It seems that one way to see the fabric and true face of a society is to learn how it responds to a crisis. I witnessed how nature can destroy anything mankind builds within seconds, but also how human strength of mind, local initiative, and the joint forces of people can overcome seemingly unsurmountable challenges and rebuild society.


For hours we drove along the coastline through endless areas where entire villages had been swept away, leaving nothing behind but the foundations of houses. In some areas, one ruin after the other was marked with circles and red crosses, signalling where people had lost not just their shelter but also their loved ones.


While the establishment of temporary housing and the public infrastructure is proceeding at an impressive speed, re-establishing human capacity proves to be the far greater challenge. That was most clearly visible in Otsuchi Town, where the tsunami had killed the Mayor and destroyed much of the public administration and its corporate memory: This town was far behind others in its reconstruction efforts. Looking at it the other way round, this was illustration of how important local initiative and capacity is in rebuilding the area. I spend almost an hour with the superintendent of Yamada who was a great example of local leadership, and when I listened to him, with tears in his eyes but also full of determination to help create a new Japan, Tokyo seemed far, very far, away. He stood in sharp contrast to the Western stereotype of Japanese bureaucrats waiting for instructions from above.


The school principals of Funakoshi and Ohtsuchi Elementary School running the temporary Rikuchu-Sanriku Youth House were other illustrations of the immense dynamism and creativity that Japan can have, if it chooses to unleash it. In fact, just before I met them I had visited the remnants of the old Funakoshi elementary School, a school that looked like you imagine a school anywhere in the world, there were long dark corridors providing each class with its own classroom, and one floor up there was the teachers’ room. But the Rikucho-Sanriku temporary school was different, the Gymnasium hosted three classes in a grand open learning space and the teachers’ rooms of two original schools faces the “classrooms”. Together, students and teachers found creative solutions to ease the difficult conditions, fostering mutual respect and responsibility at the same time.  As the head-teacher explained, when one class had a music lesson, the others would go outside for sports. The teachers could not preserve much from the old school library, but the community-based support groups had chipped in to donate books and whatever else was needed, and there seemed nothing that you cannot build from cardboard. Children from all over Japan and the world had connected with this school and offered their sympathy, solidarity and support, the walls were not large enough to hold all the postcards, letters and toys they had sent. In some ways, the tsunami had transformed a school of the past into a learning environment of the future.


The most moving reports were those from teachers. Even in normal times, Japan is a country where there seems no boundary between the public and private life of teachers, where teachers feel a deep commitment not just to the cognitive development of their students, but also to their students’ social and emotional at school and at home. The crisis has amplified this, with teachers taking on an incredible amount of additional responsibility with little material and psychological support.

There was, first of all, the immediate impact of the tsunami where I heard about many teachers who had risked their lives to save those of their students. One high school teacher recounted how he is unable to forget the moment when he had reached out to save a child whom the violent floods were carrying into the open sea, but failed to seize the hand by just a few centimetres. Another teacher had rescued all the children in the school after the initial earthquake hit and brought them to high ground. When the parents of one of the children arrived and demanded to take her home, the teacher was not convinced that it was the right act, but didn’t deny the request. The child and her family died on their way down to the city when the tsunami followed.


And in many ways this just marks the beginning for teachers. I learned that it was often only when students return from temporary shelter to their original environment that they and their families were realising the full impact of the tsunami. For some it is their lost family members, relatives or neighbours. For others it is the loss of their livelihoods, as a large share of the jobs have disappeared, and may have disappeared forever as the economy restructures and new and different jobs will be needed requiring new and different skillsets and thus placing additional demands on people for adjustment. There is no doubt that these scars of children and their families will shape the work and life of teachers until long after the towns and cities have been rebuilt. Japan can be proud of its teachers who are taking on this challenge, who don’t just feel as educators but as nation builders, but they will need strong and sustained support.


Then there are the unions. As an employee of a government organisation the first thought I tend to have about unions is that these are the people who oppose educational reforms. But I was deeply impressed by the more than 12,000 JTUC staff members who have volunteered in the tsunami area. And I have met few people who share such a deep concern and commitment for the future of the education and social welfare of Japan’s children than JTU’s vice president and her colleagues in Iwate prefecture.


Acknowledging that we don’t have the firemen, doctors and engineers that Japan needs in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, I was struck by the similarity in the answers I received when I asked what the OECD can do to help. Virtually everyone said that they knew how to rebuild the public infrastructure, that they will work hard to support their schools and teachers, but that they need the OECD to share the world’s expertise in building an education system that fills Japan’s curricular goal of “zest for living” with life – to which the tsunami has given an entirely new meaning. To build an education system that shifts from reproducing educational content for school towards strengthening competencies for life; from education to serve the nation state towards education for citizenship in the local community, the Japanese society and the global community; from education for competition in exam hell towards strengthening social skills and social cohesion; and from education for situational values – I will do anything the situation allows me to do – to sustainable values.

Community leaders and educators were also keen to share the experience which they had gained in the aftermath of the tsunami to help the world avoid some of the mistakes which they had made and to reduce the impact of future natural disasters.


And so many conversations ended with, please, don’t forget us.