No one can truly be prepared for a calamity like the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, even for Japanese who have gone through disaster drills regularly since childhood to learn how to react.

But for non-Japanese residents who don’t speak the language, the experience could be horrifying, not being able to understand news or instructions provided at evacuation centers that may prove critical to survival.

And that was exactly what Motoko Kimura, 37, witnessed during the unprecedented quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in March 2011, where damage in the Tokyo metropolitan area was minor compared with hard-hit Tohoku but fear was sky high.

“Even foreigners who used Japanese on a daily basis were in fear, as they had no idea where to get information and trouble understanding what was reported on TV as the sirens blared outside,” Kimura recalled.

This prompted Kimura, then a Japanese-language teacher on maternity leave, to get together with friends to launch a disaster-preparedness workshop in English for foreign residents in May 2011, offering practical tips on how to react when the next big quake strikes.

What was originally intended to be a one-time event spread via word of mouth, prompting Kimura to found WaNavi Japan, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization aimed at providing practical tips to foreign residents, soon after. The workshops it offers today provide tips on everything from using hospitals and the health care system to food safety, but disaster-preparedness is the most popular program.

“As long as you live in Japan, you can’t avoid the risk of an earthquake,” said Kimura, who also serves as a visiting lecturer on emergency preparedness and Japanese culture at Hitotsubashi University Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy. “But by gaining knowledge, by knowing tips such as ways to react in times of a major earthquake, you can gain a sense of security.

“I want people to be prepared before the next big quake hits Japan,” she said.

Earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan, where thousands of small tremors hit every year. Since it is crucial to be prepared for natural disasters, children are taught how to act when a big earthquake hits through disaster drills held regularly at schools, kindergartens and day care facilities.

But it is a different story for non-Japanese.

According to a metro government survey from October to November in 2011, about 40 percent of non-Japanese residents said they had never experienced an earthquake before coming to Japan.

Many also had no knowledge whatsoever of disaster-preparedness, Kimura said.

“Basic knowledge of disaster-preparedness is hammered into our heads from childhood. But many non-Japanese don’t have that and some don’t know what to do when an earthquake hits,” Kimura said.

Lacking the knowledge and language skills, some foreigners, especially those with children, became depressed during the triple calamity, feeling helpless and unable to protect their loved ones, Kimura said.

Hoping to alleviate their anxiety, WaNavi’s workshop teaches participants not only how to respond when an earthquake hits, but also crucial Japanese phrases and kanji needed to understand emergency instructions.

Non-Japanese often find it difficult to understand kanji, but the workshop utilizes pictographs to make them fun and easy to memorize.

“At the end of the workshop, we let them listen to actual past NHK news reports or municipal emergency announcements. And they can understand what’s being said. They also started to recognize the kanji for words such as hinan (evacuation),” she said. “Through that experience, they become confident about living in Japan as long as they know those key points.

“I was really happy when one of the participants told me because she now knew how to prepare for a disaster she no longer felt uneasy,” she said.

Spending her childhood in Napier, New Zealand, where she was the only Japanese at her school, Kimura has long sought coexistence with people of other cultures.

After graduating from Keio University in 2001, Kimura joined the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, where she worked on yen-loan projects to aid developing countries.

During her years at JBIC, she met refugees from Sri Lanka, realizing for the first time how closed Japanese society was toward foreigners. That experience led her to turn her eyes to foreigners living in Japan, and mull ways to contribute to supporting people in need.

Kimura started working as an intern at Japan Association Refugees, a Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization. After helping with the group’s Japanese classes and seeing the refugees’ faces light up, Kimura knew it was her calling.

“I’ve realized how learning the language of the country you live in, and starting to understand things surrounding you, like what a sign says, can plant a seed of confidence in a person. It made a lot of sense to me to provide support and care for the refugees through language learning opportunities,” Kimura said.

After being certified to teach Japanese, Kimura taught at a shelter for refugees in Kanagawa Prefecture and at Sendagaya Japanese Institute in Tokyo, until taking maternity leave before the 2011 calamity.

Now, as the head of WaNavi, Kimura hopes to create more opportunities for Japanese and foreigners to interact and share each other’s cultures.

In one such effort, the group organized events to celebrate days like Hina Matsuri (Girls’ Day) in March and Tanabata (Star Festival) in July, where both Japanese and international families gathered to share their cultures.

“I want to create similar opportunities where both Japanese and foreigners can interact and learn from each other,” Kimura said.

Key events in Motoko Kimura’s life

March 2001 — Graduates from Keio University.
2001 to 2004 — Employed by Japan Bank for International Cooperation.
2005 — Moves to the Philippines to accompany husband.
2006-2007 — Becomes an intern at Japan Association for Refugees.
2008-2011 — Teaches Japanese at Sendagaya Japanese Institute and a refugee shelter in Kanagawa Prefecture.
May 2011 — Establishes WaNavi Japan.

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews that appears on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.