Keynote Address at The United Nations Special Thematic Session on Water and Disasters by His Imperial Highness The Crown Prince of Japan

March 6, 2013
United Nations
New York, United States of America

Revisiting the history of interaction between human being and water-related disasters
- Exploration to find a hint for more disaster-resilient society -

Your Royal Highness, The Prince of Orange, Chair of the UNSGAB,
Your Excellency Mr. Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations,
Your Excellency Mr. Vuk Jeremic, President of the General Assembly of the United Nations,
Your Excellency Dr. Han Seung-soo, former Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea, and Founding Chair of the HLEP,
Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,


I am pleased to give a key-note speech here at the United Nations in New York, the crossroad of diverse cultures and societies. This Special Thematic Session on Water and Disasters, organized by Mr. Ban Ki-moon, is an epoch-making event as it is the first occasion in the UN history to have a dedicated discussion on the subject. It is to be expected that the outcome of this Session will draw attention throughout the world.

We still have vivid memories of Hurricane Sandy that hit the Caribbean countries and the East Coast of the United States last October, leaving substantial damage in the region. I remember the news of a large-scale black-out, the immersion of subway tunnels and other damage that paralyzed cities and towns. I'd like to express my sincere condolences and sympathy to all who have been affected by the hurricane (Fig.1).

The Great Human Journey

I understand that the UNSGAB formally decided to co-host this Session in their meeting in Nairobi last November. It reminds me of my visit to the National Museum of Kenya in March 2010 where I saw for the first time skulls of Homo Erectus, that is, Early Man.

The rather small skulls left a strong impression on my mind as they recall the long history of human evolution to what we are today (Fig.2). According to one archeological theory, a handful of their successors started “the Great Human Journey” towards each of the continents about fifty to one hundred thousand years ago. As a result of their undertaking, humans thrive today in every part of the world. The theory is truly inspiring as it suggests that people, who are so diverse, have common ancestors.

The Great Human Journey was, however, a quest for survival, seeking water and food of the day. While they craved water, water also threatened them in forms of floods, droughts, and water-borne disease. The trip was a struggle to benefit from water while at the same time to contain difficulties associated with it. The struggle helped formulate better relationships between humans and water as we can see in the history of civilization (Fig.3).

I am glad that we have gathered here as participants in the Great Human Journey that still continues. The Special Thematic Session today is, I believe, an important snapshot in the millenniums of history of creating better relations between human beings and water, leading towards the sustainable development of our society.

Great East Japan Earthquake

On this special occasion, I'd like to focus on human relations with natural disasters in order to explore an avenue for better preparedness of society in the future. This story starts from a tragedy that recently happened in my own country.

The Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11th, 2011 brought one of the most severe disasters to the nation in its history. As a result of the catastrophe, 18,574 people died or are missing. Here again, I would like to express my heartfelt condolences to those who lost their lives, and my deepest sympathy to those who are affected by the disaster (Fig.4),(Fig.5).

Today is just five days before the 2nd anniversary of the earthquake. The picture shows temporary houses for evacuees which my wife and I visited five months after the earthquake (Fig.6). 315,000 people live tens and hundreds of miles away from home. The search for about 2,700 missing people still continues. Reconstruction activities are progressing in parallel to relief and recovery actions. There are a number of challenges in recovering devastated areas. Relocating homes to safer, high areas, while at the same time ensuring easy access to coastal areas to facilitate livelihoods, is one of the common but difficult challenges when embarking on recovery plans.

The nation and the people are doing their utmost to meet the challenges. I'd like to express my sincere thanks to the countries and people of the world who have extended warm helping hands to Japan and the Japanese people.

The huge tsunami caused much devastation. Buildings that managed to withstand the tremor were defenseless against the tsunami whose force was overwhelming.

As is shown in this picture, the tsunami devastated the areas submerged under water. However, the neighboring areas where the tsunami did not reach are without even a scar (Fig.7). Moreover, the pine forests along the seacoast were eradicated whereas those stretching inland were almost intact, which indicates that disaster damages depend on geographical and other natural conditions. The challenge is to integrate the areas that are in totally different conditions within one master recovery plan.

Japan has been repeatedly hit by huge tsunamis. After each tsunami disaster, people rebuilt their towns and fields in a resilient manner. Those disasters as well as restoration efforts were kept in historical records. The records were used as valuable documents that give us clues to be better prepared for future disasters.

