Photo/IllutrationBosai Girls founder Misaki Tanaka (Provided by Bosai Girls)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Were it not for the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster, Misaki Tanaka's life might have continued uneventfully.

But the catastrophe that devastated northeastern Japan in March of that year caused her to take stock of her life.

Tanaka, now 29, had just graduated from a Kyoto university when the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake struck. It generated towering tsunami that ravaged coastal areas of the Tohoku region, left more than 20,000 people dead or missing and set off a nuclear disaster.

Tanaka soon began working for a big name information technology company in Tokyo that developed video games.

In her free time, she volunteered to assist disaster victims. This entailed clearing farmland of mounds of dead fish and debris washed ashore by the tsunami.

She was struck by the yawning gap between her existence and the sense of helplessness that afflicted many of those in affected areas.

While the company she worked for was busy profiting from its video game business, Tanaka's thoughts kept turning to displaced disaster victims trying to make a go of things.

Tanaka began wondering whether she was cut out for her line of work, and eventually quit after 18 months or so.

She landed a job at a public interest corporation working to support disaster victims, which took her to Fukushima, site of the nuclear disaster.

After her return to the Tokyo office, Tanaka got involved in disaster preparedness exercises, which she found "tedious, boring and always the same."

She said that even as a child, "I never once found them interesting."

Tanaka understood that disaster preparedness was hugely important, but her spirit was never stirred by evacuation drills that simply involved assembling at designated times and locales and then shuffling off to a simulated "evacuation center."

As for emergency rations stockpiled by authorities, she thought that nobody in their right mind would eat them in normal circumstances.

Tanaka began thinking how to make disaster preparedness events more fun and get more young people involved.

With her background in information technology and keen fashion sense, Tanaka started experimenting. But there were limits to what she could do as many events involved the use of taxpayer money and the governmental Reconstruction Agency was often a sponsor.

By the time the second anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami disaster rolled around on March 11, 2013, Tanaka and other young people she had met through her reconstruction support efforts announced the formation of Bosai Girls (Disaster preparedness girls).

The group set up a website after raising funds online, and started developing goods for use in national emergencies that are also fashionable. The idea was to inject a sense of fun when things get tough.

Tanaka's decision to use Girls in the group name reflected her realization that women are particularly vulnerable in times of disaster.

If she was to promote her vision of a more funky approach to disaster preparedness, Tanaka realized she needed the hearts of young women, as they are often the catalyst for new trends.

Among items the group developed were sturdy shoes that could be folded, boots for volunteers emblazoned with cute designs and bags covered with 3-D hazard maps of Tokyo's fashionable Shibuya district.

Another item was a "misanga" friendship bracelet that doubles as dental floss and even a washing line.

The group members contacted a range of companies to put their creations into commercial production.

Tanaka's next step was to inject some excitement into evacuation drills. She wanted to foster a sense of competitiveness that would make participants eager to accomplish their goals.

Drill were held in hip parts of Tokyo, such as Shibuya and Akihabara, where throngs of young people congregate.

Participants use a designated smartphone app to reach as many evacuation centers and support stations as possible during a designated period as a way to assess the difficulties that countless people would face in a natural disaster.

Unlike past evacuation exercises that were heavily scripted, the drills devised by Bosai Girls brought home the reality that participants had to decide how to fend for themselves in possibly unfamiliar areas when "disaster" strikes. Competing with other participants to rack up the most visits added a sense of fun that comes when playing video games.


The group's latest project, "#beORANGE," is aiming at getting people to associate the hoisting of orange flags as a signal of approaching tsunami danger, much like a red traffic signal alerts motorists to stop.

The objective is to hoist orange flags whenever a tsunami warning is sounded or raise them atop designated tsunami evacuation centers so surfers and those in coastal areas know to flee inland and to higher ground at once.

The Nippon Foundation provided 25 million yen ($236,000) in subsidies for the #beORANGE project in fiscal 2016, and a further 20 million yen the following year.

"The foundation subsidizes many different organizations, but few develop into a national movement," noted foundation member Eriko Munechika. "Bosai Girls has the means to reach a lot of people because it is asking the right question, 'How do we reach young people?' So we reached out to the group because we want to spread tsunami disaster preparedness to all corners of Japan."

To date, the group has distributed around 400 orange flags to at least 70 municipalities nationwide.

Membership of Bosai Girls has risen to 130-plus, the majority of them women in their 20s.

"Over the past two years, thanks to what these young women have been doing, many local governments have got involved in the orange project," Munechika said. "It is a source of huge satisfaction to see this happening."

Bosai Girls is now looking beyond disaster preparedness to tackle other areas of daily life that can be harrowing, such as bullying, stalking, prejudice for being a sexual minority and facing intense pressure from family members and others to marry.

That discussion led to other initiatives aimed at helping young women to protect themselves and survive.

"We want to continue facing off against 'disasters' that prevent us from leading happy lives," Tanaka said. "We aim to pursue new solutions that match the needs of the younger generation."

* * *

Editor's note: With March 8 celebrated around the world as International Women's Day, the Paris-based nonprofit media organization Sparknews asked newspapers and news sites to contribute articles on the theme of "Women in Businesses For Good" (WB4G).

While 45 percent of social entrepreneurs in the world are women, they also face hurdles because of their gender as they develop their pet projects. International Women's Day is designed to shed light on how women's capabilities can help resolve issues facing the world today.

A total of 21 media organizations, including The Asahi Shimbun, have responded to the request from Sparknews and contributed articles about women social entrepreneurs who have had an impact on society.

AJW introduces some of those stories.