Interview with Yoshiaki Kawata: 'The Kobe Earthquake museum houses the living memory of what should never happen again.'

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction

Professor Kawata, a prominent professor in the field of disaster risk reduction at Kyoto University, was awarded for his promotion of research and knowledge about past disasters. In particular he has highlighted the bitter lessons learned from the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake (the Kobe Earthquake), which killed more than 6400 people and is considered as one of the most dramatic and costly earthquakes in Japan history. In a commemoration of the 1995 Kobe earthquake Professor Kawata established the Disaster Reduction Museum in Kobe, and has carried out numerous research projects on the lessons learnt from the earthquake regarding response, reconstruction and restoration.


Why are the lessons of the Kobe earthquake so important in Japan?
Rapid economic growth started in Japan around 1960 and every big city expanded until about 1995. At the centre of all these cities are older inner cities, where the infrastructure is ancient, and where many elderly people live due to cheap housing and other low living costs. So in every inner city, there is a high level of disaster vulnerability. Kobe was a typical big city with these characteristics. In Japan, big cities such as Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Sendai, Fukuoka are located on active faults with earthquake magnitudes of more than 7, and could one day suffer a similar earthquake to Kobe.

Why did you set up the Museum?
We have learned many lessons from the Kobe earthquake that can be communicated to others. The Kobe Earthquake museum houses the living memory of what should never happen again.
It is very important to transfer these lessons to the next generation and to the rest of the world. In collaboration with disaster victims, local citizens and volunteers, the Museum exhibits live documentary experiences and lessons of the earthquake to the people of the world, as well as to children, who will shape the future. The Museum motivates citizens and visitors to take a sincere interest in, deliberate upon, and understand the importance of disaster reduction, the preciousness of human life, and the value of our mutual dependence as human beings.

How did the Kobe earthquake research contribute to improve the worldwide knowledge about earthquakes?
People can understand the difference between plate boundary earthquakes and inland earthquakes due to active faults. Even if the probability of an earthquake occurring is small, estimating damage before disasters happen is very important. The process of an earthquake’s epicenter can be clearly analyzed with networks of seismographs. GPS data can explain the balance between two plates’ boundaries. The process of propagation of the P wave and S wave was used for emergent issue of warning, before damage was generated.

How did you contribute as a researcher to improve Japanese disaster management capacity?
After the Kobe earthquake, we began to understand the importance of information. Therefore, we now use GIS as well as GPS to manage damage. Also, the Museum conducts training of local government staff who play central roles in disaster management. In these training programs, the Museum shares the experiences of the Earthquake, and systematically provides practical knowledge and skills in disaster reduction, based on the latest research results. The Museum thus contributes to upgrading the emergency management capacity of local government.

As a professor and communicator, you attach a huge importance to the transmission of knowledge through recreating lived experiences, and learning lessons from major disasters. How do these lessons contribute to keep the collective memory alive and educating people on disaster risk reduction issues?
After the Kobe earthquake, we had seven major earthquakes in Japan. We learnt so many lessons from them and every time there was another, we could check the applicability of those lessons by trying them out in practice. We also continued the field survey on recovery processes from the Kobe earthquake. The data was persuasive for new victims and local government officers. I delivered more than several hundred lectures to people and appeared on television about 200 times during the last ten years.

Today you head one of the biggest institutions on Disaster Risk Reduction (the Prevention Research Institute). Do you think that the exchange of knowledge and information between universities and countries is key for advancing disaster risk reduction issues?
Yes. I have sat as a member on many disaster risk reduction committees in central and local governments. The reduction policy needs the background of implementation science. I have written more than five hundred technical papers. And after the Kobe earthquake, as an editor in chief, we printed a new academic journal on the subject. With our technical support, policies should prove effective.
What are you planning to do with the money you have received from the Sasakawa prize?
We have a plan to promote a symposium on the lessons of disasters, and transferring those lessons to the next generation and the world.

You have been in the field of DRR for more than 30 years, how do you judge the progress made so far in disaster risk reduction policies? And what is missing according to you, that should be made a political priority?
Our central and local governments have adopted a disaster reduction strategy covering the next ten years or more. Long-term perspectives are very important in the successful promotion of issues like disaster warning and retrofitting houses. Our government is making consistent efforts now, to make sure the goal of the disaster reduction strategy will be accomplished. But due to budget restrictions and rotation of government officers, we have to keep coming up with new ideas and proposals.

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