It was Boxing Day, 2004, and hundreds of holiday makers were celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ by worshipping the Sun gods on the beaches of Phuket. Amongst them was a little ten year old girl from Oxshott, Surrey, who had been blessed with one of those charmingly genteel names one would expect of a privileged child brought up in the home counties. Her name was Tilly Smith, and Tilly was as bright as a button. For whilst all the other boys and girls were happy to continue frolicking merrily amongst the fast-retreating surf, Tilly had important things on her mind. Tilly had taken on board what she had been taught in her geography lesson only the week before, and so for her the sight of a sea mysteriously retreating far beyond the low tidemark could only mean one thing; a tsunami was on its way. With a maturity and confidence that belied her tender age, Tilly started screaming to everyone on the beach to run to higher ground. And, most remarkably, that’s exactly what everyone did. As a result, Tilly’s beach was amongst the few on that fateful Boxing Day where no-one was to succumb to the terrifying wall of water that engulfed the shorelines of 14 countries. Nearly a quarter of a million people died in the Boxing Day tsunami, but Tilly, the rest of her family, and the hundreds lucky enough to have shared a holiday beach with her, lived to tell the tale of Tilly’s remarkable leadership.

It is all too easy to see the parallels that exist between Tilly’s heroic exploits and the image of Greta Thunberg, marauding the corridors of the United Nations, screaming at the politicians to shake them from their alleged insouciance, supposedly sustained in the face of the impending tsunami that is global warming. In both cases, there is a child prepared to overturn the balance of authority presupposed to exist between adult and juvenile (but only if that is what it takes to avert a perceived catastrophe). In both cases, in the name of a greater good, impertinence displaces deference. In fact, the parallels become even stronger when one considers what happened after Tilly’s heroics came to the attention of a professor of civil engineering at Gumma University in central Japan.

Toshikata Katada had been touring the sites of devastation following the Boxing Day tsunami to see what lessons, if any, could be taken back to his native Japan. As he did so, one fact struck him as being most germane. Despite the thirty minute warning that many had received of an approaching tsunami, thousands had failed to make any effort to evacuate. In some cases, as in the elderly and infirm, this was to be expected. But the passivity in the face of doom went far beyond that. Even the able-bodied seemed to have spent their last half hour on Earth waiting for official instruction that would never arrive.

On the beaches of Phuket it was a child who had acted with fearless authority, but Tilly was an extraordinarily self-assured child. Back in Japan, things were very different. Children were taught to respect adult authority without question, and this was particularly the case when it came to tsunami drill. Indeed, the national schoolbook issued to all ten year olds included the story of Hamaguchi Gohei, the wise elder statesman of a village in the Wakayama Prefecture of Hirogawa, who saved his villagers from a tsunami by setting fire to the precious rice crop. On seeing this wanton act of arson, so the story goes, the villagers fled to the hills, fearing that their leader had gone mad. Only subsequently did they appreciate that this is exactly what the wise old man had intended them to do in order to escape the tsunami that only he had observed approaching.

Putting aside the credibility that this story obviously lacks, it was nevertheless a stern reminder that you must always look to elders for your lead, no matter how bonkers it might appear. Japan’s children were never going to ‘do a Tilly’; and Katada wasn’t happy with this state of affairs. For that reason, Katada came up with the idea of ‘Tsunami Tendenko’ – an idea based upon three principles to be applied in emergencies:

  • Don’t believe in preconceived ideas
  • Do everything you can
  • Take the lead in evacuation

It was a policy in which children were expected to take initiative based upon their instincts, rather than act in unison under the umbrella of a supposed collective wisdom. Above all, they should never feel safe just because an adult seemed to be acting as though they were safe. As it happens, it was also a policy that was to save many lives in the 2011 tsunami in the city of Kamaishi, since school children abandoned their schoolrooms spontaneously as soon as the warning siren sounded. No-one waited for Miss.

If the parallels existing between Tsunami Tendenko1 and the current culture of child-led climate alarmism have not already occurred to you then I have not been doing a good enough job. But, there again, maybe the job has been done rather too well. Perhaps we should also be focusing upon the respects in which the analogy breaks down.

