The people behind Japan's Bosai Girls want to transform disaster relief.

Story highlights

Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone places on Earth

To interest millennials, the Bosai Girls brought fashion to disaster relief

CNN —  

It took a devastating earthquake and ensuing tsunami to transform Misaki Tanaka’s view of disaster relief and inspire her inner social entrepreneur.

The earthquake on March 11, 2011, was the largest ever to hit Japan. A tsunami with 30-foot waves followed; nearly 20,000 people died, and 2,500 were never found.

“Before 2011, I had never thought about disaster prevention deeply,” Tanaka, 29, wrote in an email.

She had participated in school drills as a student, “of course, I didn’t feel it is important,” she said.

But the earthquake – which moved Honshu, Japan’s main island, 8 feet and literally shifted the Earth on its axis, according to the US Geological Survey – made Tanaka see things differently.

Her thoughts and actions changed in ways that surprised even herself.

Misaki Tanaka moved to Fukushima prefecture after the 2011 earthquake.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she says. She quit the job in IT that she loved and moved to the disaster area, Fukushima prefecture, to help people.

“In Fukushima, I saw a lot of refugees and collapsed houses and places where all the towns were washed away by the tsunami,” she said. “I talked with many people who lost friends and family.”

Tanaka decided to spread the word about the importance of disaster relief to Japanese citizens. On March 11, 2013, the second anniversary of the devastating earthquake, she and a couple of friends founded an organization called the Bosai Girls.

” ‘Bosai’ means ‘disaster prevention’ in Japanese,” Tanaka said, so the name of the group simply means “girls take action to prevent disaster!”

The website of the Bosai Girls makes this message clear: “Earthquake, volcano, heavy rain, typhoon. Living in Japan is to live with nature… and disaster.”

Natural disasters

Two Chinese characters are needed when you write “Bosai” in Japanese, Tanaka explains. The first means “prevention or prepare,” she says, while, historically, the Japanese have interpreted the second character to mean “natural disaster.”

There’s an excellent explanation for this.

“(Japan) is one of the most earthquake-prone places on the Earth,” said Mark Petersen, chief of the National Seismic Hazard Modeling Project with the US Geological Survey. He notes that yearly, there are 1,500 or more quakes of a magnitude that people can feel

A Bosai Girls misanga made out of paracord, parachute-strength lightweight rope.

Petersen explains that the Japan Trench is part of the Pacific Ocean’s famed Ring of Fire, where most earthquakes occur. Essentially, Japan sits on a large subduction zone (where tectonic plates meet), and when the ocean slab slides beneath the islands of Japan, the result is an earthquake, Petersen said.

In this precarious environment, interpreting the second Chinese character as “natural” disaster makes perfect sense.

Creating disaster chic

The nonprofit Bosai Girls organization is nontraditional in that it does not dictate disaster relief. Instead, volunteers are expected to think independently while helping each other, Tanaka says. She is also introducing her own unique spin on familiar goods and services.

“In Japan, there are so many products and programs about disaster prevention,” she said. And while schools “force” people to participate, “it’s not fun so we don’t want to do it.”

Her generation is “bored” with the ordinary disaster drills, she said: “So, we need to draw their attention.”

Fashion, she believes, can help enlighten those who feel uninspired by the current menu of disaster relief options. To this end, Tanaka has created disaster chic products to replace the not-so-fashionable goods that are generally available.

User-friendly and portable

“In Japan, we keep emergency kits in public areas (like a school) or at home,” Tanaka said. Yet each day, people are not necessarily in where you might expect, or they are in transit between familiar destinations. Many disaster relief products and kits are not portable and so not user-friendly, she believes.

The Bosai Girls' misanga can be used in more than 10 ways during a disaster, Tanaka said.

A new sense of “usability” influenced her creation of a special misanga, or embroidered bracelet (think friendship bracelet). The Bosai misanga is made out of paracord – parachute-strength lightweight rope – and, if unraveled, can be used in a crisis in more than 10 ways during a crisis: as a clothes line, a tourniquet, dental floss, a shoelace, a cord on which to attach and wave an SOS sign, and even a whistle.

