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The role of self-help in Japanese disaster management post-3.11

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Rescue workers and Japan Self-Defense Force soldiers search for missing people at a landslide site caused by a heavy rain in Kumano Town, Hiroshima Prefecture, western Japan, 11 July 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato).

In Brief

In the aftermath of the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power disaster (known as 3.11), Japan’s overwhelmed bureaucrats realised that disaster management planning had to change. In a nation famous for communal cohesion, the role of the individual and self-help have become the mantra for disaster first response.


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The assumptions after the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake were that public administrators, formal emergency responders and robust infrastructure would enable the nation to cope with a major disaster. But 3.11 highlighted just how limited the government was in its ability to cope with calamity. In the immediate wake of 3.11 — as radioactive clouds threatened to approach greater Tokyo — officials realised the seriousness of the situation. Former Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan acknowledged that had an evacuation order been called, it would have entailed the impossible task of relocating 50 million people — almost half the population of Japan.

Compounding the situation was the impact that the 3.11 calamity had on Tokyo. The nation’s largest city was effectively paralysed. More than five million workers in Tokyo became kitaku nanmin (refugees unable to return home) due to power outages, public transport disruption and severe traffic jams. Those who were able to walk home did so. Others remained in their offices or attempted to crowd into train stations.

3.11 ultimately swept away a government-centric approach to disaster response. It was clear that disaster planning was not fit for purpose, especially when a city like Tokyo was its locus. Triggered by this sobering realisation, the government sought to plug its capability gap through an unprecedented drive to harness all aspects of society. A three-word mantra coined before 3.11 — jijo, kyojo, kojo (self-help, mutual help and government help) — became the central concepts of emergency management planning.

For a nation described as a ‘managerial state’ and known for its communal cohesion, the prioritisation of self-help (jijo) within this mantra was a fundamental shift. A prime example of this was the colossal undertaking by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 2015 to provide every residence in its jurisdiction with a hard copy of Tokyo Bosai (Tokyo Disaster Prevention), a 321-page guidebook filled with simple strategies and illustrations that aimed to enhance household and individual resilience. Strikingly, the guide almost completely omits mention of government help (kojo).

The freely downloadable Tokyo-to Kitaku Kon’Nansha Taisaku Handobukku (Tokyo Metropolitan Handbook for Persons with Difficulty Returning Home) was developed in 2012 and subsequently updated by the national and Tokyo Metropolitan governments to provide a similar message. The handbook stresses that rather than relying solely on the government to develop policies for disaster response, society as a whole needs to contribute to the development and promotion of measures (jijo and kyojo).

Aware of their limitations following a catastrophe, all tiers of government reimagined their emergency management role as providers of information to individuals and groups so that they would be better able to help themselves and each other. The term joho nanmin (information refugees) became a key focus of government policy.

The notable related policy, the national Joho Nanmin Zero (Zero Information Refugees) strategy, was launched in December 2016. It aimed to ensure the adequate delivery of information to vulnerable parts of Japanese society during emergencies, including the elderly, foreign residents and tourists. The comprehensive strategy spans multiple policy domains — accessibility, multiculturalism, tourism, aged care and digital communications — but focuses largely on the individual through the provision of information to facilitate self-help (jijo).

Japanese politicians are increasingly leveraging the self-help mantra to drive innovation across other policy domains.On 6 September 2020 then prime minister Yoshihide Suga delivered his inaugural press conference and reflected on those affected by the series of natural disasters over 2020. In closing, Suga described his vision for Japan by calling for the cooperation of Japanese citizens to build a society based on jijo, kyojo and kojo, and promoting the concept of kizuna (societal ties), another term made popular in the aftermath of 3.11.

Despite echoing this mantra made popular following calamity as a rallying cry to the nation, the inclusion of kizunamay be just a smokescreen. Greater importance has been placed on the individual in Japan’s community resilience-building strategy — an emphasis that parallels a growing belief within Japanese society that self-help is more important than mutual and government help.

The new strategy makes sense when official response mechanisms are overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. But the emphasis on the individual, now permeating other policy domains, might be a step too far. This concept creep has resulted in critics claiming that the government is attempting to shirk its responsibilities. There is a risk that blurring these concepts across policy domains may dilute their effectiveness. Their misuse may result in the population becoming desensitised to their original meaning, undermine trust in government and deter people from assisting each other in times of calamity.

