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Developing an individualized approach to people and communities

In Japan, disaster prevention policies are developed and implemented according to the following principles:
1. Self-help - people should take care of their own affairs;
2. Public help - the government should protect people’s lives and property; and,
3. Mutual help - workplace or community members should mutually help each other.

As a part of their self-help efforts, many households may have already bought emergency kits or made suitable arrangements to ensure their family members’ safety in times of disaster.
As for public help, you can easily imagine the services provided by persons such as fire fighters and police officers on duty in disaster stricken areas.

What, then, is the principle of mutual help?

In fact, the core idea of the mutual help principle saved many people’s lives during the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Responding to the resulting tsunami, people urged their next-door neighbors to rapidly evacuate to higher ground for safety.  Within one week after both the earthquake and the tsunami, members of special disaster prevention units, which were organised by local community volunteer groups, operated as many as 2,182 emergency shelters.

The 2014 White Paper on Disaster Management in Japan released by the Cabinet Office asserted the limitation of the public help principle, stating:
“The disaster of the Great East Japan Earthquake revealed that the government’s capacity was limited in reaching out to each victim and also that the public’s help was insufficient. In order to reduce the resulting damage from similar massive disasters, such as the earthquake anticipated to occur directly beneath the Tokyo Metropolitan Area or Nankai Trough that lies widely under the coast of Tokai areas, it is essential to increase manpower which in turn encourages self-help and mutual-help by local communities.”

In our communities, there is a wide range of differing groups of people each with their unique circumstances, from the young or elderly, sexual minorities, and foreign nationals to name a few.

Regarding diversity, if a compassionate approach to disaster response is a key to success then each victim of a disaster should be treated, and receive support, equally to help rebuild their lives.

Although Tohoku regions are nationally known to have strong community ties, they still face a number of difficulties when working together such as running emergency shelters during evacuations.

The following are three typical issues regularly faced by people. The first issue is one of noise. Many families with young children, worried that their children may disturb others in the emergency shelters, often choose to return to and live in their partly collapsed houses. The second issue is the shortage of multipurpose toilets in emergency shelters.  There is commonly a shortage of toilets for wheelchair users and people with other disabilities. The third issue is of privacy. Many women in particular find it difficult to retain a sense of their privacy in even the most routine actions such as changing clothes or sleeping at night with other evacuees (including males).
Taking into account those experiences, local governments throughout the region have recently undertaken a new approach to these issues. The governments have reviewed their emergency plans and shelter operation manuals, and female leaders have undertaken to find out solutions for the issues raised above.

In the disaster stricken areas of Tohoku, many people have dedicated themselves to developing stronger hometowns to prevent and manage natural disasters. The aim is for every resident to ensure their own safety and the residents willingly participate to support their community.

JEN’s project in Tohoku regions is now focusing on “partnership-based projects”, in which JEN provides funding and technical support for both local NPO’s and organizations that are involved in supporting activities for marginalized people in disaster affected areas. One of our current partners is the Training Center for Gender and Disaster Risk Reduction (GDRR). GDRR is now arranging to conduct a workshop at one of the disaster affected areas in Tohoku along with a local organization, where GDRR’s instructors will focus on how to include diversity into disaster prevention.

People in disaster stricken areas carry out “build back better” (cited at the U.N. (2015) World Conference on Disaster Reduction) steps.

【The coastal area of Rikuzentakada, Iwate Prefecture, is used as a temporary disposal site for waste soil and road traffic is rerouted until March 3, 2019.】

【The miracle survivor pine tree in Rikuzentakada】

【The old building that used be a roadside station, Takatamatsubara, with a blue line showing the evidence of the 14.5 metre tsunami.】


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June 30, 2016 in Tohoku earthquake |