Facing Disasters:
- The Importance of Telling the Story -

Hirotada Hirose
Professor, Tokyo Woman's Christian University

The Importance of Telling Disaster Stories

Memories of disaster tend to dim and fade quickly. Therefore, to keep old memories alive in the minds of those who have forgotten them, it is important that survivors tell others about their experiences.

A first-hand story told in the survivor's own words allows listeners with no personal experience of disaster to experience the tragedy vicariously, which makes them resolve to prevent such a tragedy ever happening again. In other words, the story prompts the listeners to prepare for the contingency of disaster.

Changes in the Mode of Telling: A Storyteller is Born

The experience of disaster is extremely traumatic both mentally and physically, and its horror is difficult to describe. Survivors who are initially unable to talk about what they have been through, because their emotions are heightened by confusion, gradually objectify their experience. By telling it in their own words, and letting those words spill out into the world, they begin to process their feelings.

When a survivor of a disaster?such as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Battle of Okinawa, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake or the Indian Ocean Tsunami?acquires his or her own unique narrative and creates a mode of narration, a storyteller is born. Stories created in this way evolve further and become universalized, taking root as art in forms such as novels, pictures, music and poetry. However, due to the power of the raw material, personal accounts that have not yet been completely processed into "stories" leave an even more vivid impression on the listener, and tap directly into their emotions.

Widening the "Audience"

When a disaster survivor recounts his or her pure, indescribable emotions and terror to other survivors or family members, letting the feelings out, the recounting is, initially, done for the survivor's own benefit. When the "audience" is widened to include friends, acquaintances, work colleagues and others, the recounting starts to take on social significance. When a survivor recounts their experience, their feelings and memories from the time of the disaster are recalled vividly, putting the survivor in the difficult situation of reliving the traumatic experience. However, by enduring the recalling of this traumatic memory, the survivor gradually gets used to it, and gains the ability to process and objectify the disaster experience.

The survivor comes to see himself or her herself not just as a survivor but also as someone passing on the story of the disaster experience.

The authentic voice of the survivor also has the power to move the heart of the listener. As society acknowledges the value of the story, the teller's self-worth increases, and he or she begins to feel supported by those around him/her. In this way, disaster stories "take root" in society, and take on a value of their own.

Why Society Needs Storytellers

In December 2005, Kyodo News sent a questionnaire to survivors of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. One of the questions asked them about the fading of their memories of the disaster. Roughly 90% of the respondents replied that their memories were "fading quite a lot" or "fading a little", indicating that the survivors are aware that their memories of the earthquake are receding. The importance of recounting memories of disaster is also indicated by the response to the question "What do you think is important in terms of keeping these memories fresh?": the most frequent response was "The activities of storytellers, and the activities of the survivors themselves, such as telling children about their experience of the disaster".

In the Great Hanshin Flood of 1938, a seasonal rain front caused torrential rain to fall on the Rokko mountain range, which in turn caused the ground to collapse at many points alongside the mountains: as a result, streams of mud from the steep mountainsides formed a landslide which hit urban areas. Roads were blocked, railway lines became impassable, and Kobe was cut off from the outside world. This was a major disaster, which left 925 dead or missing. Very few people with first-hand experience of this disaster are alive today, and it is unlikely that a similar flood will ever occur again. However, with the advance of global warming, as demonstrated by the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, the danger of giant typhoons and floods is increasing, and the lessons learned in the Great Hanshin Flood need to be put to good use.

Another forgotten disaster which occurred in Kobe before the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake is the Kobe Bombing. Intense bombing in 1945 killed 7,491 Kobe citizens, which works out at 8 in every thousand. This was a major disaster: in fact the postwar reconstruction lasted until 1994, the year before the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake.

In the Indian Ocean Tsunami, many of the victims had been unaware of the dangers posed by tsunamis. If stories of the horrors of tsunamis had been part of the culture in the stricken areas, people would have had a mental image of this phenomenon, and much harm could surely have been averted. Again, in the case of Hurricane Katrina, scientists and researchers had been aware that New Orleans was capable of withstanding a category 3 hurricane, but not a category 4 or 5: the general public however, was not privy to this knowledge. If there had been a way of telling the people of New Orleans about the disaster that was waiting to happen, they would not have had to experience such a tragedy.

To create a demand for a higher level of safety, it is first necessary to create sense of unease about the present situation: this unease will serve to increase people's motivation to prepare for the contingency of disaster. In terms of triggering unease and raising awareness of the need for disaster-preparedness, telling stories about disasters, and listening to them, is extremely effective.

The Benefits of "Telling"

Recounting the experience of disaster has several benefits. First, by digesting and recounting the distressing experience, the teller is able to distance himself/herself from, and to objectify, hitherto suppressed, unexpressed feelings, memories, and a sense of loss. Through a survivors' network or similar, the teller can also help the community to improve its disaster-preparedness. The listeners, for their part, vicariously experience the disaster, and as a result, they empathize with the survivor and feel moved to provide support: they are also spurred on to prepare for disaster themselves, and can also be galvanized into starting wider social trends.

To enable survivors to tell their stories, forums like TeLL-Net need to be provided, and various other forms of help need to be made available to those who have stories to tell. It is very important to invite storytellers to tell their stories. Through being empowered to tell their stories, survivors gain the opportunity to objectify their traumatic memories and recover from the trauma. When an individual's story breaks out into the wider community and moves those who hear it, the story gains social value and adds power to initiatives aimed at improving disaster-preparedness. Again, from the storyteller's point of view, this positive feedback makes the survivor feel useful to society, and this helps to heighten their sense of self-efficacy.

If TeLL-Net were expanded, and if more international conventions were held, enabling survivors of disasters all over the world to get together under one roof, it would be possible to amass a wealth of information and experience, which would in turn raise global awareness of the importance of disaster-preparedness. This would surely be a major step towards enhancing the world's ability to cope with disasters.

Hirotada Hirose "Facing Disasters"

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