Striking a balance between the roles and responsibilities of government and the individual will continue to challenge policymakers. The question is whether this greater emphasis on the individual can fill the capability gaps of government in the next response to a calamity. A typical response by Japanese policymakers when asked perhaps sums up the reality: Okiteminaito wakaranai, we won’t know until the next one happens.

Justin Whitney is a research fellow at Nagoya University. The support of the Australia-Japan Foundation is acknowledged for funding the research underpinning this paper.

This article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Confronting crisis in Japan’, Vol 13, No 3.

One response to “The role of self-help in Japanese disaster management post-3.11”

  1. Emergency self-preparedness is important, but it doesn’t replace the need for a large-scale disaster management system. I keep a flashlight by my bed in case of a power outage, but I can’t repair damaged power lines. Likewise, I have a first aid kit and some basic first aid training, but I can’t do emergency surgery on a badly injured person.

    Japan’s continued failure to develop an effective response system for large-scale disasters is not due to any innate lack of capability in the ranks of government. It is due to the lack of political will to make the necessary bureaucratic changes to build and support such a system.

    From 1996 until the present time, I have frequently done disaster research and lecturing in Japan, first as a staffer of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), later as an adjunct lecturer at a Japanese university, and finally as a member of a variety of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs).

    During that time, I have found Japanese emergency responders to be absolutely top-notch. Whether they are firefighters, police officers, medical personnel, Self Defense Force members, or others, these Japanese responders are overwhelmingly well-trained, well-equipped, and highly motivated to meet the needs of their fellow citizens in case of disaster.

    Unfortunately, the Japan Government has consistently failed to develop the type of disaster management system that could support these responders and help them to do their jobs.

    Over the course of my visits to Japan, I have observed numerous problems in this regard, but three especially stand out as key failures of the Japanese government: failure to establish a professional emergency management staff; failure to effectively coordinate the many agencies and organizations that must respond to a disaster; and failure to realistically test their disaster response plans against reality. A discussion of these three problems is as follows:

    Failure to establish a professional emergency management staff. Large scale disasters don’t happen every day, so it can take a while to gain much experience with them. During my 29 years with FEMA, I helped support the Federal responses to a major earthquake, a multi-State flood, a terrorist bombing, two forest fires, four major hurricanes, and a number of other assorted disasters, including a typhoon that struck U.S. territory in the South Pacific. I also helped write portions of several disaster management guidebooks. This type of in-depth professional learning experience would not have been available to me if I had spent only a short time at FEMA.

    As far as I can tell, it appears that Japanese civil servants at all levels change jobs about every two years under a mandatory system of job rotation. This includes disaster managers. So in the field of disaster management, an environment that has by its nature a long learning curve, no one stays for 29 years. Instead, it’s two years in a job and out for Japan’s bureaucrats, hardly enough time to learn much about disaster management. What’s worse, those bureaucrats who do gain significant disaster experience, such as those who helped support the response to the 3/11 disaster, leave their disaster jobs after two years, and everything they learned about disasters leaves with them. Their replacements arrive, the disaster learning curve for staff begins anew, and then terminates when those staff leave their jobs after two years. This type of system will never allow the Japan Government to develop an experienced disaster management staff.

    Failure to effectively coordinate the many agencies and organizations that must respond to a disaster. Emergency service personnel in the U.S. have a saying: “The day of the disaster is not the day to exchange business cards.” In other words, the numerous agencies and organizations that may be involved in a disaster response, including government, the private sector, and NGOs, need to plan together well before the next disaster if they are to work together effectively during the disaster.

    In the U.S., this means that FEMA and other key Federal agencies as well as the private sector and the NGOs, have ongoing meetings, training, information-sharing and so on year-round, so if and when disaster strikes, members of each organization have a good idea of what they are expected to do. Just as importantly, they also understand what the other agencies are doing as well, thus working toward a well-coordinated overall response.

