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More Than Just a Weather Service: Japan’s Multifunctional Meteorological Agency

Furukawa Takehiko [Profile]


The Japan Meteorological Agency is playing an increasingly prominent role as extreme weather events continue to strike the Japanese archipelago. More than just a weather service, JMA also monitors volcanic and seismic activity on land and waves and currents at sea, and it helps protect lives by issuing various types of warnings.

The Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011 caused more than 18,000 tsunami-related fatalities, and since then Japan has been buffeted by a series of other major natural disasters. Landslides resulting from torrential rain in Hiroshima Prefecture claimed over 70 lives in August 2014. The following month, Mount Ontake, a volcano in central Honshū, erupted suddenly, resulting in 63 killed or missing. It was the worst toll from a volcanic disaster in the seven decades since World War II. And in September this year, heavy rain from a typhoon caused the Kinugawa to burst its banks in Ibaraki Prefecture, quickly flooding homes and farmland across a large area in the city of Jōsō and elsewhere.

A scene from Jōsō, Ibaraki Prefecture, after the Kinugawa (right) burst through an embankment in September 2015. (Photo by Furukawa Takehiko.)

Crucial Information Infrastructure for Everyday Life

JMA provides a variety of weather forecasts, including hour-by-hour pinpoint predictions, one-day and two-day forecasts, and weekly and monthly outlooks. Whenever an earthquake happens, the agency almost immediately reports on the hypocenter and the seismic intensity in locations throughout the affected area, and within a few minutes it announces whether there is a danger of tsunamis; if so, it announces the time frame of their expected arrival. The agency also has an early-warning system that transmits alarms via television, radio, and mobile phone networks to those in surrounding areas before the seismic waves arrive. In addition, it uses ships, buoys, and coastal wave gauges to monitor currents and predict wave heights.

People tend to think of JMA as the agency that provides weather forecasts. Relatively few are aware of the scope of its services, the monitoring systems and forecasting technologies on which they are based, or the agency’s organization and budget.

A Broad Range of Services

Today’s Japan Meteorological Agency had its beginnings in 1875 with the establishment of the Tokyo Meteorological Observatory as an organ of the Home Ministry. It had fewer than 10 employees, working under the direction of a foreign expert. In 1887 it was renamed Central Meteorological Observatory, and in 1895 it was transferred from the Home Ministry to the Ministry of Education. After World War II it was placed under the Ministry of Transport, and in 1956 it was upgraded to agency status. Under the sweeping reorganization of the central government implemented in 2001, the agency became an an extra-ministerial bureau of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport (now the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism), as are the Japan Tourism Agency and the Japan Coast Guard. Throughout its history, the organization has been directed and staffed almost exclusively by professional experts; in this respect it is exceptional within the Japanese bureaucracy.

Today’s JMA concerns itself with natural phenomena of all sorts, not just in the air but on land and at sea as well. In addition to its regular weather forecasting service, it provides forecasts for civil aviation, and it deals with floods, landslides, earthquakes, volcanic activity, and tsunamis. It also monitors atmospheric carbon dioxide and the ozone layer.  This broad reach is unusual. By contrast, the National Weather Service of the United States devotes itself basically just to the weather, as do Britain’s Meteorological Office and the meteorological agencies in China and South Korea.

The activities of the agency are defined by the Meteorological Service Act. This law was adopted in 1952, the year the postwar occupation ended. The following year Japan became a member of the World Meteorological Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations. (Japan’s admission to the United Nations itself was three years after this, in 1956.)

A Nationwide Network Operating Round the Clock

JMA headquarters in Tokyo has five departments—Administration, Forecast, Observation, Seismology and Volcanology, and Global Environment and Marine Department. These include a total of 21 divisions, such as the Forecast Division, the Earthquake and Tsunami Observation Division, and the Atmospheric Environment Division. Among the agency’s auxiliary organs are the Meteorological Research Institute, the Meteorological College, and the Meteorological Satellite Center.

JMA also has regional headquarters in six locations, and these are responsible for a total of 50 local meteorological offices. These offices each have about 30 employees working in shifts around the clock to conduct daily operations, such as issuing forecasts and warnings. They also monitor ground-level atmospheric conditions, including temperature, pressure, and wind.

Weather measurement station at Mito Meteorological Office, Ibaraki Prefecture. (Photo by Furukawa Takehiko.)

JMA also operates aviation weather service centers at major airports, supplemented by aviation weather stations and airport branches, to support aviation safety.

The agency has about 5,200 employees and an annual budget of around ¥60 billion, of which about 40% goes for equipment-related costs.

  • [2015.11.27]

Born in 1940. Graduated from the Tokyo University of Science. Doctor of physics. Joined JMA in 1959, where he held a variety of posts, including director of the Forecast Division and chief of the Sapporo Regional Headquarters; also studied at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research and participated in the technical assistance activities of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Laos, Mongolia, Fiji). His works include Kishōchō monogatari: Tenki yohō kara jishin, tsunami, kazan made (The Story of JMA: From Weather Predicition to Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Volcanoes) and Hinan no kagaku: Kishō saigai kara inochi o mamoru (The Science of Evacuation: Protecting Lives from Weather Disasters).

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