firemen who had gathered to help.
After the disaster, Kenichi stayed here at the squad headquarters searching for the missing and removing debris without a clue regarding the fate of his own family members.
“We spread rush mats out here during those days. The other members told me that I should sleep over there, but that area had no warmth at all. I was so cold, I thought I would die.”
(Kenichi Suzuki: Leader, The Kamaishi No.6 Firefighting Squad)
The members of volunteer fire corps all have their own occupations.
The total number of people working for Japanese fire departments is 160,000. On the other hand, around 880,000 citizens belong to local volunteer fire corps and help to protect their communities for only a small remuneration.
“The volunteer fire corps system originated with local firemen in the Edo Period several centuries ago. Their role has always been to respond rapidly to an outbreak of fire in their neighborhood. In that sense, local residents are closely involved in activities to protect their own district.”
(Ichiro Matsuo: NPO Crisis & Environment Management Policy Institute)
The driver of a local inn’s shuttle bus until the day of the tsunami, Kenichi has been a member of the volunteer fire corps for over 40 years.
On March 11, 2011, as soon as the tremors of the earthquake subsided, many residents started evacuating towards higher ground. But the volunteer fire corps headed towards the ocean in defiance of the great potential danger of an approaching tsunami.
Leaving his family members behind, Kenichi hurried to the coast. He had to fulfill his duties as a member of the volunteer fire corps to protect the local area.
He headed straight to one of the floodgates in the seawall down at the port.
“When you loosen this part, the gate goes down.”
Right after the earthquake, the most important work for the volunteer fire corps was to close all four of the floodgates.
“Our seniors always told us that if there was a quake of magnitude 3 or over, we should come here regardless of any tsunami warnings.”
Closing the floodgates could avoid seawater flowing into the town and give residents more time to escape if a tsunami came.
It was the duty of the volunteer fire corps to close those floodgates even if it involved taking a personal risk.
A few seconds after Kenichi reached higher ground, he looked back and saw that the tsunami had already surged over the seawall.
“I stopped the car here and escaped. After the third tsunami, nothing was left. All the houses had disappeared.”
Tsunamis that were double the height of the seawall had engulfed the town in no time at all.
One member of the Kamaishi No. 6 Firefighting Squad who was trying to close a floodgate lost his life because he couldn’t escape in time. Although Kenichi survived, his wife, his eldest son and daughter-in-law, and his 11-year-old granddaughter who were left at home all perished in the tsunami.
Another important duty of the volunteer fire corps is to urge people to evacuate. Sachio Sasa, a fisherman, was engaged in guiding residents to safety.
“I was around here at that time.”
(Sachio Sasa: Deputy Leader, Kamaishi-shi No. 6 Firefighting Squad)
Sachio was at the port when the earthquake struck. Within five minutes, he had closed a floodgate and started giving instructions to residents to move to higher ground.
“I told the other members to start giving evacuation guidance. And then, after that, we drove around the community about three times in the pumper, telling people to evacuate immediately.”
However, only about 30 minutes after the earthquake, the first tsunami arrived and swallowed up many people. Two of the corps firemen who were driving around in a pumper calling out to people to evacuate lost their lives.
“The wave approached from that direction and then bounced back as a backwash... As the backwash approached, a woman fell over here and I wanted to go and help her, but the water carried both of us away. I was saved by another member of the volunteer fire corps and at last the woman was saved, too. We were just watching the ocean in such a helpless condition. We were speechless and beyond shedding tears.”
It was around 7 o’clock in the evening when the ocean finally calmed down. Sachio went down to the port with three other members of the corps. They could hear a woman shouting for help from out in the dark water. There were no lights and the sea was full of debris. Sachio stopped a young member who was ready to jump into the cold water in the hope of helping the woman.
“Even though I understood how he felt, I couldn’t let him go ahead… It was pitch dark, and you couldn’t really see anything. We had a torch, but even so we couldn’t see much. The woman was clinging to the top of a roof crying ‘I’m freezing!’ We did our best to encourage her, urging her not to let go. There was nothing else we could do.”
Many volunteer firemen lost their lives while working on evacuation guidance or closing floodgates.
What thoughts do the members of the volunteer fire corps have now regarding that fateful day? Eric goes to ask them in person.
“Good morning. Nice to meet you.”
(Eric Talmadge: American Journalist)
“As a foreigner, I’m interested in the volunteer fire corps in local communities. I’d like to ask how you think a local fire corps should perform its role and what role the community expects it to play?”