    By contrast, Japan government agencies that might respond to a disaster are mostly if not fully isolated from each other until the very day of the disaster, at which time it is hoped that they can somehow work and coordinate effectively together. Two examples of this problem in Japan:

    Example #1: In 2012, while conducting research interviews regarding the 3/11 disaster response, I was meeting with a staff member of Japan’s Cabinet Disaster Management Bureau. After hearing a detailed briefing of what this bureau did in a disaster, I asked the staffer, what about the staff of prefectures and municipalities? Where do they get their guidance and training on disaster management?

    The guy looked at me in surprise and shrugged his shoulders: I don’t know, he said. After all, he worked for the national government. How on earth would he know anything about what the prefectures and municipalities are doing?

    But in a disaster, all levels of government – national prefectural, and municipal – must work together quickly and smoothly for there to be an effective overall response. But how can they do so if they have never planned together?

    By contrast, if you had asked any FEMA employee where the state and local staff could get guidance and training on disasters, they’d think the answer was obvious: State and local staff can take free courses at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute. Or they and take free FEMA courses online or attend free FEMA webinars. And of course they can have as many different FEMA guidebooks on disaster planning as they care to download…for free, naturally. This does not seem to be the case in Japan.

    Example #2: A few years after my 2012 research interviews, I was again in Japan, this time interviewing a Japanese government staffer who was planning for the location and disposition of fuel supplies for emergency vehicles in case of a large disaster. This fellow seemed to be quite intelligent and hardworking, but he was also very frustrated because he knew that a few blocks away, in a different government ministry, another staffer was planning for the locations and disposition of the emergency vehicles themselves…but these two staffers were not supposed to talk with one another!

    So one man would plan for the fuel for emergency vehicles, and the other would plan for the emergency vehicles themselves, and presumably the two of them would meet on the day of the disaster and find out whether their plans actually fit together. Not a good way to plan for interagency coordination in a disaster.

    Failure to realistically test their disaster response plans against reality. The Japanese frequently hold disaster drills, and they are a sight to see. In 2000 and again in 2001, I had the opportunity to observe Tokyo’s large-scale annual disaster drills, and they were very impressive with fire engines, ambulances, helicopters and numerous personnel demonstrating a variety of rescue techniques.

    These drills are commendable and should be continued, but they focus primarily on rescuers’ skills, not on the types of management problems that can occur in an actual disaster. For example, in 2012, I interviewed town officials in Tohoku about their response to the 2011 earthquake/tsunami. One official told me that his town had a satellite phone and had tried to use it following the disaster to contact the emergency number for the prefectural government, but that he could never get through. The lines, he said, were always busy, presumably because other towns were all trying to call the prefecture at the same time.

    Obviously, this kind of real-world disaster problem won’t show up in a typical Japanese disaster drill with its fire engines and helicopters. However, it can be illustrated in a simple simulation exercise: Suppose that on a given day, every town within a prefecture follows its disaster plan and tries to call the prefecture for help in an earthquake exercise disaster scenario. If, as in Tohoku, many of the calls do not go through, then Japanese disaster managers can revisit their plans, and develop solutions to address this type of problem before the next disaster occurs.

    To my knowledge, simulations such as this are done only on a very limited basis in Japan, and certainly not on the same scale as the more flashy and visible outdoor disaster drills. But without testing their plans through simulations such as the one proposed above, the Japanese Government is in effect flying blind into the next disaster. To quote from the article under review, when asked whether Japan’s new approach to disaster response would work or not, a typical response by Japanese policymakers was “Okiteminaito wakaranai, we won’t know until the next one happens.” In my opinion, this is not a good way to plan.

    All of these problems I have cited are solvable. None are beyond the capability or resources of Japanese authorities. Incentives could be developed to encourage Japanese government staff to take on disaster management as a long-term professional career. Government agencies could be ordered to work together on their response plans to ensure smooth coordination in the next disaster response. Simulation exercises could be conducted that would reveal shortfalls in Japan’s disaster response plans so that these shortfalls could be addressed now, before the next disaster. All it takes to do these things is the political will.

    When I first began studying Japanese, one of the expressions I learned was “Shikata ga nai, nothing you can do.” In reading this article, I’ve learned a new one: “Okiteminaito wakaranai, we won’t know until the next one happens.”

    Given the high risk of disasters in Japan, I think it’s time for the Japan Government to move beyond these two expressions of helplessness and start doing some serious disaster response planning. They owe it to the people of Japan.


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