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In-depth Japan in the Post–3/11 Era: The Road to Rebirth
Crisis Management in the Aftermath of 3/11
A Comparison with Kobe

Ōmori Yoshio [Profile]


Kobe 1995 and Tōhoku 2011 were both earthquake disasters, but the first saw most deaths from fires and collapsed homes, while the second was a complex disaster involving a tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdowns. Former director of the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office Ōmori Yoshio considers Japan’s crisis management in the light of these two events.

Major earthquakes are nothing out of the ordinary in Japan. Niigata, Miyagi, Hokkaidō, and Tottori are just a few of the places that have been struck by sizeable quakes in recent years alone. But the first in living memory that was on a scale sufficient to call into question the nation’s political ability to cope was the magnitude 7.3 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, which devastated the city of Kobe and surrounding areas in January 1995, causing more than 6,400 fatalities. I was working in the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office at the time, as part of the coalition government of the Liberal Democratic Party, Japan Socialist Party, and New Party Sakigake headed by Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi. In what follows, I want to take a look at the government’s response to the March 11, 2011, disaster in the light of my experiences following the 1995 Hanshin quake.

Despite superficial similarities, the two events were in fact quite different in nature and scale. In the case of Hanshin, most of the damage was caused by the earthquake itself and the fires that followed. But the Tōhoku earthquake was a multiple disaster. The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and massive tsunami were followed by the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, whose effects included radiation contamination of agricultural products and seafood. Badly shaken consumer confidence has had a baneful knock-on effect on tourism and industry.

Three Fundamental Changes

Before moving on to an evaluation of the government’s reaction to the crisis, I want to touch on three fundamental changes that have taken place in Japanese society in the 16 years since the Hanshin earthquake. These are: dramatic improvements in terms of telecommunications technology and infrastructure; the increasing importance of convenience stores at the center of daily life; and the growing impact of globalization, which now makes its influence felt in people’s everyday lives.

Let us consider telecommunications first. Remarkable progress has been made in the field of video transmission. When the Hanshin earthquake hit, all the local transmission centers, including those belonging to fire departments and NHK, the quasi-national broadcaster, were put out of commission. This meant that all transmissions from the disaster area were temporarily interrupted. This, combined with the fact that the earthquake struck at 5:46 ᴀᴍ on a Tuesday after a three-day weekend, meant that although reports reached the prime minister’s office that an earthquake had taken place, it was some time before anyone realized just how serious the situation was. The Tōhoku disaster was different. It took place at 2:46 on a Friday afternoon, for one thing, and video footage and other information from the scene was available almost immediately. The vastly improved communications infrastructure, with multiple lines now in place to prevent any interruption to transmissions, came into its own. Without these improvements in technology, it would have been impossible for the prime minister’s office to take command and issue instructions. Maintaining contact with the numerous individuals and authorities involved would have been out of the question. A secure and reliable communications system was also vital for dialogue and close cooperation between ministries and local governments and crucial for the swift and large-scale deployment of the Self-Defense Forces, which I will return to later.

The Urgent Need to Secure Communications

Japan has some of the highest penetration rates in the world for both fixed-line and mobile telephones. But fixed and mobile networks were overwhelmed for some time immediately after the disaster, and for several hours very few calls were getting through. In the future, improvements will be needed to bring line capacity up to date with an age in which mobile phone penetration is 100% or more. We also need to develop a framework to ensure priority for emergency calls to police and fire departments from mobiles and Internet phones when communications are down after a disaster.

When major quakes or other serious disasters strike, residents in the afflicted areas can report their safety to friends and relatives via message boards carried on mobile phone networks. (Images: NTT DoCoMo.)

Another important lesson to emerge from the disaster was the indispensability of Twitter and other social networking services as robust communication tools when phone lines are down. The disaster boards and messaging services provided by communication companies were particularly effective in the days after the disaster, allowing people to post messages to let friends and family know they were safe. Google’s Person Finder service, launched just two hours after the disaster, provided a database of names and other information compiled from various evacuation centers and disaster mobile phone message boards. More software like this for use in emergencies is certain to be developed as a matter of priority in the years to come.

Twitter and similar communication tools proved invaluable in terms of getting details about the latest situation to the public and providing updates on what emergency relief supplies were required. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) was just one of several important players to use Twitter extensively following the disaster, along with central and regional government offices, volunteers and journalists in the disaster areas. Although Twitter and similar services were undoubtedly extremely effective ways of making information available, unfortunately a “digital divide” meant that the elderly and others without access to these services were at a considerable disadvantage.

Unfortunately, several instances of scaremongering in the days and weeks following the disaster also revealed a major downside to digital communications channels that allow any user to broadcast indiscriminately. Some of these were political; others were groundless rumors tastelessly dressed up as efforts to help. Several times, groundless reports spread via Twitter claiming that “hundreds of people are stranded in such-and-such a municipality . . .” These false rumors wasted valuable time and resources, and may even have cost lives.

  • [2011.10.03]

Born in Tokyo in 1939. Graduated from the University of Tokyo, where he majored in law. Joined the National Police Agency. Served as chief of Tottori Prefectural Police Headquarters, president of the National Police Academy, and director of the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office. Author of “Kiki kanri tojōkoku” Nippon (Japan the “Developing Country” in Crisis Management), Nippon no interijensu kikan (Intelligence Agencies in Japan), and other works.

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  • A Land Awash in DespairFour months on from March 11, journalist Kikuchi Masanori visited areas of Tōhoku devastated by the earthquake and tsunami that struck on that day. Meeting with residents and local leaders, he finds that they are desperate to bounce back from the tragedy and rebuild their lives.
  • Earthquakes and the EconomyThe question on many minds today is what economic ramifications the March 11 earthquake and tsunami will have. This article explores this issue by looking back on the major earthquake the country experienced in 1923 and again in 1995, and considering the impact of those earlier disasters on Japan’s economy.
  • “Emergent Destruction” and Japan’s RevivalJapan now faces the challenge of recovering from the worst natural disaster it has experienced since World War II. But the country needs to do more than simply rebuild the areas hit hardest by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, argues Professor Yonekura Seiichirō. In this article he critiques the status quo and outlines a vision for a new nuclear-power-free, low-carbon Japan.
  • The Sorry State of Japan’s Public FinancesJapan’s public finances had already taken a turn for the worse before the March 11 earthquake, but the situation is likely to become even direr as a result of the disaster. Nariai Osamu, a professor and former government official, considers whether Japan can sort out its fiscal mess while paying for its recovery.
  • Six-Month Timeline Since the Great East Japan EarthquakeOn March 11, 2011 a massive earthquake and tsunami struck the northeast of Japan. While the people of Japan responded calmly to the disaster and private-sector companies were quick to take part in recovery efforts, the government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) were widely criticized for a sluggish and ineffective response. This timeline looks back on the half year since the disaster, with a focus on the government response to the nuclear disaster.

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