“Well, as soon as we put on our fire corps happi coats, we totally forget our own family concerns.”
“We take the opposite action from everyone else. We have to run towards the danger. We don’t have a police station or a fire department in our neighborhood, so in fact the local volunteer fire corps forms the core for whatever has to be done in terms of emergency relief.”
“Fire departments and volunteer fire corps are different. I’m sure the fire volunteer corps’ position is delicate.”
“Yes. Even when we’re at work, if a fire breaks out, all the members of the corps rush to help. I think our mental attitude regarding protection of our local area is different from that of firemen working for fire departments.”
“How much is a volunteer fire corps supposed to do in terms of duties? Well, the higher your position goes, the more responsibility you have to take on. If I hadn’t been a member of the corps, I might have been able to help my family. I’ve thought that from time to time, but now I’ve accepted the fact, persuading myself that it couldn’t be helped because it was a natural disaster.”
After the disaster, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency reviewed its policy regarding the issue of securing safety for volunteer firemen. It stated that volunteer firemen should place priority on actions to evacuate themselves in order to protect their own lives. The policy also urged each region to decide at what point volunteer firemen should evacuate to safety.
“To help protect the lives of volunteer firemen, the revised manual has made it a rule that they should take steps to evacuate themselves shortly before a tsunami is due to arrive. I think this revision has great significance.”
(Ichiro Matsuo: NPO Crisis & Environment Management Policy Institute)
Eric feels that residents who have so far relied on being protected by others should now consider what steps they can take themselves to save their own lives.
“Speaking with the volunteer firemen in this town of Kamaishi, I learned one thing: they all have a very strong sense of responsibility. When the tsunami hit, they went directly into danger to close the floodgates. But, now, having had that experience, we have learned that they must first try to ensure their own safety before they go into danger and to protect other lives, so that fewer lives will be lost, including the lives of their own. These are the lessons that we’ve learned from the tsunami, along with the need for communities to work together with their volunteer fire brigades to ensure that fewer lives are lost.”
What is the situation like when local communities cooperate closely with the volunteer fire corps to carry out disaster prevention activities?
Tosashimizu-shi is a town in Kochi Prefecture located on the Pacific Ocean. It has been predicted that this area could be hit by a disaster similar to the Great East Japan Earthquake in the near future.
A major Nankai Trough earthquake would affect an extensive area of southwest Japan, causing over 300,000 deaths.
In the worst possible scenario, a tsunami of 34 meters high would strike Tosashimizu-shi.
Masayuki Yoshinaga has been a volunteer fireman in the Nakanohama area of Tosashimizu-shi for over 20 years.
Every day, he is busy working as the owner of a catering shop that produces lunch boxes. But he spends a lot of time in the evenings reading disaster-related materials and reconsidering the fire corps manual regarding tsunami.
“Up until the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, we were planning to follow our standard procedures for what to do in the case of a tsunami. We would go over there to the top of the seawall immediately after a tsunami warning was issued. From there we would observe the ocean, checking the wave movements, to determine whether or not a tsunami was approaching the town. But we decided to abandon that procedure after the tsunami that hit the Tohoku region. It was clear that it would not give us, the volunteer firemen, sufficient time to do our job of guiding the residents to a safe location. So that procedure has now been scrapped.”
(Masayuki Yoshinaga: Division Head, Tosashimizu-shi Shimizu No. 1 Firefighting Squad Nakanohama)
In the event of a major Nankai Trough earthquake occurring, it has been estimated that a tsunami more than 10 meters high would hit the Nakanohama district in about 20 minutes.
The district has a population of about 600, most of whom are over the age of 60.
“Here in Nakanohama, apart from the houses located on very high ground, it’s reckoned that 70 to 80% of the houses could be swallowed up by a tsunami, and the residents as well if they failed to evacuate to a safe location.”
Masayuki decided that the time limit for the activities of the fire corps following an earthquake was just 15 minutes.
“Anyway, our priority must be ensuring the evacuation of residents. So I think we should repeatedly warn everyone in the community to escape immediately. I’m sure there won’t be enough time for us to keep an eye on the ocean. That means we must introduce a completely different approach from what we have had up to now.”