For example, when Katada says ‘Don’t believe in preconceived ideas’, he has in mind ideas such as the belief that Japan’s sea defences are high enough to protect its citizens. It has been said that, following the 2011 tsunami, these sea defences resulted in more lives being lost than would have been the case if they had not existed. It wasn’t their inadequacy that was the issue, rather it was the misplaced trust in them, resulting in a reluctance to run for the hills. This trust in the safeguards is quite different from the preconceived ideas that our climate-fearing children are currently exposed to, in which existing defences against the effects of climate change are assumed to be anything but adequate. In fact, when Greta Thunberg says ‘Listen to the scientists’ she is actually saying ‘You must believe in the preconceived ideas’. Or, at the very least, ‘You must believe in the preconception that the scientists are predicting imminent catastrophe’. Tsunami Tendenko is predicated upon a distrust in scientific authority – Greta’s position is exactly the opposite.

Secondly, when Katada says ‘Do everything you can’, he has in mind that you should climb as high as you can within the time allowed, not stopping to help others2. There is nothing in his concept that includes taking measures that are simply impossible or, at best, likely to cause as many problems as they solve. Tsunami Tendenko is a highly pragmatic concept that doesn’t require anyone to have the powers of a Moses or King Canute. And yet, here we stand before Greta, Extinction Rebellion and David Attenborough, vilified for not boldly embracing targets for achieving carbon neutrality that have no economic or technological credibility.

Finally, when Katada says ‘Take the lead in evacuation’, it has its parallels in the attitude that we can all do our bit for the environment without having to wait for an official directive. What it doesn’t condone is an attitude where one authority is to be replaced by an alternative one founded upon the power of civil disobedience. Extinction Rebellion may believe that they are providing an anarchic initiative in the face of a recalcitrant and feckless authority, but in reality they are playing the role of Hamaguchi Gohei, wildly burning the crops in an attempt to grasp control of the situation. Once again, this is not really Tsunami Tendenko, it is a naked power grab in order to dictate the agenda in accordance with a certain political and ideological framing of the problem. As for the climate-striking children, there is nothing to suggest that they are taking any sort of lead, or acting under anything other than a collective, presupposed wisdom handed down to them. They are not Hamaguchi, but they are a burning rice crop.

When I look at Tilly and Greta, I see in both of them much that is to be admired. Both have acted decisively and with great courage. Each has demonstrated that some children are quite capable of acting with an authority that many adults lack. And I’m sure that Greta Thunberg promotes her message with every bit as much sincerity as did Tilly when she was screaming her warnings on that Phuket beach. But let us not get carried away, for in Tilly’s case no great sophistication or worldly wisdom was required to take stock of the situation. A well-established fact passed on to her in a geography lesson was sufficient to get the ball rolling. The rest was probably down to infectious panic and herding instinct, and I’m quite sure that she was as surprised as anyone when everybody on the beach followed her. Greta, on the other hand, has taken it upon herself to save the whole world, possessed with a level of understanding and life experience that I personally wouldn’t trust to clear a beach. Yet, for her, the failure of the world’s leaders to follow her example seems to be a source of ever-present angst and confusion.

Others, I’m sure, would strongly disagree with my analysis of Greta Thunberg’s faux authority, but that would be because we would have differing views as to what should be the preconceived ideas to be disbelieved. I do not think that she is acting upon a reliable insight that we adults lack, as we lounge about on our sunbeds in ignorant, sun-kissed bliss. If one does as Greta insists, and looks closely at what the scientists are saying, there is to be found no sign of certain, imminent catastrophe, ignored in preference for a preconceived but ill-judged assumption of safety. There is nothing as clear cut as a tsunami on the horizon. In reality, the situation is so much more complicated than that, and both action and inaction may have serious consequences. Nevertheless, the declaration of a climate emergency has created the environment in which strategies akin to Tsunami Tendenko start to seem appropriate. There may be no tsunami, and the children may not be acting in the true spirit of Tendenko, but none of that matters once fear has taken charge.


[1] ‘Tendenko’ does not translate easily into English. The best stab at it seems to be ‘child who does each for oneself’.

[2] In practice, such selfishness goes against human nature. In the Kamaishi tsunami, the older children could not bring themselves to leave the younger children behind.


