A challenge to the imagination, an appeal to the conscience

Published: 14 April 2011 10:30 CET

Tadateru Konoé
President of the Japanese Red Cross Society
President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)

On 11 March, a massive earthquake, measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale, struck Japan’s Sanriku coast. Then came the tsunami, cresting at more than 38 metres high and devastating 500 kilometres of coastline. I felt strong tremors and watched, in horror, the first television pictures of the remorseless wave breaching our coastal defences and sweeping ships, cars and burning houses across the land.

When I reached the disaster area in the company of Japanese Red Cross disaster response teams, I was confronted with devastation that defies imagination. I have seen many terrible natural disasters in more than 60 years of humanitarian work. This was one of the very worst. The destruction was absolute. It reminded me strongly of Osaka, Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the end of the Second World War.

The Japanese Red Cross was one of the first organizations to respond. And in another echo of Hiroshima in 1945 – where the Red Cross hospital was the only building left standing in the blast zone – the Red Cross hospital in Ishinomaki city, Miyagi prefecture, was the only one to remain functional after the tsunami. It was soon filled with survivors: the walking wounded, the seriously injured, the orphaned and the homeless.

As I write, 12,000 people are confirmed dead and more than 15,000 are still missing. Hundreds of thousands of survivors have lost loved ones, homes and a means to make a living. The very fabric of their lives has been swept away and torn apart. But they live, and there is hope.

And I am humbled by the sympathy and solidarity shown by people from countries around the world, and by their generosity. Japan is one of the main providers of development aid and humanitarian response worldwide, and it is with immense gratitude that we are today benefiting, in return, from the kindness and compassion of others.

And there will be transparency with regard to the funds raised. Sixteen years after the massive Kobe earthquake, mechanisms for distributing funds to families will be re-established and the donations we receive will be properly accounted for. This is not only a commitment to the generosity of people around the world, it is our duty to the families who have lost everything.

Japan’s road to recovery will be a long one. Added to all this is the alarming problem of the Fukushima nuclear reactors. The shockingly destructive power of a tsunami and an earthquake could well be magnified by the consequences of radioactive contamination. This is reminiscent of the Chernobyl disaster, which is marking its 25th anniversary this year.

We need time to process what has happened, although one thing is certain: the thousands of families swept away by the waves are a claim on our conscience. We must be even better prepared for future disasters, we must rebuild our resilience, and we should not forget those suffering in other parts of the world.

I feel strongly that this tragedy, which has struck at the very heart of my country, should not overshadow others, such as the floods and mudslides in Bolivia and Sri Lanka, refugee families on the borders of Libya and Côte d’Ivoire, drought and food shortages in the Sahel or the Horn of Africa, or the current measles, cholera and meningitis outbreaks in Chad.

Against the backdrop of these neglected crises what happened in Japan should be heard as a renewed call for solidarity, preparedness and resilience at all levels: individual, community, national and global.

In living memory, this is the first time that the world has experienced such a complex emergency involving tsunami, earthquake and nuclear risks. Although this scenario was unprecedented, it may not remain an isolated case as an increase in these complex types of disasters is almost certain.

To fully protect our people, we have to think the unthinkable. We must invest heavily in increasing disaster preparedness, reducing risks – including nuclear ones – and helping communities to protect themselves.

That is preparedness. The only response to such tragedy, in the end, is mutual aid and a global spirit of togetherness – in my country, in your country and in all others – and a determination to prepare better so we can protect lives in the face of brutal disasters.


The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world's largest humanitarian organization, with 191 member National Societies. As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, our work is guided by seven fundamental principles; humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. About this site & copyright