I'd like to revisit the historical records, examine relations between human-beings and disasters and search for a clue for better preparedness in the future.

The Jogan Earthquake

A record of a tsunami as large as that of the Great East Japan Earthquake is found in the Nihon Sandai-Jitsuroku, an official history of Japan. According to the document, a mega-tsunami hit in 869 the region that overlaps with the tsunami-affected areas of the March 11th Tsunami (Fig.8).

This figure shows a description of the tsunami which was recorded in the document (Fig.9). The record is surprisingly precise in describing the phenomena of a tsunami starting with the tremor, then sudden rise of the sea water level, the appearance of a vortex, rapid advancement of water into the inland, and the landscapes after the tsunami.

It is by no means easy to collect sufficient scientific data or even to know the outline of a disaster as old as one thousand and one hundred years ago. Nevertheless, diligent research works are continuing as we believe that disaster experience and lessons in the past will give the best clue for better preparedness in the future. Integration of geological, archeological and historical analysis is in progress to reveal the truth of the earthquake.

The Meio Earthquake and disaster recovery

Historical documents weigh more importantly when recovery and reconstruction from disasters are addressed, because interaction between people and natural phenomena occurs in social settings of the period. Let me address the case of the Meio Earthquake in the 15th Century as varieties of historical documents are available. Diaries of aristocrats and memoires of monks and priests are among the references I examined.

The tsunami of the Meio Earthquake in 1498 inflicted substantial damage on Ise and Hamana Lake (Fig.10). The port town of Hashimoto that nestled on Hamana Lake was annihilated by the tsunami in 1498 (Fig.11). The outlet of the lake was widely opened by the tsunami, which turned the fresh lake water into brackish water. The port was relocated to Imakiri and Arai. The new port town was not as prosperous as Hashimoto as the geographical condition of the lake was completely changed due to the earthquake.

Another port town followed a different path. Ohminato Town of Ise adjacent to the Ise Shrine, the leading shrine of Japan, (Fig.12) was severely affected by the same tsunami in 1498. The tsunami swept away 1,000 houses and 5,000 people of the town. The port, however, recovered from the devastation. The port tax record called “Sen-sen-shuusencho” (Fig.13) in 1565 proves the full-recovery of the port as it shows that around 1565 as many as 120 cargo ships entered the port in a year. Some of them went as far as Hamana Lake about a hundred kilometers away.

As seen in these two cases, there is a striking difference in recovery of the two port towns depending on their geographical and social conditions. Historical accounts and records are useful not only in profiling disasters but also in analyzing relations between disasters and social recovery. The documents will give guidance in discussing alternative paths of recovery from disasters including the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Hojo-ki: A report of disasters by a priest in seclusion

There is an interesting essay called “Hojo-ki” (Fig.14). This essay was written eight hundred and one years ago by Kamo-no Chomei, a Shinto priest renowned as a poet and essayist. The book is widely known in Japan as an example of literature representing a medieval view of the world that everything, including one's life, keeps changing and is evanescent. Let me at this point explain to you a key word of Japanese philosophy - “hakanasa”, usually translated as “evanescence” or “fleetingness”. A good example of this is the blossoming of the cherry blossom in spring - a symbol which you all might recognize of Japan. The blossoms are beautiful but they fall and are dispersed in the wind only after a few days. For Japanese, there is a certain sadness in this and cherry blossoms are fleeting just as life is. The book says, “The flow of a river is incessant and continuous but flowing water is not the same. Bubbles floating in stagnant water may join or disappear but never stay there.”

The essay can also be regarded as an accurate report of disasters. Let us see some of the recorded disasters in the document.

Kamo-no Chomei vividly depicts the Great Fire in 1177. The fire, intensified by strong wind, burnt one third of East half of the capital city of Kyoto (Fig.15). He writes,” The fire broke out at the south east of the capital city. It reached the west and south end of the city including the ”Suzaku” Gate, the “Daigoku” Hall of the Imperial Palace, the “Daigaku-ryou” Organization and the Ministry of “Minbu”… The fire spread in the shape of a fan. Houses far from the fire smoldered with smoke. Downbursts of flames were seen near the fire. Ashes were blown up in the air. The sky shone crimson reflecting the fire. The fire was driven by wind to fly one or two blocks across streets…”

Thanks to this detailed, precise description, the fire in 1177 has been replicated today. It seems that strong wind guided by topography of the city spread like a fan. The record of Hojoki 800 years ago helps to improve disaster preparedness of the city now.