  1. Absolutely brilliant to make the connection between Tilly Smith and Greta Thunberg, John. I’ve always felt Tilly’s story was not heard enough and reflected upon enough long after the Tsusami funerals and damage restoration were done. I’m offline for a while but will read in full later.


  2. Smart girl. Even smarter animals. Most detected the infrasound generated by the quake and tsunami a long time before it hit and they headed for high ground. So if you’re ever holidaying in a tectonically active zone and you notice many animals running from the beach and heading off to the hills – follow them! I’m not sure many animals have a climate disaster radar though . . . . or maybe they do, and we shouldn’t worry! My dogs certainly seem fairly chilled about Thermageddon and all this climate change-induced extreme weather we’ve been having recently.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’d never heard of Tilly Smith. Has she been invited to meet the Pope, or address parliament, or been nominated for a Nobel Prize? (Probably not, given her carbon footprint going to Thailand and back.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. And I’d not heard of Tsunami Tendenko, which is also extremely interesting.

    I think what is most powerful for me is that many people view Greta like Tilly but she’s not. I think Tilly got some award or other from somewhere, long afterwards, but her brilliance was entirely local and in a very short time period. The Pope, even if available, would have been a terrible distraction. (I’m just feeding you lines here, religion-sceptics. But then I’m one too.) In fact, any concern outside the immediate one would have led to mass death on that beach, just like all the others.

    Strangely, though, I’m not sure Tilly would have been surprised that the others, those mostly much older than her, did what she said. That’s what true conviction does buy you, in the moment.

    And that means I don’t think Greta has it. That’s worth some real thought.

    A masterpiece John. And this time I didn’t neglect it.


  5. John, I think you put your heart and soul into this one.
    The Wikipedia entry for Tilly Smith reveals another parallel with Greta; both were invited to the United Nations.


  6. Like Richard I had not heard of the Tendenko concept (which is strange because I had a colleague whose speciality was earthquakes, tsunamis and their like). Initial reading around the subject suggests it’s a worrying concept. Applied to tsunamis self preservation is credited with saving many Japanese schoolchildren, but applied more widely I’m not so sure. There are many stories of survivors of plane crashes walking over other passengers in order to get out.
    A minor event, but I have never forgotten it: in Hawaii, where during a torrential rainstorm, my family (including two pre-school children) were unceremoniously pushed aside by a stampede of retirees determined to get on a bus and out of the rain. Tendenko at its worst. Need to read and think more upon this.


  7. Firstly, may I thank those who have provided appreciative feedback. It is – well, for want of a different word, appreciated.

    I too had never heard of Tilly Smith or Tsunami Tendenko before reading Professor Robert Muir-Wood’s book, ‘The Cure for Catastrophe’. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but already I’m thinking it is a book I could recommend, notwithstanding the fact that Michael Mann also recommends it! I must admit, I was a bit put off by Mann’s endorsement on the back cover, but it was a £20 hardback going for £4.99 in Bargain Books. I’m a Yorkshireman. What could I do?

    As for Alan’s concerns regarding Tendenko, I can see where he is coming from. However, the ‘every man for himself’ aspect doesn’t come across strongly in Muir-Wood’s description of it. The three principles my article lists are the ones listed in both Muir-Wood’s account and that given by Katado himself (within the link provided in the article). It is only when one googles ‘Tendenko’ that all the emphasis seems to be on the ‘every man for himself’ bit. But I wonder whether this is a Western take on the subject. I believe that in Japan the culture is so strongly biased in favour of putting the collective good above that of the individual, that they need some sort of antidote to overcome the groupthink that all humanity can experience in a crisis. Perhaps, the result of an oriental implementation of Tendenko would still look pretty collegiate to the Western eye. In the West, on the other hand, we already live Tendenko lives and need no encouragement. So encouraging more Tendenko in a crisis may be the last thing we want in the West.

