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border iconWhat I experienced about the tsunami on this day in 2004


The Indian Ocean tsunami, which occurred on this day in 2004, was a pivotal event that brought global awareness to tsunamis. This event also drew worldwide attention to the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, which was the World Conference on Disaster Reduction at that time.  

However, the focus of this essay is not the strong impression left by this tsunami, but rather, a story of an event that made me realize how small the impression of this tsunami was. 

Though I am Japanese, I was living in Singapore when I was eight. Singapore is highly urbanized, and one must travel to another island to enjoy the tropical beaches. The most popular destination for such trips was Phuket Island. 

As the winter vacation approached, my family considered a trip to Phuket Island. However, it remained a mere consideration, and we ended up spending the winter vacation at home. 

The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami occurred on December 26, shortly after we discussed the potential trip to Phuket. Phuket Island was severely affected by the tsunami, and one of my classmates who was vacationing there was hospitalized due to the disaster. 

Footage of the tsunami was repeatedly broadcasted on television, and the topic was frequently discussed in school assemblies and classes. My class took turns visiting our hospitalized classmate. He eventually returned to school in a wheelchair. There were rumors that his sister had passed away, but I have never confirmed this with him. 

A few years later, I returned to Japan. At the school in my hometown, the song I learned was a love song titled ‘Tsunami. 

I was taken aback. 

I wondered if the teacher was unaware of the massive tsunami that had occurred just three years prior. I looked around at my classmates, but no one seemed to share my concern. 

The town where I lived in Japan experienced a tsunami in 1923 due to the Great Kanto Earthquake. This disaster caused damage equivalent to 37% of Japan’s GDP at the time. This region had experienced at least three major tsunamis before that. 

When I was in Singapore, I studied tsunamis while listening to phrases such as “Japanese people knew that a tsunami would come when the waves receded, so they escaped immediately, but foreigners didn’t know, so they couldn’t escape”, and “In Japan, we are conducting evacuation drills.”  

I thought that all Japanese people were highly conscious of tsunamis but that was not the case. It was only when I was asked to play a love song titled ‘Tsunami’ just three years after the major tsunami that I realized it. 

I practiced the song with mixed feelings. I never spoke about the tsunami to anyone until I graduated from school. I still regret not speaking up about it. This experience is one of the reasons why I chose a career in DRR. 

Even in a coastal town in Japan, a town in the country known for its high level of DRR, a town that had experienced a tsunami, the memory of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami had faded in a few years. I suspect that for many people overseas, the major tsunamis that have occurred so far are even more distant events than the Indian Ocean tsunami is for the Japanese. 

How can we communicate the importance of disaster preparedness to those who do not remember past disasters? How can we encourage investment in disaster prevention in countries and societies that have not personally experienced such disasters? These are questions I will continue to explore in my future work. 


Soraya Ono, Deputy Secretary General