Japan's 'Bosai Girls' bring fashion to disaster relief

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.
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