Sendai, Japan

15 March 2015

Secretary-General's remarks at Tohoku University symposium: "Lessons Learned from the Great East Japan Earthquake" [as delivered]

I deeply appreciate this opportunity to address such a dynamic gathering.

I hope you do not mind if I try to speak a little Japanese:

Minasama ni oaidekite kouei desu. [“It is a pleasure to be meeting you.”] Thank you very much.

Tohoku University is a valuable member of the United Nations Academic Impact, an initiative which I launched a few years ago.

This institution was badly damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake four years ago. I extend my deepest condolences to all those who suffered, especially the families, friends and professors of the three students who died.

You have responded to this tragedy with more than 100 recovery projects. I am especially grateful for Tohoku University’s collaboration with a number of United Nations agencies on a new Global Centre for Disaster Statistics. I count on this valuable Centre to help monitor progress on the new global disaster risk reduction framework. It can also keep track of how we are doing on the future sustainable development goals.

I welcome all of the impressive rebuilding efforts in this region. The United Nations stands with you.

Nihon no chikarazuyoi fukkou wo ouenshite imasu. I voice my strong support for Japan’s vibrant reconstruction efforts.

Kokusai shakai mo kokurn mo ouen shiteimasu.  Ganbatte kudasai. [The international community and the United Nations are supporting you. I wish you all the best.]

When I came here four years ago, I was visiting these camps where many affected people, homeless people, were housed.

I've been meeting many of them with very limited Japanese, I've always been saying:

Kokuren wa nihon wo ouen shiteimasu. Gambatte kudasai. [The United Nations is supporting Japan. I wish you all best.]

They were all happy to hear me speak in Japanese and encourage them, and I'm just thinking about the four years of my very moving experience meeting so many people who are very resilient and courageous and determined to recover.

I'm very happy and encouraged to see Sendai, such a beautiful city but badly hit, inundated by a tsunami, now fully recovered. I'd like to congratulate for your strong support and resilience.

Ladies and gentlemen,

After the earthquake, I visited Fukushima Minami High School.

They gave me three meaningful gifts.

The first gift was a “Kokeshi” doll. You may know this is a traditional doll associated with the hot springs in Tohoku.

People go to hot springs to heal. So I took this as a symbol of healing.

The second gift was an “Aka beko” [doll]. It is a red cow. I understand that red cows in this region were traditionally known for being the hardest-working animal. So I accepted this gift as a symbol of resilience and hard work.

The third gift the students gave me was not a craft, or even a material object. It was a sense of hope. The students inspired me.

They were so young and they had experienced such a terrible tragedy. Some of them lost their parents and friends and houses. All of them lost their sense of even security.

I wanted to show the world’s solidarity with the people of Fukushima. But the students here surprised me by showing their solidarity with the world.

Now, I expected that these students would ask me, ask the United Nations, for help. But instead of asking for aid or material help, they asked me questions: How could we work with the United Nations to help other people in other parts of the world just to avoid this kind of tragic disaster?

That really struck me and inspired me. I was truly moved. The people of Tohoku are true global citizens. This is the true spirit and dignity of the Japanese people.

And the Japanese Government is a leader on the global stage. This is the third time Japan hosts UN conferences on disaster risk reduction. In 1994 in Yokohama, then 10 years later in Kobe, then ten years later in Sendai. How can we find country in the world who hosts in the last 30 years, three of the biggest mega-international conferences on disaster risk reduction? And I’m very much grateful to the Japanese.

Just like those students at Fukushima Minami school, Japan is using its tragic experiences to help the world. I applaud Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who announced yesterday, again, very generous support – $4 billion in disaster risk reduction and training some 40,000 individuals. This is hugely generous support. And this is strong leadership, global leadership, Japan is showing, despite your difficulties. And I really applaud Prime Minister Abe for his global vision and leadership.

Ladies and gentlemen,

When I visited, I saw how the debris was being used to build new structures.

This reminded me of how we have to turn all of the painful lessons of disasters into new policies for a better future.

Right now, as we meet, the people in Vanuatu are mourning their family members who were killed by cyclone Pam, which has struck this small island in the South Pacific. I met the President of Vanuatu yesterday who happened to be attending this disaster risk reduction [conference] without knowing what hit his country.

Again, this cyclone hitting Vanuatu has raised the awareness and urgency of the international community taking necessary preparedness against natural disasters.

We cannot prevent natural disasters. This will be God’s will. But at least we can prepare ourselves how to minimize disaster risk. We can reduce disaster risk. This is the main purpose of our meeting in Sendai.

The United Nations stands ready to help people affected by this and other disasters. And I have already instructed to dispatch some experts and aid workers of the United Nations. They will take all necessary measures to mobilize support for the people of Vanuatu.

But we prefer to prevent damage before a disaster than rush into it after.

This morning, I had a good breakfast meeting with the mayor of Sendai and some mayors of other parts of the international community who are participating [at the conference] here. There were some parliamentarians, senators, all together. We exchanged and shared experiences.

I told them that there are many people who are working without being recognized, but when we make some preparations, we make some investment in disaster risk preventive measures, nobody pays attention. But I think they are the real heroes.

But we have seen so many heroes. After something happened, when a tsunami hits, when a big fire happens, there are always some heroes who really work heroically. But we do not need these kind of heroes.

We want to see more heroes who can prepare.

Six billion dollars allocated for disaster risk reduction each year could bring up to $360 billion in savings by 2030. If we invest one dollar today, then we can gain seven dollars by preparing against natural disasters. But normally, the tendency is that we pay seven dollars after something has happened, so we are losing $300 billion a year, every year. If we had invested a fraction of this $300 billion, then we could have gained all this money.

Reconstruction is an opportunity to change to a better development model, once it happens.

By integrating disaster risk into development, we can save lives and livelihoods.

This process is complex. No one ministry or no one province can do it alone. Disaster risk is everybody’s business, starting from presidents, prime minister, ministers, governors, mayors, and civil society leaders, business community leaders - I think everybody's hands should be on deck. We need to have everybody’s solidarity and support.

Resilient recovery means protecting societies against the worst damage from future disasters.

The money spent is not a cost – it is a valuable investment.

Humanitarian needs are rising around the world. Climate change is increasing the risks. Disaster risk reduction is a frontline against climate change.

We need a comprehensive approach that puts people first – especially the elderly, children, women, and persons with disabilities and others who are vulnerable.

Success at the Sendai conference on disaster risk reduction will get this historic year off to the best possible start. In 2015, this year, this is a very important year – we call it a seminal year.

Why? Because we have twin priorities. One is shaping the post-2015 development agenda. We have made remarkable success in the Millennium Development Goals. It is coming to an end by the end of December. Then we are now shaping the sustainable development agenda with a set of sustainable development goals. This is a very important priority for the international community.

Second, we have to agree on and adopt a universal, very meaningful, very strong, ambitious climate change agreement by December this year.

Having successful and effective and efficient disaster reduction mechanisms will help these two twin priorities succeed.

Therefore I am saying that sustainability, which we are working for very hard, starts in Sendai.

Distinguished professors,

Ladies and gentlemen,


From here, I will visit some affected parts of Sendai to see the reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts. I look forward to speaking with the people there.


I deeply appreciate how Japan is sharing its lessons with the world, and I count on all of you to continue showing such a valuable spirit of global citizenship and global solidarity.


Nihon wa kokuren no juuyouna ichi-in desu.  Soshite, mata, kokuren wa nihon ni tottemo daijidesu. [Japan is an important member of the UN.  And the UN is also important for Japan.]


Arigatogozaimasu. [Thank you very much.]