Insights and Analysis

In Face of Disaster, Japanese Citizens and Government Pull from Lessons Learned

March 16, 2011

By Allen C. Choate

Japan’s frantic rescue efforts in response to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami catastrophe are now entering their seventh day. Over half a million evacuees are being housed in temporary shelters without adequate supplies of food, water, and other essentials. Hospitals are running short of medicine and supplies. Millions of Japanese are deprived of drinking water and face recurring power outages. The entire country, and the world, is nervously watching Japan’s attempts to avert a potentially terrifying melt-down at the Fukushima nuclear power plant 150 miles north of Tokyo.

Relief efforts begin after Japanese Earthquake

Rescue officials search for survivors in Ofunato, Japan, following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Matthew M. Bradley

The scale of the Tohoku disaster is just beginning to sink in, but it’s already clear that the physical destruction, economic cost, and, most tragic of all, loss of life will be without precedent in Japan’s post-World War II history.

One can only admire the self-discipline, orderliness, and patience of the Japanese people in the midst of such a horrendous emergency. But as the hours grow into days with relief supplies still slow to arrive, it comes as no surprise that criticism and complaints are starting to be registered against the government’s response thus far.

But, is this criticism warranted? To take a worst case scenario, will the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami become the Japanese government’s “Katrina,” with the government roundly castigated for its planning negligence and ineffective response?  Or, has the Japanese government learned from past disasters? The government of Naoto Kan is already widely unpopular. A public perception that it has mismanaged this human tragedy will be its death knell. On the other hand, a responsible and speedy reaction could boost popularity.

The last major natural disaster in Japan was the Kobe earthquake of 1995. During immediate relief efforts (and with increasing vigor as time passed), the Japanese government was widely held at fault on several counts, including inadequate early warning; lax building codes that led to major infrastructure damage; and unsuitable leadership in the relief and recovery effort.

Interestingly, volunteers, community groups, and NGOs found themselves filling in the gaps as first responders during the initial absence of government-provided relief. This, in turn, led to a new recognition in Japan of the value of community-based organizations and volunteerism. In the ensuing years, Japan’s legislature, the National Diet, introduced a range of legislation aimed to grow and strengthen Japan’s non-profit sector.

American criticism of their government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 followed along the same lines as those of the Kobe earthquake: no early warning or declaration of state of emergency for New Orleans until it was virtually too late; poor existing infrastructure that was unable to withstand the flooding; and a failure of official leadership to provide coherent coordination and management of the disaster relief program.

While the sheer scale of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami dwarfs both Kobe and Katrina, a comparison of the Japanese government’s early responses to the Tohoku crisis suggests that Japan has learned some valuable lessons and applied them. All eyes are now on the emerging nuclear power plant crisis, where the jury is still out.

The Kobe earthquake was contained mainly within one prefecture (Hyogo) and confined to a few major cities. The earthquake resulted in some 6,400 dead and an economic cost of about $100 billion. The impact of Hurricane Katrina was mainly felt in two states (Louisiana and Mississippi) with the most damage and loss of life in one city – New Orleans. Katrina fatalities numbered roughly 1,800 and the economic cost was estimated at $82 billion.

By contrast, early estimates for the Tohoku disaster – really three disasters at once: one of the largest earthquakes in modern history, a massive tsunami, and a nuclear crisis – project fatalities to exceed 10,000 and an economic cost of about $300 billion across 16 prefectures. While we all fervently hope that actual losses turn out to be lower, it’s obvious that Tohoku is of a magnitude far greater than anything ever before. The sheer immensity and scope of the disaster make response that much more difficult for officials. In addition, the Japanese government must now attempt to manage simultaneous crises – rescue and relief efforts underway and containment of the damage to the Fukushima power plant.

It is clear that lessons were gleaned from previous disasters like Kobe, and that, while the scale of the Tohoku disaster is overwhelming, the damage was lessened because, for example, Japan has the strictest building codes in the world. Following the Kobe earthquake, Japan enforced these strict codes with an emphasis on earthquake resistance. As a result, most of the death and destruction appears to have been caused by the tsunami rather than the earthquake itself. It’s worth noting that most of the current evacuation centers are located in local schools that withstood the earthquake.

In stark contrast to Kobe and Katrina, the government provided a widespread tsunami warning alerting citizens to get to higher ground. Incoming survivor reports testify to the warning’s effectiveness. Regular earthquake drills and diligent dissemination of public information on disaster evacuation seem to have proven highly useful, as well. The one contingency not envisioned in the Japan government’s disaster planning was the awesome size of the tsunami, and how this could affect the nation’s nuclear power plants. For example, power plants were protected by seawalls 25 feet high. No one thought a tsunami waves would tower as high as 30 feet. Tragically, on March 11, they did.

Within the first 72 hours, the Kan government had deployed hundreds of thousands of Self Defense Forces to assist with rescue and relief, organized a network of inter-agency committees and task forces, released any funds requested, and attempted to reassure its citizens that everything possible was being done.

At the time of the Kobe earthquake, the Japanese government initially refused all offers of international help (on the grounds of language difficulties). This time the government not only welcomed such help, but also appealed to the world for it – and the world is rapidly responding.

While the Japanese public was quick to recognize and applaud the role of volunteers and community organizations in the Kobe earthquake relief effort, it took the government many months and much public pressure to acknowledge their role, and to begin taking legislative steps to strengthen volunteerism and the non-profit sector in Japan. In the case of the Tohoku tragedy, within 48 hours the government had designated a member of parliament (Ms. Kiyomi Tsujimoto – a Social Democratic Party member and former NGO staffer) to serve as the go-between for volunteer/NGO relief activities and government activities. Another test of Japan’s official attitudes regarding volunteerism and NGO assistance should come in May or June, when re-building and serious rehabilitation starts and volunteers are needed in large numbers.

One exception to the generally effective and positive response of the Japanese government on the Tohoku disaster is the growing criticism over the management of the Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis. Over the years, the Japanese public has tended to be a bit leery of the positive but rather vague official statements about the safety and security of its 55 active nuclear power plants. In this tragedy, so far these official statements have been more forthcoming, relatively speaking. But there are too many spokespersons (the prime minister, the cabinet secretary, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, and the Tokyo Electric Power Company) issuing multiple statements that are more confusing than clarifying. The government’s statements are too general in tone and light on content to offer the reassurances a tense and devastated Japanese public needs. There also is growing criticism about the lack of information being provided by the nuclear plant’s owner – Tokyo Electric Power Company. In the meantime, the Japanese and international media are filling in the gaps, and as I’m following this closely, it must be said they are doing a responsible and comprehensive job of it.

At this early juncture, rescue and relief are largely jobs for the professionals. Thus far, the Japanese government seems to be responding as capably as it can, given the scale of the disaster. A more complete picture of how well the Japanese government is responding will be formed over the next 72 hours. If relief and assistance has not expanded and increased within that time, there may be serious negative blow-back.

The Kan government is living now on borrowed time. But much more importantly, so are millions of Japanese facing hardships not experienced since the end of World War II.

Note: To assist recovery efforts, The Asia Foundation’s Give2Asia launched the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Fund. Visit Give2Asia’s website for more information on how to help.

Allen Choate recently retired as The Asia Foundation’s vice president overseeing Partners in Asian Development. He lived and worked for the Foundation in Japan from 1966-68 and again in 2007-09.

Related locations: Japan, Washington DC


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