    Having said all that, I hadn’t intended that the article dwell on matters of self-preservation in a crisis, so much as self-belief. And what is the basis for that self-belief? Probably the fact that others seem to share our beliefs or we got them from someone we respect. Nothing particularly Tendenko about that!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Richard,

    You are quite right. I couldn’t possible say for sure whether Tilly would be surprised by the mass exodus that followed her. I should have written ‘…and I wonder if she would have been surprised when everybody on the beach followed her.’ If I get the time, I’ll correct the posting. As for Greta’s angst, I think she is still truly struggling to make sense of the world. Maybe she’s a bit like the Labour party, still convinced it had the right manifesto but the wrong electorate.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The story varies a bit in its different tellings. According to most that I have read Tilly first convinced her parents (and she initially had difficulty convincing her mother) and they exorted others on the beach to leave and hotel staff to allow people to occupy upper floors. This, to me sounds much more credible than a ten year old able to act like a modern Joan of Arc and rouse languorous beach dwellers to flee. This does not belie Tilly’s role but perhaps shares out the credit to include her parents and the hotel staff.
    Credit is also due to her geography teacher Andrew Kearney and the makers of a video about a Hawaiian tsunami that so impressed young Tilly.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Alan,

    Yep, that sounds a lot more credible. The Joan of Arc version has more traction though.

    As with Tilly, so with Greta. The real Greta story is not nearly as impressive as the parable of the Swedish schoolchild who single-handedly saved the world.


  11. Tilly is the anti-Greta.
    Tilly made a direct observation and came to a conclusion based on objective reality.
    Greta (properly now called “Greta, Inc.”) has never seen one bit of evidence showing one bit if harm from her climate obsession.
    Tilly made a specific call to save anyone who would hear her. Then she took specific action to be safer.
    Greta, Inc. only places blame on ideas, people in general, and wants the entire world to radically deconstruct based 9n her ignorant narrow view.
    Tilly offered help to any and all.
    Greta Inc. demands others cater to her demands and seeks to profit from it.
    The world was made better by Tilly.
    The world is worse due to Greta inc.


  12. JOHN RIDGWAY 07 Feb 202010.13am

    I wonder whether this is a Western take on the subject. I believe that in Japan the culture is so strongly biased in favour of putting the collective good above that of the individual, that they need some sort of antidote to overcome the groupthink that all humanity can experience in a crisis.

    This is a splendid example of cultural differences base on family structure, the basic discovery of demographer Emmanuel Todd, which I’ve mentioned in a few posts here. The Japanese are the most extreme case of what he calls the “famille souche” or stock family, with a single inheritor (the eldest) and a natural tendency to inequality and hence strict obedience. Other people exhibiting this family structure are the Germans, Scandinavians, Scots, Irish and Catalans. You get the picture.

    The English occupy another pole of his tripolar model, with an extremely loose family structure (chuck them out of the nest as soon as they can fly) and a great liberty of choice based on the freedom of parents to determine inheritance via testament. (Read Agatha Christie for an anthropological account of the results.)

    Todd’s take is that the famille souche encourages educational attainment (the Germans and Scots were literate before the French or the English) because the inherent unfairness of “first past the post/out of the womb” inheritance requires a high degree of social solidarity (think German trade unions, or mass political parties, in power for decades) and because the system is inherently feminist, given that daughters are treated no more unfairly than younger sons, and women bring up children, and therefore render their offspring literate.

    The English, libertarian, like the French of the Parisian Basin, but not egalitarian like the Russians, Chinese, Serbs, Tuscans, and Mediterranean French, and indifferent to the question of whether inheritance should go to the eldest (as in Japan, Germany etc.) are not much bothered what happens to their sprogs. Our kids are less well educated than the Japanese, but more capable of thinking for themselves. Well done Tillly. And well done the Japanese.

    Todd is practically unknown in English speaking countries, despite his being a quarter English and his doctorate from Cambridge. But he’s big in Japan, apparently.


  13. JOHN RIDGWAY 07 Feb 2020 1.02pm

    Maybe she [Greta Thunberg]’s a bit like the Labour party, still convinced it had the right manifesto but the wrong electorate.

    After the Berlin uprising of 1953 Bertolt Brecht (while still living in East Germany) wrote:

    After the uprising of June 17th / The Secretary of the Authors’ Union had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee / Which said that the people had forfeited the government’s confidence / And could only win it back by redoubled labour. / Wouldn’t it be simpler in that case if the government / Dissolved the people and / Elected another?

