Photo/IllutrationResidential areas in Nagano’s Naganuma district are flooded after the banks of the Chikumagawa river collapsed on the morning of Oct. 13. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Fallen apples are left scattered around in fields, while chilly winds blow through broken houses, stripped of walls, doors and even tatami.

Three months after Typhoon No. 19 struck Japan, I visited the Naganuma district of the prefectural capital of Nagano, also known by its old name of Shinshu, a major apple growing area. The Naganuma district is close to where torrential rain triggered by the typhoon in October caused the banks of the Chikumagawa river to give way.

An embankment completed four years ago, called Sakura Zutsumi (cherry blossom bank), was unable to withstand the force of raging flood waters. Steel plates have been driven into the bank as a stopgap measure.

“We rather feel proud of how our people managed to minimize the damage (from the typhoon), considering the scale of destruction,” says Hideyuki Miyazawa, 71, former head of the Naganuma Koryu Center (Naganuma center for exchanges).

The area was devastated by a cataract of rain in autumn 1983. Since then, local residents have been conducting annual flood drills on their own initiative.

The slogan for the drills is “mizukara mamoru sokojikara,” which roughly translates as “basic ability to protect ourselves from water.” The Japanese word “mizukara” can mean both “from water” and “on one’s own.”

During the drills, participants--young and old, men and women--work together to sandbag the riverbanks and make and distribute food.

Five years ago, local elementary school students staged a play titled “Sakura Zutsumi,” which they had written themselves.

The play depicts the local history of flooding. The lyrics of a song in the play include the following lines:

“I have heard/ From my grandpa/ Stories about the far-off days/ About sorrowful times/ When everything was swept away.”

After walking on the cherry-blossom bank, I found a flood monument in the precincts of a nearby Buddhist temple. The monument, called “Chikumagawa river major floods watermark,” shows the levels reached by water during six major past floods.

The monument indicates that water reached as high as 3.5 meters during the flood disaster in 1742, which is described by the play. I was struck with terror as I imagined flood waters rising to that height, which is well beyond the reach of an adult.

The entire village was submerged, killing 168 residents, according to a story about the disastrous flooding that has been handed down from generation to generation.

The play ends with a line saying, “Don’t make the history of floods water under the bridge.”

There is clearly a limit to what we can do to protect ourselves from the destructive force of natural disasters. Still, there should be no end to our efforts to learn lessons from the past and confront the threat of Mother Nature.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 12

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.