Learning From the Disaster: tsunami tendenko

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi

Living on the edge of the quake zone has proved to be stressful and full of despair. One brilliant ray of hope has been the fact that most children who were in school when the tsunami hit were saved. Or rather, they saved themselves.

A little research reveals that this was no accident. In an earthquake followed by a tsunami in 1896, the population was decimated when family members rushed to each other’s sides instead of trying to save themselves.

To avoid that happening again, children have been taught tsunami tendenko as a kind of motto to live by. I read about this in an English newspaper and the translator in me immediately had to know WHAT EXACTLY those words meant. “Tsunami” was self-explanatory, but I needed to know what that tendenko was all about. The paper gave the definition as “go uphill independently at the time of tsunami caring only for your own safety, not thinking of anyone else, even your family.”

All that? My online dictionary gave “each for oneself, separately” as the definition of tenden-ni, an adverb. It began to make sense. ko as a suffix often makes a noun out of an adverb to describe a kind of child. Thus tendenko would be “child who does each-for-oneself.”

I was almost satisfied. Internet search engine in hand, I found a blog that defined the term (in Japanese) as “save yourself, every which way, just run for high ground.” Now that actually sounds like something you’d say to a child.

And we now have proof that it works!

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