    Nowadays you can get an app to do it for you. Just ask the Iowa Democrats.


  14. Geoff. I must read Todd some time, but already I’m suspicious. He (and you) contrast the family inheritance structure of different countries. You suggest the Japanese and English occupy different pole positions with the Japanese being characterized by families having a sole inheritor. Yet surely this was the system in the wealthy and the aristocratic of England with younger “spares” needing to find their own way in the word, so populating the clergy and the army. I would be more sympathetic to explanations that in all societies it is the different levels of society that exhibited different cultures.

    I have no doubt that Japanese society is very different from ours. It is one of the few countries I have never visited, but “she who should be listened to” and my granddaughter visited two years ago. One of the most visible differences they observed between Japan and the West was the respect the Japanese have for their living environment – no litter on streets. They also noticed that in south-west Honshu, where there is a small Korean population, litter appeared.


  15. Geoff,

    That’s an excellent point you make regarding family structure. As I understand it, the main problem in Japan had been that parents would rush to the school gates upon hearing the alarm, or the children would rush home. In both cases, the first purpose in an emergency was to reunite the family so that the family elder could take charge. More often than not, this entailed staying put and placing faith in the safeguards provided by the ultimate family elder – the state. This is the psychology that Tsunami Tendenko was aimed at. However, ‘child who does each for oneself’ looks like something different when placed in a Western context. As I said, ‘Tendenko’ doesn’t translate easily.

    The Bertolt Brecht quote is brilliant. It is at times like this that I feel particularly cursed by WordPress’s ongoing refusal to let me use the like button.


  16. I’ve recently watched a video of the sinking of a Korean ferry, the MV Sewol, in 2014. Over 300 people died, many of them school kids, who waited in their cabins until they were told to go to the emergency stations. A call that didn’t come until it was too late.

    Admittedly there were a whole lot of other problems with the rescue attempt.

    You can find the video here:


  17. Alan,

    You can tell a lot about a nation’s cultural obsessions by looking at the number of different words it dedicates to vocalising them. The Eskimos (allegedly) have fifty different words for ‘snow’. The Japanese have thirty words for ‘obedience’. Meanwhile, the British have twenty-four different words for the potato, depending upon how you cook it.

    I just made all of that up. Where is Andy West when you need him?


  18. Bill and John. You are discussing one of the great dilemmas, in times of emergency do you heed the instructions of authority (potentially putting oneself and those you love or are responsible for at greater risk) or should you put your safety (and that of immediate others) first and act independently? Clearly, in different circumstances, the most appropriate course of action differs. Obeying authorities may lead to disaster as during the Grenfell Tower tragedy, but so can acting independently when it leads to stampedes or crushing (Riyadh).
    Some societies seem to be more prone to obeying authority than others it’s true, but I’m not convinced that this imparts any greater or lesser safety at times of danger. For serious emergencies that may be infrequent but are repetitive, like tsunamis, I would judge that competent authorities know best and have planed appropriately. So I would follow instructions. Thus I find it disturbing that in a place like Japan, strict adherence to authority caused more victims.


  19. Hunterson7,

    I have removed your post, as requested. Please feel free to re-submit once you are happy with it.


  20. Alan,

    I agree. But the issue that interests me the most here is how people act upon their beliefs in times of crisis, and how those beliefs are formed in the first place. I think there are a number of dimensions to this, since there will be cultural, psychological and even political factors at play. I think Tsunami Tendenko is designed to operate on all three levels. But, when all is said and done, both over-reaction and inaction can be killers. And in both of these cases, herd psychology plays a major role. We seem to be hard-wired to assume that there is wisdom to be found in consensus, and this sometimes feeds on itself, often with horrible consequences.


  21. “The story varies a bit in its different tellings. According to most that I have read Tilly first convinced her parents (and she initially had difficulty convincing her mother) and they exorted others on the beach to leave and hotel staff to allow people to occupy upper floors.”

    That sounds more credible to me, as well, but doesn’t diminish Tilly’s accomplishment. In the face of resistance from her parents, especially having difficulty convincing her mother, she could well have just given up. She could have just said, “Ah, Phuket.”

    (Someone had to…)

    Liked by 1 person

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