“I saw a TV program in which a volunteer fireman wanted to help a person who was being washed away. However, because of the time limit imposed, he had to make the agonizing decision not to help. I’m sure we will also have to face that kind of situation. We might be driven into a situation where there was nothing we could do alone. To be honest, if it couldn’t be helped, I might have to leave people to their fate. But we would have to carry on with our lives bearing that heavy burden of knowing we couldn’t save them. However, we’re not supermen. We can’t possibly help everyone.”
(Veteran team member)
“We’re all neighbors and know more or less everyone living in the area. So if I know there’s someone in trouble near me... though of course it may be impossible for me to go into a very dangerous situation... I want to try and help them if I have the slightest chance to do it.”
(Mid-level team member)
“If we face that kind of situation in reality, I wonder if things will go just like the manual? Of course, I would want to go and help anyone who was left behind.”
(Mid-level team member)
How much can the firemen do to save other residents while protecting their own lives? The serious discussion went on till late in the evening.
Not long after the 3.11 disaster, the local residents themselves also started making new efforts.
Eiji Nishikawa, the Nakanohama district leader, used to be a volunteer fireman himself. He has been working on creating a district in which the residents protect their own lives so that the community firemen can avoid being exposed to danger.
This handmade disaster prevention map has been created to help protect the lives of all the residents in the community.
The pink houses are located on higher ground.
The blue ones are in the areas expected to be inundated by a major tsunami.
The red lines show evacuation routes that have been established in an original way.
The residents checked out every corner of the community and established more than 20 evacuation routes. They then improved them further, so that every resident can evacuate to higher ground within 15 minutes.
“All the routes we’ve established are marked with a seal like this.”
(Eiji Nishikawa: Leader, Nakanohama District)
The slopes, rails and steps have all been constructed by the residents.
“The 3.11 disaster made us all realize that a similar disaster could happen here in our neighborhood, and it might cause even greater damage. Since then the perspectives of the residents have changed greatly. Now everyone’s very positive about participating in disaster prevention activities.”
In order to reduce costs, old guardrails and scrap wood were used for building the rails along the evacuation routes.
Their ingenuity even stretched to producing posters using a computer with which many of them are not very familiar.
Eiji Nishikawa’s plea to the residents that they should not just wait around for help to arrive has started to change people’s attitude.
One day every month is scheduled for work on improving the evacuation routes. Many residents have started joining in to carry out the volunteer work.
And by following the example of others, they can make a better job of the construction work every time they lend a hand.
“If this many men get together, we can achieve almost anything! Making this kind of activity into the norm and having everyone in the local area get on well with each other is our main target. I’m sure we’ll eventually achieve that.”
Thanks to the combined efforts of more than 20 men, a new 30-meter-long rail for one of the evacuation routes has been completed today before lunchtime.
Stimulated by the activities of the community’s menfolk, the Nakanohama District Women’s Association has also launched disaster prevention initiatives.
Today, they’re making sleeveless padded kimono jackets to help the elderly keep warm at evacuation sites.
Other efforts include making pickled shallots and Japanese apricots and storing them as preserved food for emergency use.
They also collect futon bedding which residents no longer use in preparation for life at evacuation shelters.
In the Nakanohama district, both the volunteer fire corps and the residents are working on various activities on their own initiative.
The proposals they’ve made to the local government include the construction of a nursing facility on higher ground and turning some farmland into a heliport for use if the area gets cut off.
“It’s important for each and every one of the residents to be aware of their desire to survive at the time of a disaster. I think that repeating training and discussion on local disaster prevention along with the volunteer fire corps, centered around the leader of the district, will surely help to protect this whole region from the effects of a major disaster.”
Views on local disaster prevention have started changing nationwide since the 3.11 disaster. A new concept of “citizen’s disaster prevention” is beginning to take off, in which not only the volunteer fire corps and the residents, but the entire region help each other to protect as many lives as possible.
“Looking out at the ocean here in Iwate, it’s easy to understand why people would want to live here by the sea. Japan has one of the world’s most beautiful coastlines and one of the most bountiful. After speaking with volunteer firemen here and other members of the community, I felt their strong sense of attachment to their community and their desire to stay here. But living next to the ocean like this involves a great deal of risk. In order to that, communities are going to have to learn to work together and to act together when disaster strikes. This is not only a lesson for Japan, but a lesson for the whole world, and I think this is one that is beginning to become clearer after the earthquake that struck three years ago and the measures that have been taken since.”
(Eric Talmadge: American Journalist)