Facing Japan’s Extreme Weather Challenges

Addressing Natural Disaster Risks: The Need for Greater Self-Reliance


When the city of Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, was hit by a tremendous tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, almost all of its 3,000 elementary and junior high school pupils survived. They were quick to flee thanks in part to the disaster-preparedness training by Katada Toshitaka, who here calls for greater self-reliance in the face of the growing risks from natural disasters.

Meteorological Disasters and the Threat of Unprecedented Mega-Typhoons

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, the focus of Japan’s disaster-fighting efforts has been on earthquakes and tsunamis. These are, of course, serious concerns, but disastrous seismological events occur only occasionally. Meteorological disasters actually pose a more serious threat.

Recently we have been experiencing “guerilla rains” with some frequency, but these intensive downpours are highly localized and do not cause destruction of entire regions. A greater concern is the increasing power of typhoons. Ocean water temperatures have been staying extraordinarily high, and global warming seems to be affecting ocean weather first. Because the water temperatures are so high, it has become common for typhoons to keep gaining strength as they approach Japan. If the current trend persists, it is quite possible that we will be hit by mega-typhoons.

For example, in July 2014 the super typhoon Neoguri struck Okinawa. As of July 7 the pressure at its center was 930 hectopascals, and as it was forecast to become even more intense, an emergency warning was issued. Fortunately the storm did not strengthen further, but subsequent typhoons caused additional torrential rains.

Early in November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan, with a central pressure of 895 hPa, pummeled the island of Leyte in the Philippines, causing over 6,000 deaths. Up to now storms of this intensity have not occurred in November, which is late in the typhoon season. By way of comparison, the Muroto Typhoon that struck Japan in 1934, recorded a low pressure of 911 hPa, and the Ise Bay Typhoon of 1959 one of 929. And Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, had a pressure of 902 hPa. So we can see how intense a storm Haiyan was.

In April 2012 Japan’s Meteorological Agency produced simulations indicating the possibility of future typhoons with pressures falling below 850 hPa. If we do not prepare now for mega-typhoons like this, when will we?

Children of Kamaishi Led in Fleeing the Tsunami

In 2004 I started teaching disaster preparedness to elementary and junior high school students in the city of Kamaishi on the coast of Iwate Prefecture. As of 2010, the year before the Great East Japan Earthquake, the possibility of a major offshore earthquake and tsunami striking within the next 30 years was said to be 99% for Miyagi Prefecture, just to the south of Iwate, and 90% for the Sanriku region of which Iwate is part. Even so, in the period before the quake and tsunamis of March 11, 2011, people in Kamaishi were in the habit of ignoring tsunami warnings and evacuation advisories. So I believe that the disaster-preparedness training in the city’s schools was what made children react as they did at the time of the earthquake: Though more than 1,000 people lost their lives to the tsunami that struck the city, many schoolchildren led the way in fleeing before the waters surged, and almost all of the pupils at the city’s 14 elementary and junior high school, some 3,000 children, survived the disaster. 

The essence of disaster management lies in the extent to which one takes measures in advance to mitigate the possible damage. But in Japan, the focus of disaster prevention over the years since the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995 has been on disaster response—measures to deal with the aftermath. People have thought only about how to provide for the survivors: what to do about food and water, for example, and whether the evacuation centers are adequate.

The Problem of Excessive Reliance on the Government

Until the Ise Bay Typhoon (also known as Typhoon Vera) struck in 1959, Japan had been commonly losing thousands of people a year to natural disasters. And the 1959 super typhoon caused more than 5,000 deaths in the city of Nagoya. This was at a time when Japan was starting to achieve high-paced economic growth. It is not normal for an advanced country to experience thousands of fatalities due to natural disasters every year. Japan at that point evidently did not yet have the minimum infrastructure appropriate for an advanced country.

In 1961, two years after the Ise Bay Typhoon, the Disaster Countermeasures Basic Act went into effect, and after that the number of deaths fell sharply. In recent decades the figure has been below 100 every year except 1995 (the year of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake) and 2011 (Great East Japan Earthquake).

For a country of around 100 million people to experience thousands of deaths a year due to natural disasters is a “system error,” and the government moved to correct this state of affairs. But when the number of annual fatalities among 100 million people is under 100, the deaths are in the realm of the accidental. If we consider the case of traffic-related fatalities, for example, even after crosswalks and pedestrian bridges are in place, people still die in accidents when they dash out onto roadways. In other words, avoiding accidents ultimately depends largely on individuals. But Japan’s disaster management efforts have relied mainly on the government to deal even with matters in the individual sphere.

