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Tohoku University International Research Institute of Disaster Science Establishing and advancing action-oriented disaster research | Fumihiko Imamura Professor Tsunami Engineering Laboratory International Research Institute of Disaster Science Tohoku University [Date of Issue: 31/March/2014 No.0229-0924]

Date of Issue: 31/March/2014

Tohoku University International Research Institute of Disaster Science
Establishing and advancing action-oriented disaster research

Fumihiko Imamura
Tsunami Engineering Laboratory
International Research Institute of Disaster Science
Tohoku University

This article introduces the International Research Institute of Disaster Science (IRIDeS) founded by Tohoku University following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake to deepen disaster science and pursue the study of practical disaster prevention/mitigation.

1. The Great East Japan Earthquake and launch of the International Research Institute of Disaster Science

The 2011Great East Japan Earthquake was a compound mega-disaster comprising a mega-earthquake, mega-tsunami and several accompanying nuclear power plant accidents. It threw into sharp relief the weaknesses and limitations of Japan's science and technology system, which has been developed in response to individual issues to date. Responding as a major university to the experience of a disaster that was massive in both historical and international terms, Tohoku University has established the International Research Institute of Disaster Science (IRIDeS) as a new integrated interdisciplinary research team that will use the region's experience in addressing low-frequency mega-disasters that go beyond the scope of traditional disaster prevention plans. IRIDeS is Tohoku University's first new research institute in 70 years, and was founded barely a year after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

IRIDeS will serve as a research hub for identifying the realities of and lessons from the 2011 Great East Japan disaster, making concrete contributions to the reconstruction of Japan and leading the way in preparing for future mega-disasters. Based on the experiences and lessons of the Great East Japan Earthquake, IRIDeS aims to reshape Japan's management of natural and other disasters, as well as the way in which society and the public deal with natural disasters, creating a new paradigm for mega-disaster management. Through these efforts, IRIDeS aims to lay the foundations for an action-oriented disasterresearch, identifying specific social problems with a view to mitigating damage from massive mega-disasters both in Japan and overseas.

Gathering together researchers with the same strong determination and sense of crisis to operate in 36 areas within seven divisions extending from the humanities to the sciences, IRIDeS is making steady progress toward deepening disaster science and developing an action-oriented disasterresearch.
For details, please see the following website:

2. Analysis of Tohoku's mega-earthquake and tsunami: Current state of disaster science

Labeled by the Japan Meteorological Agency as "the 2011 off the Pacific coast of Tohoku Earthquake" (Mw 9.0), the epicenter of the event was off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, a little further out than expected. At first, the fault motion was primarily along the coast of Fukushima Prefecture, Miyagi Prefecture and Iwate Prefecture, but this immediately spread north to Aomori and south toward Ibaragi and Chiba, and current tremor distribution too ranges extensively along the Pacific coast of the Tohoku and Kanto regions. The scope of the main fault motionis estimated to be around 500 kilometers from north to south and around 500 kilometers from east to west. In the past, Tohoku earthquakes have been assessed on an area basis-off-Sanriku, off-Miyagi, off-Fukushima, and along the Japan Trench, etc. This time, however, seismic activity in all these areas combined to generate a mega-earthquake.

Mega-earthquakes like this generate tsunami waves from the disturbance of sea floor. The tsunami triggered by the 2011 off the Pacific coast of Tohoku Earthquake took an unprecedented form. A wave over 10 meters high struck more than 500 kilometers of coastline, with a maximum run-up of more than 40 meters. In addition to this extreme scale, the wave possessed sufficient power to destroy breakwaters and sea walls. Characteristics of the tsunami included seafloor deformation off Miyagi and Fukushima (the amount of fault slippage), and high slip values along the Japan Trench. Extreme seafloor deformation in deep sea areas generates correspondingly large tsunami waves. In fact, tsunami waves were observed all along the coast, indicating that as the two step waves propagated off Sanriku, primary crests phased together to strike the coast. We plan to elucidate that mega-tsunami generation mechanism with reference to the results of analysis of seismic waves and diastrophism, as well as the distribution of tsunami run-up height.

