Keynote address by His Majesty the Emperor of Japan The 5th United Nations Special Thematic Session on Water and Disasters Online

Friday, June 25th, 2021

Passing on the Memory of Disasters
Towards Building a Resilient and Sustainable Post-corona Society-

 Dr. Han Seung-soo, Chair of the Session
 Mr. Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General
 Your Royal Highness, Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen


I am pleased to have this opportunity to deliver a keynote address at the 5th UN Special Thematic Session on Water and Disasters. We meet here today in the midst of the enormous challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. I would first like to express my heartfelt appreciation and gratitude to the healthcare workers who are selflessly working day and night to save lives. At the same time, even during this pandemic, natural disasters continue to occur in many places around the world. One such was the disaster caused by heavy rainfall in the west of my own country last year. I would like to express my deepest condolences to the victims of these natural disasters and to those who have lost their lives during the pandemic, and express my deepest sympathy to their families and friends as well as to the people who have been affected by these disasters.

To combat the COVID-19 scourge, humanity has managed to produce vaccines which are starting to abate the pandemic. Although it is early yet, we at least see a beam of hope in this long and dark tunnel. At this critical juncture of uncertainty and hope, it is essential for the international community to initiate discussions for building a better post-corona-world for our future.

When we talk about natural disasters, I am obliged to mention that 10 years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 in which more than 20,000 people lost their lives or are still missing in my country. There remain regions where people are yet to be allowed to return to their homes, and while recovery and reconstruction have made progress, fostering people’s ties anew in newly-built communities, as well as mental health support to the affected people, remain major challenges. We should not look upon the disaster as a past occurrence. This lingering impact should be squarely addressed now and in the future.

Today, I would like to share with you my thoughts on how we should learn from historical experiences and lessons of the past to enhance our preparedness, with a focus on “passing on the memory of disasters”.

2. Passing on the memory of disasters

2.1 Memory of the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755(Fig.1

    Je respecte mon Dieu, mais j'aime l'univers.
    Quand l'homme ose gémir d'un fléau si terrible
    Il n'est point orgueilleux, hélas! Il est sensible.

This is an excerpt from a poem by Voltaire, the French philosopher, historian and writer. He wrote the poem after he learned about the Great Lisbon Earthquake and Tsunami in 1755 in which over 50,000 people lost their lives. This memory of people facing unprecedented devastation, as expressed in the poem, provides hints on how to cope with disasters today.

2.2 Passing on the memory of disasters to the next generation

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake (GEJE) and Tsunami of 2011(Fig.2). I, together with Empress Masako, have visited the areas hit by the GEJE and other disasters in Japan, and after the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, we have also had online communications with people affected by the disasters(Fig.3). Through these communications we have tried to watch over and listen to the voices of those who have been affected, and to those who have risen up from the disasters and have been endeavoring to reconstruct. We have also learned that impacts of the GEJE and recovery paths from the disaster varied markedly, depending on each region’s condition and the situation each person was in, and hence hardships for the affected people through the recovery process have had a significant range. I believe that it is imperative that the first-hand accounts of the people affected should be handed down to posterity and shared as common assets so that later generations will be better prepared.

Multiple efforts have been made to hand down the memories of disasters in Japan. I would now like to share some of these with you.

(1)Disaster Narrators(Fig.4

There are “disaster narrators” who pass on their memories to future generations by telling stories of their real experiences. Masako and I had the chance to talk with some of these people on line in March this year. We believe that it is very valuable for disaster-affected people to communicate threats of disasters and the importance of everyday preparedness directly to visitors, thereby sharing their messages with many people. We were encouraged to learn that young people who had experienced the disaster as small children have also joined in this activity.

I feel that some of their experiences could be crystalized as common messages(Fig.5). For example, many people emphasized the importance of people’s closeness and bonds when coping with disasters. The closeness of people counts, for example, in reviewing emergency responses together in evacuation drills, and in spreading disaster warnings to friends and neighbors. Evacuating hand-in-hand, sharing water and food in shelters, and helping each other during the recovery and reconstruction of communities also count. I believe that we can collectively be better prepared for disasters by passing on such common messages to a wider audience across generations. Small efforts to keep and transmit the memories of disasters will collectively create a significant momentum in reducing disaster risks.

(2)Disaster Remnants(Fig.6

Disaster remnants, or preserved buildings hit by disasters, are powerful reminders of the ferocity of disasters. We visited one such remnant, the Taro Kanko Hotel in Miyako City in Iwate prefecture in 2016. It is utilized as a significant learning facility for disaster risk reduction. The devastated building reminded us of the tsunami’s atrocious impact. We observed the importance of enhancing preparedness in communities and of handing down disaster memories. The remnants such as schools, police boxes, and hotels constitute a long-standing witness to the ferocity of disasters(Fig.7). Such remnants are also a symbol of people’s determination to remember the experiences and lessons learned through disasters and to prepare for future disasters.

(3)Stone monuments(Fig.8

Stone monuments carry a disaster’s memory for years. This picture shows Koryaku-hi in Minami Town of Tokushima prefecture in Shikoku, which was built in 1380 and is said to be the oldest earthquake and tsunami monument in Japan. I introduced it in my keynote address in the 3rd Special Session four years ago.

These are two tsunami monuments which stand twenty kilometers southwest of Koryaku-hi, in Mugi Town in the same prefecture(Fig.9). The monument on the right commemorates the Ansei-Nankai earthquake of 1854. That on the left, shows the Showa-Nankai earthquake of 1946. The engraving on the monuments reads, “Evacuate immediately if you notice any oncoming signs of a disaster.” There is a signpost between the two monuments, marking the highest tsunami water level at 4.52 meters during the Showa-Nankai Earthquake of 1946.

