The Tomodachi Initiative was born out of support for Japan’s recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 and walking around Tokyo made it very clear how disaster conscious the city and Japanese people are in the wake of the earthquake. On the sides of construction sites in Harajuku I saw signs in Japanese and English reading “Are you sure and safe? Don’t let earthquakes turn over, knock down, or move the furniture” and markers in subway entrances told you how many meters above sea level you are so you can find higher ground in the event of a tidal wave. Nowhere was this focus on disaster prevention more evident than in the Life Safety Learning Center.
In the center we practiced putting out a fire on a screen using water-filled extinguishers and escaped from a series smoke-filled rooms by staying low to the ground. We also experienced typhoon force winds in a simulator. Unfortunately due to a drought were were not able to don the waterproof boots and jackets and experience the “rain” along with the wind. Just before leaving we took turns experiencing what it feels like to be in a magnitude 7 earthquake on the center’s earthquake simulator, complete with falling foam furniture.
We also watched an informational cartoon about three Japanese children discussing how the next big earthquake could occur at any time. Then, the children magically travel back in time to visit three different earthquake events, one being the Great East Japan Earthquake. With each visit the children learn valuable lessons about being prepared and cooperation during a disaster. The video ends with the children back in their classrooms presenting to their classmates about the importance of being prepared when an earthquake strikes. This is foreshadowed by the students discussing in a previous scene about how the next big earthquake could occur at any time.
I was shocked by how disaster conscious the Japanese culture was. In Chicago we have our students complete a tornado drill every school year, but I could never imagine a disaster learning center in the city nor signs on buildings reminding residents to be prepared for flooding even though it is becoming more and more common in the city. In general, I think in our country we have a tendency to shelter our students and children from the existence of natural disasters rather than prepare them for their inevitable occurrence.
Over the past year our country has been ravaged by massive flooding, record-setting blizzards, and drought-fueled fires, and unfortunately events like these will become more common as the affects of climate change continue to unfold. As science educators, we are in the unique position to discuss these events with our students and challenge them to design new ways to raise awareness and protect against natural disasters.