3. Beginning practical research

Universities today are increasingly expected to feed their research results back into communities for utilization in concrete action. Here I will outline two related projects adopted by the Reconstruction Agency as FY2013 frontrunner model projects in the New Tohoku initiative. Aimed at establishing, disseminating and expanding Tohoku-initiated tsunami mitigation and management action, these projects are one part of an action-oriented disaster research

3.1 Kakeagare! Nippon ("Head for Higher Ground! Japan") project

This project began in disaster-hit Iwanuma City in Miyagi Prefecture in 2012. The city was still in the process of reconstruction, but with the risk of earthquake-triggered tsunami waves remaining high, the project was considered essential in tem of keeping up the awareness of local residents. A university-industry-government partnership initiative, it entailed planning and implementing a tsunami evacuation drill program that would build on the lessons and experiences of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, aiming to resolve local issues in relation to tsunami evacuation and entrench tsunami evacuation behavior in local residents and others. A further aim was to make evacuation drills a regular event owned by local residents so that people would take part in much the same way that they would a local festival, rather than following the traditional model of compulsory and consequently passive evacuation drills. The program will be deployed widely over areas that have suffered tsunami damage in the past as well as areas where tsunami damage could occur in the future, so that locals will continue to talk about and also experience disaster mitigation and management.

3.2 Ikiru Chikara ("Strength to Live") citizen action project

Japan is one of most natural-disaster-prone countries in the world, and the Japanese people have not only lived with such disasters for thousands of years, but will also have to continue to do so in the future. The necessary attitude is to confront such disasters head-on with the right type of fear-namely, correctly understanding the threat posed by natural disasters without becoming excessively fearful or despairing, or, conversely, without ignoring or belittling the possibility of such disasters occurring or else optimistically assuming personal immunity; and also applying scientific knowledge to understanding the threat of natural disasters and taking precautions, as well as building the mental, emotional, physical and communication capacities to be able to make the right decision and engage in the right behavior for survival should a natural disaster occur. These are the capacities that underpin the "strength to live" and coexist with disaster. This "strength to live" should help to protect life, lifestyles and also society from natural disasters. The Ikiru Chikara ("Strength to Live") citizen action project was launched in January 2013 with the aim of developing and disseminating an action plan and awareness-raising tools that will provide each citizen with the strength to survive natural disasters. One outcome of the project has been the Disaster Prevention Handbooks which Tagajo City in Miyagi Prefecture has distributed to all households in April 2014.

4. Forming an international research hub

For our disaster science research to contribute not only to rebuilding Japan but also to mitigating disasters around the world, we believe that it will be vital to fuse a global perspective that elucidates disaster mechanisms on a global basis and prepares for the future together with international perspectives that examine in detail the distinctive features, diversity and values of specific countries and regions.

To that end, we are deepening our international connections, collaboration, working with Harvard University and the University of Hawaii in the United States, the University College of London in the United Kingdom, and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) to push forward powerfully with disaster research. We have also launched the Multi-Hazards Program within the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU), beginning a range of activities that include pursuing disaster research, contributing to international society and international policymaking, checking campus safety and holding an annual summer school.

A further aim is to build international multilateral partnerships, including hosting the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. To address disaster prevention on an international scale, the United Nations designated the 1990s the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction and in 1994 held the First World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Yokohama City. The 1994 conference adopted the Yokohama Strategy for a Safer World, which laid out a basic understanding in relation to mitigating and managing disasters by building disaster-resilient societies and making advance preparations. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) was subsequently established in 2000, and in 2005 the Second World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction adopted the Hyogo Declaration, which outlined the basic principles of the conference, and the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), which laid out an international disaster risk reduction strategy for the next 10 years. These documents have become the heart of world disaster risk reduction policy.

The United Nations has decided to hold the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai in March 2015. The meeting will be attended by government representatives, international institutions, NGOs, academic institutions, companies and other parties. The Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction has become the one of the world's most important conferences, bringing together disaster risk reduction personnel from all corners of the globe.

IRIDeS too looks forward to contributing to the international society by communicating the lessons and experiences of the Great East Japan Earthquake at the conference, as well as by playing a central international role in disaster science and supporting policymaking on disaster mitigation and risk reduction. We also plan to use the UN conference as a catalyst to create a mechanism based on university-industry-government partnership that will lend momentum to the reconstruction of Tohoku.

(194KB) Reference: IRIDeS's Mission

(415KB) Reference: Research roadmap for IRIDeS' first decade

(638KB) Reference: IRIDeS's Publication: Newsletter (quarterly)

(original article : Japanese)
(For the Japanese version of this article)

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