Similar attempts to commemorate disasters by building monuments have been made to this day(Fig.10). This picture shows a stone monument “that could save lives in 1,000 years" in Onagawa Town in Miyagi prefecture, where over 800 people died in the GEJE. Junior high school students proposed to build stone monuments in all of the twenty-one coastal communities which had been hit by the tsunami, so that people would never forget the disaster and could evacuate to survive, even if a disaster hits 1,000 years from now. The monuments were built at higher points than those that the tsunami reached(Fig.11), and warnings never to move the monuments are posted. Students’ short poems in the form of Japanese haiku which depict students’ feelings and thoughts reminiscing on the tsunami, are also inscribed on the steles in order to remember the disaster. The former junior high school students have continued their activities over these past 10 years in order to deepen ties among people in communities, create towns and streets which are easy for evacuation, and pass on memories and lessons of the disaster(Fig.12).

Stone monuments are not only useful for knowing about past disasters. They are “batons of memory” that carry disaster lessons across generations so as to protect human lives in the future.

3. Using the memory of disasters for better preparedness -Learning from the memory of the Meiwa Tsunami of 1771-

Next, I would like to introduce a case in which ancient records of disasters are effectively used for disaster risk reduction today. Exactly 250 years ago, and 16 years after the Lisbon Earthquake which I mentioned earlier, an earthquake and a gigantic tsunami hit the Archipelago of Yaeyama and Miyako in Okinawa prefecture in southwest Japan at around 8 a.m. on April 24th, 1771. It is said that 12,000 or one third of the whole population of the islands lost their lives or went missing in that disaster. It is referred to as the Great Tsunami of the Meiwa Period.

This picture shows an old official document called “Oonami-no-toki Kakumura-no Nariyuki-Sho”, or Nariyuki-Sho in short, meaning “a record of facts and events at the time of the great wave” (Fig.13). The document includes impressively detailed information on the disaster, and is in itself as valuable a record as today's disaster report(Fig.14). The information includes separate male and female gender death tolls, figures on the size and location of damaged farmlands, the direction of the tsunami, and even the surveyed level marks of the tsunami in each village, although the accuracy of the heights of tsunami is under some scientific debate. The document also depicts various facts concerning the disaster. For example, 29 percent more females died than males on the island of Ishigaki where a total of 8,400 people died(Fig.15). The number of females in the population decreased, from 53 percent of the population before the tsunami to 29 percent after the tsunami, in the seven most severely affected villages on the island(Fig.16). It has become clear that females were more prone to becoming victims in areas where damages were most severe. These separate figures for males and females were available because a gender-based population census had been conducted in the islands to levy a heavy poll tax in the form of rice for men and cloth for women. In addition, the document includes narratives on the disaster’s devastation and people’s reactions, the struggles of officials and others in rescuing people, as well as the records of recovery and reconstruction for several years in the aftermath.

In addition to the document, there is solid evidence that shows the fierceness of the tsunami(Fig.17). This is a picture of an uniquely shaped and colored “Yasura-uhukane” meaning “Large iron boulder in the village of Yasura” (Fig.18). This is “Taka-Koruse-Ishi” meaning “Tall boulder of Koruse”. They are located on the east coast of Ishigaki Island. These boulders were described in Nariyuki-sho as having been carried by the Meiwa Tsunami over a long distance despite their huge size and weight. According to a recent survey, the location, as well as the shape and size of the boulders, coincide with the descriptions in the document.

Those“tsunami boulders” became widely known in 1968 through a book entitled, “Mega-tsunami in the Meiwa Period in Yaeyama Islands” by Mr. Kiyoshi Makino, an official of the Ishigaki City Government(Fig.19). He deciphered old and tattered documents, mapped what he believed were tsunami boulders through field surveys, and recorded local folklore. His study connecting historical records such as Nariyuki-sho, and empirical evidence such as “tsunami boulders” to unravel a historical disaster was a pioneering work of “learning from history” about disasters.

In order to reveal the truth about the tsunami, works spanning over academic fields such as seismology, tsunami engineering, history, and archeology have continued to this day(Fig.20). These include further fact-finding by investigating old documents, identifying tsunami deposits in sedimentary layers, surmising the travel year of tsunami boulders, and computer tsunami simulations(Fig.21). The results of these integrated efforts have helped to formulate the disaster risk reduction plans of the islands(Fig.22). I expect that the comprehensive approach in these attempts to learn from past disasters through history and science will help make further progress in improving and expanding regional disaster risk reduction efforts.

4. Conclusion

I have talked about the meaningfulness of learning from memories of disasters and passing on those memories to posterity. Historically, we have collectively tackled the threats of natural disasters that are too formidable to address individually, by helping and caring for one another.

We are now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and efforts to counter this threat have been made in every corner of the world. I believe that humanity will be able to overcome the pandemic by applying the wisdom of science and technology, strengthening people’s ties and deepening our solidarity at all levels.

Mankind has learned from the experiences of disasters and has tried to be better prepared in the future by recording the lessons learned and passing them down. When we consider how we should cope with COVID-19 and build a safer post-corona society, I feel it necessary for us to learn more about our experiences of past pandemics such as what is called the Spanish flu from around a hundred years ago.

Whenever encountering pandemics or disasters, it is critically important to keep and share records of occurrences, various experiences, efforts made and lessons learned, and convey them to the next generation. These actions are indispensable for building a better world that is more resilient and sustainable, and for putting our efforts for the Sustainable Development Goals back on track and making further progress.

As we pass on the memories of disasters and pandemics to our posterity, we can improve our preparedness for forthcoming catastrophes. In this way, we can help to build a society in which everyone - with no one left behind - will be able to enjoy a daily life that is filled with health and happiness. I, together with you, will pursue my efforts towards this end.

Thank you.