“I vividly remember my town being swallowed by the tsunami,” Yu Saeki says. “It was absolutely heart breaking, unreal, unbelievable. I can never forget that sight.”
Mr Saeki, who is coach of the Kamaishi Seawaves Rugby Football Club, was at work when the 8.9 magnitude earthquake struck, at 2:46 in the afternoon on 11 March 2011.
It was followed by a violent tsunami which completely engulfed the port city of Kamaishi in north eastern Japan. More than 1,000 people were killed out of a population of just over 35,000.
It was the most powerful earthquake recorded in Japan, and sixth largest since 1900, when seismological records began. Reports of the wave height varied from seven to ten metres.
Eight years later, the city has rebuilt and is one of the 12 venues hosting the Rugby World Cup 2019. The Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium is brand new and welcoming—a sign to locals and international sports fans that the city is well on the way to recovery.
On September 25 an eager crowd of 14,000 fans crowded into the stadium to watch the first match where Uruguay narrowly beat Fiji, 30-27.
Rebuild and recover
Before the whistle sounded for the start of the match, Frank Lomani, Fijian scrum-half said; “[Playing in Kamaishi] is very special for us, because we have come here and witnessed what real disaster survival means, how they rebuild and recover.”
Japan is one of the most disaster-prone nations on earth, so it is also taking the opportunity offered by the World Cup and the international sporting spotlight to promote emergency preparedness.
Thanks to support from the Government of Japan, UNDP is training more than 60,000 students and teachers from over 100 schools across 18 countries in the Asia Pacific region how to respond to a tsunami warning.
Launching its #PrepareToWin initiative, UNDP will be supporting a number of countries in the region in organizing preparedness drills on and around 13 October, which is International Disaster Risk Reduction Day. Unfortunately, and ironically, the second World Cup match in Kamaishi, which was to feature Namibia against Canada, was cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis, the worst storm in decades.
In the past 100 years, 58 tsunamis have killed more than 260,000 people, higher than any other natural hazard. They can’t be predicted, and often come with very little warning.
More than 70 percent of all tsunamis have been in the Pacific Ocean, around the earthquake-prone ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’.
Run to higher ground
Japan is proud to be sharing its life-saving knowledge with its Asia Pacific neighbours. It’s based on the concept of ‘inochi-tendenko’; when an earthquake occurs you run fast up to higher ground as soon as possible.
“A local saying tells us to ‘run by yourself and protect your own life’. This lesson is still valid today and needs to be passed on,” Mr Saeki says.
The Kamaishi Citizen’s Charter for Disaster Management was enacted in March of this year with a simple slogan. “For any disasters, be prepared, evacuate, do not return, and keep stories alive,” said Mayor Takenori Noda.
‘Do not return’ was life-saving advice for Mr Saeki in 2011. Like most people in Kamaishi who survived, he ran as fast as he could to higher ground. He was about to return to the town before the emergency warning was lifted. Fortunately, someone told him to wait.
“I wouldn’t not be here today if it weren’t for this advice,” he said.
Rugby fever has seized Japan because of the national team’s stunning upset win against number one rated Ireland, and a 59th minute try by Kenki Fukuoka.
Rugby is an ideal platform to keep stories alive, and Mr. Saeki is delighted to be able to play his part.
“What we can do is so little. But what we do through sports has its power. And we survived; we are alive, we have been through the disaster and maintained our lives,” he says.