For example, the authorities have been building levees with a view to 100-year probabilities. This means creating river embankments to withstand the flows from torrential rains that can be expected to occur only once or not at all over the course of a century. These levees prevent flooding from the lesser downpours that occur with greater frequency. Meanwhile, though, the know-how about working together to deal with disasters that had previously been passed down from generation to generation of local residents is lost, along with the awareness of disaster management as a community issue. And when a major disaster strikes people whose disaster preparedness has eroded, many lives are lost.

Today’s Japanese are overprotected by physical disaster management infrastructure like levees and dikes. The issue is how to escape the mind-set of relying on the government for safety measures. We need to get people back to taking charge of protecting their own lives.

How to Change Community Mind-sets 

Let me return to my experiences in Kamaishi before the Great East Japan Earthquake. Within the city limits alone, there are 34 tsunami memorial stones. The tsunami that struck the Sanriku coast in 1896 killed 4,000 of Kamaishi’s 6,500 residents and almost completely destroyed the town. Before March 2011, when I asked children there if they knew Kamaishi was repeatedly devastated by tsunamis in the past, they said they did. But when I asked them where they would flee to avoid a tsunami, they said they wouldn’t go anywhere. Why not? Because “there’s a great big breakwater protecting the city.”

Tsunami-prone Kamaishi had long been a major center of steelmaking, a core industry for Japan, and the national government undertook to protect the city by building a huge breakwater at the entrance of the bay there, rising 10 meters above the sea from a depth of 63 meters. Upon its completion in 2009, it was recognized in Guinness World Records as the world’s deepest breakwater. 

The sight of this tremendous seawall made the adults of Kamaishi complacent about tsunamis. And the city’s children said they did not flee when tsunami warnings were issued, “because Grandpa and Dad don’t.” But given the cyclical nature of tsunamis, I felt certain that a huge one would strike Kamaishi during my pupils’ lifetimes. Since their failure to flee was the fault of the adults around them, I urged adults to set a proper example. And above all, I wanted to instill the power to survive in the children themselves. That is why I devoted myself to disaster-preparedness education.

The author works with pupils at the Tōni Elementary School in Kamaishi to draw up a disaster-preparedness map in 2006. Together they walked around to determine safe places to flee from an approaching tsunami on their way to or from school and marked the evacuation spots on their map. This sort of activity is an important element of disaster-preparedness education.

My idea was to include instruction about disaster preparedness as part of children’s normal educational environment. After keeping this up for 10 years, the pupils who had received this education would start joining the ranks of the city’s adults, and in another 10 years they would become disaster-conscious parents, who would pass on their awareness to the next generation. With this sort of teaching included as part of compulsory education for one decade after another, pupils will eventually grow up into adults forming the “cultural cornerstone” of a city where, even if tsunamis cannot be entirely shut out, they do not take people’s lives.

Building National Resilience at the Popular Level

I certainly do not mean to deny the government’s role in disaster prevention and mitigation. For example, if high breakwaters are in place, they can prevent tsunamis that are less high from reaching the shore. Government organs should do what they can to raise the minimum base of social welfare in terms of providing physical safety.

The Diet has been deliberating the topic of “national resilience.” When I was called to speak at a public hearing of the House of Representatives Budget Committee on this subject, I declared: “When you raise the level of levees and dikes like this, the increased physical safety makes the human factor weaker. In simple terms, people become more dependent. You end up falling into the same sort of pattern as that of children growing up weak because their parents are overprotective. So to the extent that the levees and dikes are high, you need to have people to match.” In other words, moves to raise national resilience in terms of physical infrastructure must be accompanied by the raising of resilience at the popular level.

The Japanese people experienced the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami disaster in 2011, and extreme weather events have recently been drawing their attention. These events must be made to serve as a wake-up call for them. I do not deny the need for disaster-prevention hardware. Physical structures have an important role to play in preventing and mitigating disasters. But we need to make people aware of the complacency they have fallen into as a result of such infrastructure and turn our society into one where people confront the danger of natural disasters themselves.

The Critical Danger of Widespread Flooding in Tokyo

I am now also involved in the disaster-prevention efforts of the Tokyo metropolis, particularly with regard to the so-called zero-meter zone, where the land is at or below sea level. All that separates this zone from the adjoining waters is a series of narrow levees. And it is home to a huge number of people. Earthquakes are of course the biggest danger for the capital, but as typhoons grow more intense, the danger of storm surges has also become an urgent issue.