Kamo-no Chomei also mentions a tornado in 1180. It threw all furniture and objects up into the air. He compares the scene to a tempest in an inferno.

A sudden decision to move the capital to Fukuhara Region caused social unrest. Hardships were brought to people by not only disasters but also social change.

The famine in 1181 through 1182 was an additional calamity. Drought in spring and summer combined with typhoons and flooding in autumn caused serious damage. He writes, “There was no harvest of rice, grains or cereals. People abandoned houses in search of food. Various kinds of prayers and rituals were performed in vein. Grain prices sharply increased. Ears were filled by cries of people who became beggars…”

Kamo-no Chomei continues, “I expected better next year but it turned out to be worse. In addition to flood and drought, epidemics broke out. People starved to death. Countless numbers of bodies were found beside walls and along roads. The stench was unbearable. There were deformed bodies everywhere (Fig.16)... An infant kept sucking at the breast of the motionless mother without knowing that she has passed away.” He shows that consecutive occurrence of floods and drought brought tragic, devastating impacts on society. This is a lesson we should keep in mind.

An earthquake followed in 1185. Kamo-no Chomei observes the disaster, “The land of mountains sled. The Ocean tilted to immerse the land. The ground gaped open from which water spouted…” The expression is precisely applicable to what we saw in the Great East Japan Earthquake and other major earthquakes in Japan.

Thus disasters happened consecutively during the time of Kamo-no Chomei. These disasters helped molding the view that one's life never stays the same.

Kamo-no Chomei also laments, “After disasters, people seemed to have learned how fleeting this world is. However, they forgot the lesson quickly as time passed.”

A Japanese modern epigram says that a disaster strikes when people lose their memory of the previous one. Kamo-no Chomei seemed to know this. He visited disaster-affected areas himself and recorded what had happened in detail so that the disasters were never forgotten. His book gives us valuable clues to the relation between disasters and society in his time. He proved, eight hundred years ago, how useful it is to observe, record, and report on disasters. The message he sent across the centuries strikes us when we are facing a similar situation after disasters.

Water-related Disasters Today

In our own century, we are experiencing more water-related disasters than ever. The effect of disasters spread across borders to surprise unsuspecting citizens (Fig.17). No regions are exempt from water disasters. Droughts and floods alternate in countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, Oceania and small island countries. Water-borne epidemics often break out after disasters.

For example, the unusual dry weather in the United States since last July has caused droughts in the states of Iowa and Illinois. At the same time, Hurricane Sandy that came onto land in New Jersey wrought havoc on coastal areas through storm surges and tempests. Severe drought in the state of Queensland, Australia that lasted for five years until 2010 turned into flooding in the next two years (Fig.18). In Sub-Saharan Africa, consecutive dry seasons caused drought and famines in many countries while floods are hitting many others (Fig.19).

Water and disasters have become global issues that the international community should urgently address.

Large areas of Thailand including Bangkok were severely flooded in 2011 (Fig.20). Indonesia experienced the inundation of Jakarta last January (Fig.21). As globalization of economy and social activities happen, so does globalization of disasters. Water-related disasters that account for over 90% of total disasters in terms of number of affected people, could hamper the sustainable development of the world. Climate change, in addition, will globally increase extreme hydrological events.

From chains of disruption to chains of recovery

Yet we have many means with which we can be prepared for disasters than they did in the time of Kamo-no Chomei. There are various structural measures, early warning, education, and good governance, just to name a few... By making use of these available means and learning lessons from history, I believe that we can create a society more resilient to disasters. We can turn chains of disruption into chains of recovery. We need, however, a strong will to make these things happen.


The journey our ancestors started from Africa, in search for abundant water and food for everybody, will continue until the dream comes true. We will be one step closer to the dream by successfully addressing the issue of water and disasters.

My participation in this journey for about thirty minutes is almost completed. I sincerely hope that I can continue the journey with all of you towards better relations between humans and water during this conference and beyond.

Thank you.

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