Learning from Japan’s 3.11: Traditional Storytelling and Migrant Integration

  Date: Thursday, June 7, 2018
By Flavia Fulco, Assistant Professor at the University of Toyama

I moved to Japan in August of 2011, just after the Great East Earthquake and Tsunami known as 3.11 destroyed 400 kilometres of coastal Northeast Japan. Like many people, I continued living in Tokyo after the disaster, unaware of what was going on only a couple of hundreds of kilometres north of the city where the bulk of the devastation took place.

I am originally from Rome where I started learning Japanese many years ago. I wanted to bring my language skills up to a level that would enable me to conduct research on Japanese culture. I eventually obtained a post-doc scholarship that allowed me to be part of a research project involving communities affected by the tsunami. It was in this way that I discovered a lot about the life of survivors and the consequences a natural disaster could have on local communities.

In 2015, I started visiting Tohoku, meaning “northeast” in Japanese. My research there focuses on the cultural memory of the disaster and how it could influence local communities’ identity. For example, “Kataribe” is a practice of traditional storytelling that has revitalized after the disaster along the affected areas. It helps keep the memory alive of what people living in Tohoku experienced, enhancing disaster prevention for future generations.

Seeing and learning about how communities worked together to reduce risk factors inspired me to learn more about Japanese Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) policies. And I have started to study the connection between the cultural memory of disasters and DRR. I even recently obtained a Disaster Prevention Management Certificate (Bosaishi in Japanese).

Having lived in Japan for the past seven years, I am particularly interested in the role migrants play in Japanese society. DRR is an important aspect to consider when we think about integration and participation in society at large.

In the last few years, progress has been made towards the inclusion of migrants in DRR practice. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 calls for "a broader and a more people-centered preventive approach to disaster risk". It also states that "Governments should engage with relevant stakeholders, including women, children and youth, persons with disabilities, poor people, migrants, indigenous peoples, volunteers, the community of practitioners and older persons in the design and implementation of policies, plans and standards."

The Guidelines to Protect Migrants in Countries Experiencing Conflict and Natural Disaster, also call for an inclusion of migrants in DRR, both in the pre-disaster and post-disaster phases (especially guidelines 3, 4 and 5).

However, in the manual published by the Disaster Management Research Department, a non-governmental organization that organized the Disaster Prevention Specialist Certificate course I took, foreigners are considered to be “people who deserve special attention” during an emergency. While it is very important to recognize migrants’ potential heightened risks, we need to acknowledge their unique capacities and promote ways of leveraging their skills. Many migrants residing in Japan can speak a reasonable level of Japanese; have a high level of education and can contribute a lot to society. The active inclusion of migrants in DDR would be a great step forward, both for DRR policies and social integration - one does not exist without the other, and they both could have a mutual benefit if developed together.

To make this possible, issuing manuals, flyers and explicatory notes in English and other languages, would be a good first step. It is also necessary to train people, who can liaise between Japanese operators and non-Japanese audiences and, even more challenging, it is necessary to raise migrants awareness on the issue of disaster preparedness. Many migrants may be unaware of their heightened risk factors due to language barriers or insufficient integration into local communities.

Studying to be a Disaster Prevention Specialist has taught me to be more aware of heightened risk factors and engage more with the community in which I live and to build stronger relationships with the people I encounter daily. Being aware of immediate surroundings and building networks is just one example to better understand how everyday life in communities is connected to safety and, if you are a migrant, to social integration.

Communities in Japan are very strong, in terms of neighbours’ associations and school associations, among others. Tapping into local networks to better integrate migrants can be one means of accounting for migrants in the event of a natural disaster.

Some communities have already set examples of how to integrate migrants in DDR. The Foreign Resident Disaster Support Project in Mie Prefecture Japan, is a Government-led effort to better support migrants in the event of an emergency or natural disaster. It raises migrants’ awareness through disaster prevention seminars. In Japan, offering such support to develop disaster risk reduction programmes should go hand in hand with social integration.


Flavia Fulco is an Italian researcher based in Japan since 2011. She has completed a post-doc fellowship at Sophia University in Tokyo, working on the project “Voices from Tohoku”, a digital archive of Oral Narratives. The focus of her research is how the memory of disaster affects the development of local communities. She is currently Assistant Professor at the University of Toyama (Faculty of Sustainable Design) where she is part of a research team that is developing new systems for disaster relief by involving human and artificial intelligence. Learn more about Flavia's story on I am a migrant.