When a typhoon approaching the Tokyo area from the south is preceded by wet air that causes heavy rains to fall in the prefectures north of the capital, particularly Gunma and Saitama, the rising waters of two major rivers, the Tonegawa and Arakawa, all end up pouring into Tokyo. There is a danger that this could lead to a worst-case scenario: strong winds making it hard for people to flee, rising river water, and a storm surge from the bay. Edogawa Ward, 70% of which lies within the zero-meter zone, would likely be hard hit. It has a population slightly under 700,000, and if these people were to evacuate, they would need to do so across a wide area. According to a simulation we did, there would be bottlenecks on the bridges over which residents would need to flee. These bridges are affected by traffic congestion during the everyday morning rush hour, and if an evacuation advisory were issued and residents rushed to the bridges en masse, movement could quickly grind to a halt. Unable to move and caught in rising winds, the fleeing residents could then be hit from water surging through breaks in the levees. This is truly a terrifying scenario.

So the biggest problem in Tokyo’s case is how to cope with the huge flow of people attempting to evacuate. In order to avoid dangerous congestion, the flow needs to be dispersed either geographically or temporally. Geographical dispersion means assigning evacuation destinations across a wide area. But the neighboring wards of Katsushika, Adachi, Kōtō, and Sumida all have their own zero-meter zone problems. Under the Disaster Countermeasures Basic Act, dealing with large-scale flood disasters is under the purview of municipal mayors. So steps like the issuance of evacuation advisories are implemented at the municipal (city, ward, town, or village) level. And there is no mechanism for coordination in the case of a wide-area evacuation involving multiple municipalities.

The first question is who will judge the severity of the situation. If a wide-area evacuation call is issued as a typhoon approaches and a large number of residents respond by fleeing, but it then does not actually strike the area in question, the social repercussions may be huge. On the other hand, hesitation to issue an evacuation call in a timely manner could in the worst case result in tremendous loss of life.

A weighty decision like this cannot be left up to local municipalities like Edogawa. And the Tokyo metropolitan government has no intention of taking responsibility either. The same applies to the other great metropolises of Osaka and Nagoya. When an approaching disaster necessitates evacuation of a wide area, how is the situation to be assessed and who is going to manage the traffic? These are urgent issues, and I am extremely alarmed at the almost complete lack of progress in addressing them.

Developing an Awareness of Natural Disasters as a Common Enemy

In the case of the United States, the decision-making system for large-scale disasters is clearly defined on the national level. The president declares a state of emergency and gives the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency full power to deal with the situation.

Japan should move urgently to create its own system for the national or prefectural authorities to take charge when there is a danger of a large-scale disaster that cannot be handled at the municipal level. At the same time, local residents need to wean themselves from dependence on the government and act on the understanding that they are responsible for protecting their own lives. In a big city like Tokyo, it is difficult to expect community residents to take the initiative in implementing disaster preparedness and mitigation activities. But I think we should try to get residents of areas with shared disaster-vulnerability features to recognize disasters as a common enemy that they need to confront together. This, I believe, can serve as a way of building community spirit.

Japanese people must develop a mind-set of self-reliance and mutual aid in coping with disasters, recognizing the limits to what the government can do for them. Only in this way can we achieve major progress toward the goal of preventing disaster-related fatalities.

 (Original Japanese article based on an August 18, 2014, interview. Banner photo: The Yagi district of Hiroshima’s Asaminami Ward, where landslides caused by torrential rains resulted in many deaths on August 20, 2014. © Jiji Press.)

▼Further reading
“Guerrilla Rainstorms” Assault Tokyo
Sudden, localized summer downpours, known as “guerrilla rainstorms,” have become a recurring problem in Japan. They are particularly prevalent in Tokyo and other large cities, where the “heat island” phenomenon is believed to contribute to their regular occurrence.
In the Path of the Storm: Japan and Typhoons
Typhoons are a part of life in Japan, with several storms lashing the archipelago every year. So far in 2014 typhoons have blustered Okinawa, flooded rivers in Kyoto, and triggered flooding and landslides on the island of Shikoku.

Great East Japan Earthquake tsunami disaster global warming Kamaishi weather typhoon extreme weather Haiyan Hurricane Katrina FEMA