Speech delivered at the opening ceremony of the 7th Asian Conference on Emergency Medicine

(Remarks by President Konoe of the Japanese Red Cross Society as read by Dr. Hiroki Tomita, Executive Director of General Operations)

I would like to extend my greetings to the attendees of the 7th Asian Conference on Emergency Medicine. I hope you will excuse my absence due to prior commitments to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, a body for 188 national societies worldwide. I am deeply grateful to Dr. Ariga, the chairperson of this conference, for an opportunity to address you, the leading figures in emergency medicine in the Asia region.

I would also like to take this opportunity to express my profound gratitude for the way that people all over the world extended both sympathy and support to the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. We received aid from individuals in over 90 countries following the disaster of March 11, 2011, a scale of generosity that was as appreciated as it was unexpected.

As you all know, Asia has an extremely high incidence of natural disasters. Of all the fatalities due to natural disasters in the world, over 80% are in the Asia region, victims of disasters such as flooding, tidal bores or tsunami, atmospheric disturbances and earthquakes, with the last—earthquakes—constituting over 60% of the fatalities. Japan is literally an earthquake country that records approximately 25% of the world’s M6-and-over seismic activity, and its geography, geology, climate and other conditions have made its very history a tale of living with nature’s wrath—typhoons and flooding among them. As a result, Japan is the ultimate frontrunner in disaster prevention, with government-led disaster prevention activity in place nationwide, and a number of drills conducted on regional basis.

Yet, the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 exceeded our darkest imaginings: over 20,000 dead or missing, and 400,000 left without homes, workplaces or family members. In the two years since, the areas affected are still far from being truly rebuilt, with a number of people still forced to live the straitened existence of evacuees without any clear prospect of regaining their former lives.

The lessons relearned through this heartbreaking experience is that any relief or assistance for those impacted by disasters must be a collaboration among people from absolutely every field. It calls for people in a variety of roles and functions to reach out to one another. Medical and nursing care for the wounded, the sick, the elderly and the children are only the beginning. The collaboration must extend beyond administrative and regional governmental functions such as allocation of housing, everyday relief supply delivery and funding assistance, even to psychological care for the survivors.

In addition to acting as the main fundraiser and fund manager for the disaster, the Japanese Red Cross Society sent approximately 9,000 disaster relief personnel in the form of emergency medical teams to the zone over a 6-month period, starting immediately after the onset of the disaster. How was this possible? The simple answer is that we were ready. The Japanese Red Cross Society has 92 hospitals nationwide, with 434 emergency medical teams ready to head to a disaster zone at a moment’s notice; since we were founded 140 years ago, we have trained relief personnel for natural disasters, established medical facilities and continuously made preparations and drills for the worst. In recent times, we have partnered with DMAT, the national disaster medical assistance team dispatch system, for training and actual operations.

The Red Cross also has a policy of championing the process from relief to rebuilding, rebuilding to development. The grassroots support for this comes from volunteers. Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, it took some time for government aid to reach people. Who could fill this vacuum except volunteers on the ground? The Japanese Red Cross Society’s volunteers took on a number of actions, from fundraising and preparing hot meals in the disaster zone to transporting relief supplies. Volunteers are the operational heart for many Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in the world, and I ask that you take an interest in what your national Red Cross or Red Crescent Society is doing. Discovering better ways to play to each other’s strength is the key to expanding the reach of humanitarianism and bringing the light of relief to hitherto shadowed places.

Psychological care is another key. It is not only those directly impacted by the disaster or the accident that needs care, but also their family, friends and even coworkers. Past incidents have also shown that stress experienced by relief workers can lead to PTSD or long-term trauma in many cases. The Japanese Red Cross Society has dispatched psychological care teams, staffed in part by volunteers, to the affected areas; they continue to be in operation today, over 2 years after the onset of the disaster.

The Red Cross is closely monitoring the recent trend towards greater frequency and intensity of disasters worldwide. Our concern is due to the fact that disasters lead many nations into poverty, trigger population movement, destroy livelihoods and breed societal friction. At times, disasters cause governments to fall and may escalate into armed conflict. This makes it even more imperative not to neglect emergency relief action, which already spells the difference between life and death for the victims of a disaster. The next step after emergency relief is to create a more robust society with greater endurance, in readiness for future disasters.

There is no lack of historical precedent for tragedies sowing seeds of empathy and friendship between individuals, and between nations. In the age of globalization, the Japanese proverb “Kindness is not only for others’ sake” resonates more than ever. The evolution of emergency medicine is an essential task for mankind, given the possibility of future natural disasters. I believe that Asian nations can work together to mitigate the suffering of those impacted by disasters and share expertise for dealing with a variety of difficulties. These goals alone make this conference exceptionally meaningful, and I wish you great success over the next 3 days.