General | WEEK 3

Fumio Yamashita: May his epitaph be tendenko

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

When a tsunami is coming, don’t try to look for your relatives. Don’t try to help the elderly, your grandparents or your parents. Don’t try to call your wife or your husband. Don’t think about your children or your grandchildren. Run. Save yourself.

Such is the rubric known in Japan as tendenko — a teaching that saved an untold number of lives when massive tsunamis hit the Sanriku coast of the nation’s northeastern Tohoku region in 1933, in 1960 — and again on March 11, 2011, following the magnitude-9 Great East Japan Earthquake.

It is a teaching that, to a large extent, owes its currently high degree of recognition to the tireless efforts of one Fumio Yamashita, a Sanriku native who survived all three of those disasters, but who succumbed last week to pneumonia at age 87.

When I met Yamashita, in May this year, he was in hospital in the Iwate Prefecture capital of Morioka. He had been transferred there from another one right on the coast in the town of Rikuzentakata where, on March 11, he is reported to have clung to the curtains in his fourth-story ward to stop himself being swept away by the tsunami.

“I deliberately went to the window to watch it,” he said. “It was far greater than even I had imagined it would be.”

That was all Yamashita would tell me about his most recent survival tale. He was equally reticent discussing his escape from the 1933 tsunami when, at age 9, he ran up a snow-covered mountain toward the distant calls of his father.

What he was happy to discuss was the teaching of tendenko.

“I think it’s probably not possible for me to go on saying this message for much longer, especially not overseas,” he said. “I have to leave that job to people like you.”

Indeed, Yamashita’s awareness-raising efforts were focused on Japan, but they were unceasing. He gave hundreds of lectures and wrote dozens of books on tsunami. The best-known of these, first published in 2008, is titled simply “Tsunami Tendenko.”

The idea of tendenko, which can roughly be translated into English as “everyone for his or herself,” first emerged after a tsunami that hit Sanriku in 1896. The notion that each member of a community should focus on their own surival then gained wide acceptance after it proved effective when the 1933 tsunami hit.

The reason the young Yamashita had only been able to run in the direction of his father’s calls as that tsunami roared in on March 3, 1933, was because his father had already gone ahead — as tendenko dictates.

That experience, and the knowledge that his paternal grandmother had died in the 1896 tsunami, set the course of Yamashita’s life work. “I had a kind of grudge against tsunami,” he said.

Still, as he freely admitted, his efforts to “know his adversary” were not entirely successful. On March 11, while he was in hospital in Rikuzentakata, his own house in nearby Ofunato was washed away.

Yamashita was in fact pained at the inadequacies of his own and others’ attempts to keep alive memories of past tsunami. Toward the end of my short visit with him, he told me that The Japan Times should make a film about tsunami — anything, he said, that would help people to remember those awful waves’ destructive potential.

But most of all he wanted me to repeat and help spread the tendenko imperative: When a tsunami is coming, don’t worry about anyone else. Run. Save yourself.

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