The misanga is available through #beOrange, a campaign for spreading tsunami awareness organized by the Bosai Girls and the Nippon Foundation’s Ocean and Japan Project.

Generally, Japan is “very well-prepared” for the possibility of a tsunami aftermath to an earthquake, Petersen said. “They have spent a lot of resources designing tsunami walls to protect themselves.”

#beOrange, though, fills a gap in the awareness wall. The Nippon Foundation notes that orange is the color of flags to be used by relief workers signaling a tsunami evacuation. The bright color is easily seen against the blue sky and sea and so serves as a visual alert to people – including tourists who may not speak Japanese – to seek shelter.

Tanaka’s disaster chic includes an orange version of her survivalist misanga. However, her most substantial contribution to disaster style might be her pair of volunteer boots.

These volunteer boots are lighter and easier to carry than traditional ones.

“Shibata Industrial, in business since 1912, produced the boots,” Tanaka explained. “Unlike traditional boots, both heavy and fitted for men,” the Bosai boots are “not so heavy and easy to pack.” Though malleable, the boots are also waterproof and sturdy, with an iron plate in the sole.

Though Tanaka has other disaster chic products available on her website, such as disaster prevention kits for women, her latest offering is an forthcoming rice porridge known as potayu.

“In Japan, emergency food is not tasty, unhealthy and it looks bad,” she said. In her survey of Japanese refugees this year, she found that they often said “they don’t want to eat emergency food because it makes them unhappy.”

Potayu is a nourishing rice porridge intended for disaster survivors.

Working with Ishii Food, a meat specialty company founded in 1973, Tanaka developed potayu to be not only tasty but healthy enough to eat every day.

Japan has a national style of disaster prevention, Tanaka says, noting that it is based on her country’s “spirit of mutual support” and powerful design ethos.

Appealing to millennials and women

Stephanie Rendon, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, is not surprised by the work of the Bosai Girls on the far side of the Pacific Ocean.

Experience with the international disaster relief organization has taught Rendon that many young people “volunteer to support communities in times of crisis, set up blood drives in their schools, raise awareness and funds for international initiatives, and more.”

In fact, the Missing Maps program of the Red Cross has inspired many millennials to join the movement by building digital maps of at-risk communities. “Their tech-savvy and enthusiasm for volunteering digitally has helped our teams deliver aid around the globe,” she said.

As Rendon sees it, “disaster relief is a team effort. It takes all types of aid agencies to provide disaster relief and recovery services.”

“Every disaster is unique and brings its own set of challenges,” she said, so a variety of helpers are needed to contribute by “using their own talents, skills, and experiences.”

“Emergency management is traditionally a male-dominated space,” Rendon said, yet around the world, “women of all ages” are taking up “leadership roles to help make a difference in their local communities.”

The Bosai Girls, then, join an existing movement in the disaster relief space.

“Women and girls need more special support and help than men,” Tanaka said. This is why she created the name Bosai Girls. “And then, I think women and girls can help each other more kindly and they can understand sensitive problem without talking,” she said, adding that all are welcome to volunteer with or attend events of the nonprofit organization.

‘I have to stand up’

Though Tanaka does not know exactly how many social media friends and followers of Bosai Girl become involved in disaster relief, she said that when she runs an event, “3,000 and more participants come.”

“They are interested in our values and perspectives,” Tanaka said; some say the Bosai Girls have “changed their lives.”

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    Today, as well as preparing for “unusual” disasters separate from ordinary life, Tanaka and her organization are beginning to think about different types of disaster, including bullying, discrimination and other “life accidents,” as she describes them.

    “I know there are many other social problems in the world. I also think I want to solve them,” Tanaka said.

    With many natural disasters occurring around the world and many lives lost, she said, “I think we should think about disaster more deeply.”

    After all, natural disaster is the one social issue that relates to everyone on Earth.

    “Few Japanese take action for that,” Tanaka said. “So I have to stand up.”